What comes to mind when you think of Coba Cocina, the restaurant on Richmond Road? Jellyfish, maybe?
Lexington chef Jonathan Lundy wants you to think cosmopolitan Latin cuisine, South American wine dinners, and tequila pairings. In other words: Mexican without the free chips and salsa.
Lundy, who was sidelined briefly this summer with the closure of his popular downtown restaurant Jonathan at Gratz Park, is back and in the kitchen at Coba Cocina, which might be one of the last places his fans would expect to find him.
"I never meant to be some Southern cuisine poster boy for Lexington," Lundy said. "My first food love was always Southwestern/Latin food."
Already working as a consultant for the Greer family, which owns Coba Cocina, this fall Lundy jumped at the chance to rework the restaurant's menu, which will debut later this month.
"It was refreshing, after 15½ years of constantly thinking about grits and green tomatoes to broaden and change," Lundy said. "This is a learning experience for me, as well."
Lee Greer has always loved the food at Jonathan's and was delighted to find he and Lundy shared a passion for Latin fusion cuisine, he said. So much so that Greer asked Lundy for advice when he was developing Coba in 2013.
"Jonathan was one of our first guests at Coba, even helped us test the food," Greer said.
For Lundy, running the new kitchen has taught him a lot about handling volume. Coba is a big place, with a large upstairs bar known as Cobar, an outdoor patio and a separate dessert restaurant in its own niche inside.
Consequently, one of the first things Lundy did was convince Greer to expand the kitchen, even though it meant taking out several large seating areas. The reconfiguration will allow Coba to highlight wine: in front of the new area will be a wine wall, mirroring the tequila tower in the bar at the front of the restaurant.
The emphasis on wine mirrors the move toward more sophisticated food, which will happen in stages.
When Lundy started tinkering, Greer told him one of the few things he wouldn't have to worry about was their brisket tacos, one of the most popular items on the menu. But Lundy couldn't resist.
So now they're smoked and chopped instead of braised and shredded.
Before, they had a "mild, passive flavor, and I like things more aggressive," Lundy said.
"He definitely improved them," Greer admitted. "There's no question the flavor is better."
"They're so much better," Lundy said. "Change is good."
Does that mean chips and salsa are doomed? Not immediately, but Lundy and Greer definitely want to wean diners off that staple of the Tex-Mex genre.
"I want to elevate and change, not alienate," Lundy said.
Instead, you might get jalapeño cornbread with an ancho-honey butter, he added.
Diners will still find nachos on the menu, but instead of tortillas and refried beans Lundy offers nachos Cubano based on crispy tostones made of plantains as a base, to deliver the taste with more panache.
Other twists include chicken tenders, but with a masa crust and jalapeño ketchup. And the typical Tex-Mex platters of burritos and enchiladas? The only enchiladas are roasted mushroom, fresh spinach and goat cheese.
Lundy also plans to have several chef's specials every weekend to give him a chance to play with flavors and flex his creative muscles with everything including the desserts.
"Currently I'm doing apple empanadas with cider sauce," Lundy said.
Already Coba has held several event dinners, including one with high-end tequila pairings and another with South American wines; more are planned.
"I'm focused on working with Coba for it to find its own space, rather than compete with other Mexican-type restaurants," Lundy said. "Cooking is cooking, and whatever playful, unique aspects Jonathan's had are still part of my cooking style and I'm applying it to this."