Is The Old Town Junction Santa Clarita’s next great restaurant?Sean Malin February 7, 2019 0 COMMENTS
On a sparkly Monday evening just before Christmas, colorful lights deck Newhall’s Main Street and the blocks-long row of restaurants that fill it. It is on this blossoming boulevard that Santa Clarita’s latest contender for your dining dollar has chosen to stage its home base.
The Old Town Junction appears on the corner of Market and Main like something out of a Frank Capra movie, with rustic signage and wide glass windows that reflect the streetlights outside. From the sidewalk, its vibe seems to be “gas-fueled fireplace”: darkly wooded and warm, but with futuristic metallic hints. Inside, the restaurant has two dining areas bifurcated by a low gate, and a heavy saloon-style hallway door. The kitchen is visible through another window to the right of the entrance. An opalescent blue and brown polyptych of what looks to be the ocean hangs on the back wall.
I am received at the entrance by Shane Bothwell, the Assistant General Manager and the Junction’s resident raconteur. (Full disclosure: Bothwell greeted me personally because my partner works at the Junction and had introduced us.) Immediately after seating me, however, he scrambles back to the kitchen and then to the other customers, whom he schmoozed over house-baked pretzel bread baskets for the rest of the night.
I am not offended by this sudden departure. In fact, I expected it, because Bothwell is a little busy at the moment co-running a newborn restaurant alongside Co-owner/Executive Chef Daniel Otto and General Manager Mandy Meeks that is also one of the biggest gastro-experiments ever to hit Santa Clarita.
The standards set by Otto, Chef de Cuisine Clayton Ryser, Meeks and Bothwell are intentionally high and global: no matter the style of food, or the customer, the same rules of preparation will apply. Seasonal menus allow The Junction’s fully scratch kitchen to toggle seamlessly between fine-dining standards (steak, fish, vongole-style linguini) and the more adventurous (or in foodie speak, “artisanal”) dishes associated with urban farm-to-table hubs. The success of this approach will largely determine the future of high-end cuisine in the Santa Clarita Valley.
So it is that when I dine, both sitting areas are full of expectant new customers, with the only empty space being the 4-person high-top where The Proclaimer staff eats. Just as soon as we are comfortable, a gorgeous pink cocktail known as the Rose Garden appears, and dinner begins with the first course: charred Spanish octopus garnished with smears of taupe, emerald and violet.
Two long, soft tentacles are laid onto a surprisingly sweet white bean purée and topped with micro basil shoots, cherry tomatoes, morels and fragrant vinaigrette. The plate also features five globs of a dazzling butterfly pea flower emulsion (the violet stuff) which, although it is an odd color for food, works best slathered on the octopus. The mollusk is excellently cooked, lacking either the rubbery toughness or the sloppy, buttery softness that often plagues ill-prepared seafood.
The downside to such a special dish is how the competently prepared $34 New York Steak with chimichurri sauce, which comes next, tastes by comparison. Don’t misunderstand: the meat is substantial and extremely handsome to the eyes, gated by a garden of colorful heirloom carrots, crunchy Romanesco and hyper-savory – yet delicate – forest mushrooms. It is also a fine compliment to my second drink, the Old Town Fashioned, a new personal favorite with an inexplicably savory piece of spicy house-made jerky spiked into it.
Still, there is room for improvement: the mushrooms are scattered as if they were an afterthought, and the chimichurri is both meagerly applied on two halves of beef, only one had it, and only on top) and frankly a touch obvious. Given the perfectly satisfying mix of other flavors on the plate, I might suggest a reconsideration of the sauce going forward.
Thankfully, any lingering concerns about sauce distribution at The Junction are allayed soon after. On the steak’s heels arrives Ora King Salmon with what appear to be crescent waves of gravy lining the plate. Like many American diners, I have come to think of salmon as the lazy person’s alternative to red meat, and I am caught off guard when Bothwell personally suggests I try it.
I humbly admit that it was a genius suggestion: this may be the best salmon I’ve ever had in Los Angeles County, tenderized to perfection and as sweetly autumnal as pecan pie. The crescents are made of blood orange honey, a tangy accent for the cauliflower puree under the fish and its accompaniments: roasted chestnut, butternut squash and petite greens. So distinctive are the mixed tastes of light fennel confit on candied fish skin that when I look over my notes for this story some weeks later, the silky-salty mouthfeel returns to me unbidden, as if from a childhood memory.
After dinner, I venture a final look into the kitchen, where Sous Chef Adam Bokal and the other staff are segueing into the Junction’s comfort-food-heavy “After 10” menu. I am struck by the calm and the quiet there, a rare sight in any kitchen, much less that of an inhumanly busy new restaurant.
I mention this to Bokal, a restaurant veteran from Southern California, who grins knowingly and tells me: “It’s not like it used to be, with the pan-throwing and the degrading.” At The Junction, he says, “We only raise voices if it gets loud. No yelling. Not in this day and age.” This admission strikes me as unusually sincere: it tells me that Chef Otto and his team understand that if their restaurant can even appear to run smoothly so soon after its launch, perhaps it may survive where similar fine-dining ventures have not.
The Old Town Junction is now open M-W, 11a-12a; Th-F, 11a-2a; Sat., 8a-2a; and Sun., 8a-12a.
24275 Main St., Santa Clarita, CA 91321A