Shake + Stir

Hosted at Cracked Pepper Bistro

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Cracked Pepper Bistro’s Chef Vatche Moukhtarian’s recent victory on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games brought an element of excitement and anticipation to Shake+Stir’s thirteenth edition. Daughter and mother Amanda and Miranda Jones, Laura Mather, Mary Papaleo, and Brandy Venturi joined CVLUX’s Donna Ensom for a seasonal tasting at the establishment. Three cocktails and five savory dishes later, the ladies finished one of the best dinners in the Central Valley with an infamously sweet ending. Whether you sit inside or out, there is an upscale coziness that immediately invites you to relish rather than rush your experience at Cracked Pepper, which is exactly what you are supposed to do there.

Chef Vatche Moukhtarian caught the cooking bug by the time he was 12, leading to his enrollment in the San Francisco Culinary Academy. His resume boasts numerous renowned restaurant positions: an externship and then full-time employment at the Peppermill Casino in Reno, an invitation to help open the Chuckchansi Gold Resort & Casino where he eventually become Sous Chef at the Vintage Steakhouse, followed by several years as Sous Chef at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. Finally, in 2006, Chef Vatche returned to his hometown of Fresno and opened Cracked Pepper Bistro.

His objective was to focus on regional cuisine using natural, close-to-the-source ingredients accompanied by California-grown wines. Thirteen years later, Cracked Pepper continues to be a beloved bistro featuring a California-style seasonal menu highlighting local ingredients and nightly specials. Chef Vatche is also recognized for supporting local farmers and wineries, with 60 percent of his wine list coming from the nearby Paso Robles appellation.

It was his love of Californian crops that lead Chef Vatche to apply for Guy’s Grocery Games on Food Network. “I wanted to represent Fresno because of the abundance of produce we have. It’s all here, but we don’t get recognition—we should be on the radar more. We have great restaurants here, but we just don’t get the same attention as those in bigger cities.” He hopes being on the show will help draw that greatly deserved attention to the Central Valley.

In the one-hour show (Season 19, Episode 12), entitled “Ultimate Grocery List,” Chef Vatche and three other chefs were challenged to transform what was described as “Guy Fieri’s worst grocery list yet” into the best dish possible. The Ultimate Grocery List included: bananas, frozen pizza, spicy chips, ice cream sandwich, huitlacoche, canned tuna, and canned fruit cocktail. The challenges included: brunch (in 30 minutes), the Lunch Rush (in 20 minutes), and a pork dish (in 30 minutes). Bear in mind that all items on the list had to be used between the three challenges.

By the end of the competition, Chef Vatche walked away with the $20,000 prize…and a kitchen knife injury to one finger. Despite having medical assistance on-site, “I went ahead and bandaged it because I’m used to doing it myself!” Chef Vatche reminisced. Certainly a memorable mishap that made the victory that much sweeter—yet every dish you try at Cracked Pepper leaves a lasting impression.

Located in Fresno’s North Pointe Shopping Center, at Palm and Herndon Avenues, the bistro is tucked in its southwestern corner. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t likely stumble across it—Cracked Pepper is a destination. Guests can take advantage of the bistro’s covered patio, dine in the main room, or sit at their fantastic bar. Dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday from 5 o’clock until 10 p.m. 

The Persophone cocktail kicked off the evening. Equally vibrant in color (bright orange) as it is in flavor, Laura couldn’t help but exclaim, “Wow…That’s yummy!” after just one sip. A concoction of Grey Goose vodka, Giffard Pamplemouse, Aperol, and lime juice with a grapefruit twist, “It’s very summery” all around, Brandy complimented.

Disclaimer: “Eating this possibly leads to madness.” Everyone thought that was a clever note on the menu until they actually tried the Mala-Insana Napoleon. If eggplant usually tasted like this, we’d all eat eggplant more often... Coated in crushed pumpkin seeds, it is layered with goat cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes, walnut pesto, and aged balsamic. Hands-down the crowd favorite dish of the night—everyone was excited for goat cheese! “That’s what really makes this dish special,” explained Brandy.

The Aged Old Fashioned is not for the faint of palate. A blend of Woodford Reserve bourbon, cherry bitters, and sugar, it’s garnished with a brandied cherry and orange zest. “Now that’s good, but we can’t drink the whole thing,” Miranda referred to the drink’s strength with a laugh. (P.S. It was presented alongside the following Stilton Blue Salad; whiskey and rabbit food—dinner of champions…or cowgirls…whatever.)

Amanda took it upon herself to chop and toss the Stilton Blue Salad—a reflexive act from her waitressing days doing tableside in Tahoe, she explained, “And this is a fantastic salad!” Whole Little Gem lettuce leaves are covered with wet and dry blue cheese, while clusters of sliced Asian pears and candied walnuts christened with port wine reduction corner the plate.

Chef Vatche’s Slow Braised Short Ribs outshine your grandmother’s…Don’t argue because you’ll agree after you try them. “It’s like a really good roast beef, but so much better!” Mary said of the meat, which is braised with carrots, onions, and crushed tomatoes, served over the creamiest cheese polenta, and topped with walnut pesto.

A sort of multi-cultural tone defines the Bacon Wrapped Achitote Pork Medallions. The meats (which have a notable smoky flavor) act as pillars surrounding a dome of oven-roasted corn, chorizo, and egg jasmine soy fried rice, accompanied by steamed vegetables. “It’s interesting in a way that makes you want to try every part—I’ve never had a dish like this before,” admitted Amanda.

“This filet is to-die-for!” Donna mused of the Wood Fire Grilled Filet Mignon. Perfectly pink, fork-tender, and expertly crisp around the edges, it is served with oven-roasted sunchokes and caramelized pearl onions, steamed green beans, and topped with a green peppercorn sauce.

Rittenhouse rye whisky, blood orange soda, lemon juice, and mint create the Bloodhound. “I like the blood orange,” Laura eagerly reflected. It’s like a “summer-ized version” of the Aged Old Fashioned, elaborated Mary. Garnished with a sprig of mint and a little blood orange wedge, it’s easy on the eye and goes down just as easily.

Leave room for dessert! The Cracked Pepper Bread Pudding uses cheese Danish croissants and dinner rolls as its base. Miranda’s eyes got wide as it was set down at the table. “You don’t have to ask me twice to try that one!” As if that’s not decadent enough, a scratch-made brandy and rum caramel is drizzled atop with a dollop of whipped cream.

From its discrete location to limited hours of operation, Cracked Pepper Bistro feels exclusive—like a secret you hear about, but must seek out to confirm. Yet it’s no secret that practice breeds success. Chef Vatche has found that utilizing natural talent and local resources is his recipe for success, which is an attribute every person in this group shares. The Central Valley boasts some of the best produce in the world—it is also home to many of California’s leading business and creative professionals. “Everyone at this table is detail-oriented,” Mary matter-of-factly pointed out. When you eat at Cracked Pepper Bistro, you get to taste what it means to be detail-oriented.