Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Ever since the large yellow “Motel” sign rose above Highway 101 in 1959, the Skyview Motel attracted many a road-weary traveler — even, supposedly, the Beatles once. But its prominent hilltop perch, where the 33 rooms cast a dim glow at night against the dark expanses of the Los Alamos Valley, also inspired many a creepy feeling, so similar was it to the Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho.
It’s in that vein that the new owners of the meticulously renovated property, which is now called the Hotel Skyview, decided to christen the on-site restaurant Norman — as in Norman Bates, the murderous character acted so hauntingly by a young Anthony Perkins in 1960 film.
“You might as well dance with it,” said the restaurant’s manager, Jorge Hernandez, who watched the two-year renovation from across the highway while working at Full of Life Flatbread, Bell Street Farm, and Bob’s Well Bread. “There’s no need to fight that.”
The similarities, thankfully, stop there. There’s nothing dark or dusty about Norman, and the only danger is drinking too many of their refreshing cocktails — perfect, in these warm months, for the adjacent pool — or perhaps slurping a gout-inducing bevy of oysters, which come with what might be the first cocktail sauce ever worth applying.
The kitchen is helmed by Chef Will Hanko, a Santa Maria native who learned the art of fine cooking at Artisan in Paso Robles and then spent the last five years at Full of Life Flatbread, where owner Clark Staub became a critical mentor. “He cares about people,” said Hanko. “You don’t see that a lot these days.”
No culinary school could provide that level of training, either, as the menu changes every week. “In the five years I was there, we probably did 700 different appetizers,” said Hanko. “That was an eye-opener, not just into the world of cooking, but also into working with local purveyors, making connections, and trying to support our community.”
Hanko was on the verge of leaving cooking altogether to attend college. “But this opportunity came up, and I felt really intrigued by it,” said Hanko. “I knew it would be a good thing for me to do, not just to cook but also to help do my part in building up the town of Los Alamos. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
A few months into the job, Hanko admits that he’s still figuring out the right formula. “In the daytime, people are hanging out around the pool and just relaxing, so I’m thinking more spa-type food, things that are easy and refreshing to eat and that go well with light cocktails,” explained Hanko. “At night, there’s a switch where it turns into a loungy cocktail bar, so I’m cooking more classic food to serve that crowd, more savory bites.” There’s also a brunch menu and a “snacks” period in between lunch and dinner service.
During my afternoon visit, I saddled up to the sunny, stylish bar, though the seats outside under the juniper tree were also beckoning. My dinner kicked off with those Grassy Bar oysters from Morro Bay and the Pineapple Express cocktail, in which rum and agricole get an herbal cannabis kick from CBD oil. The cocktail menu alone is captivating, and broken into the categories of Classic, Refresh (fruit based), Garden (veggie and tomato based), and Bubbles (sparkling wine based).
Next up was a compellingly chewy halibut ceviche, with Fresno chiles and salty house-made chips, and the Roots & Fruits salad, where snappy carrot ribbons provided a counterpoint to the beets’ creamy texture. Both meshed well with the Poolside cocktail, a mix of gin, cucumber, lemon, and sparkling water, which was the natural favorite for all the beautiful people lounging by the pool and ordering drinks from the walk-up bar.
My main course was a Jidori half chicken, with Jimenez farm carrots, pan jus, and garlic mashed potatoes, a heartier exclamation point to an otherwise very light, clean, summery meal. If I hadn't been driving home, I would have dug into the wine list at that point, full of unique Central Coast gems, including Scar of the Sea, Tatomer, Leitmotif, and A Tribute to Grace, as well as eye-opening foreigners, such as viognier from Condrieu, cabernet franc from the Loire, and syrah from St.-Joseph.
Hanko expects to morph the menu quarterly, if not monthly, but is happy with how things are working out so far, even as he tries to balance his new gig with family life at home.
“I don’t know how to get out of the world of cooking — it’s filled with the kind of people I like to be around,” he said. “This is very much me. It feels like a good opportunity to lead people into really enjoying being around food — not just the people who are coming into the restaurant, but the staff as well. It’s an educational process for everybody, really.”
9150 Hwy. 101, Los Alamos; (805) 344-0104; skyviewlosalamos.com