Calle Guanajuato has a new, smart-looking restaurant, Ex Nihilo, with unique ambience and undeniably yummy dishes, most displaying old-world Latin origins — a specialty of owners Kevin Broadie (the chef) and his wife, Andi.
They are notable in Ashland for their popular, but now vanished Eleven eatery, which focused on Basque food. This spot, which opened in March, promises to be as much of a draw, though he says tourists often overlook the creekside Calle.
Ex Nihilo is Latin for “from nothing” or “order out of chaos,” and the place is definitely orderly and beautifully laid out, with lovely stained glass images on side walls, seating outside, full bar in the back corner and kitchen upstairs, all in a previously empty space put in shape by owner Alan Sandler.
This is no joint with usual American chow. The “small plates,” ostensibly appetizers, are enough for a modest dinner and each dazzles — shrimp/rice, melon/cherry tomato, elotes (corn on cob with feta), grilled veggies, ceviche (whitefish, citrus, cherry tomato, cucumber), and a truly hearty mushroom tart with blue cheese and light almond crust.
In addition to being an estimable chef, Kevin is a serious yet humorous literary talent, which he applies to the menu with such descriptions as, “Delicate shrimp sinks contentedly into his hammock as the blossoming almond orchard serenely sips a lovely tequila sunrise while contemplating a nearly perfect evening.”
Entrees are whitefish with roasted tomatoes, bourbon glazed pork chop, orange butter seared scallops, gaucho steak with brioche ensalada, Peruvian chicken — and herb and red wine leg of lamb.
The scallops are tender, rich and, shall we say, go beyond just sitting there, well-cooked. Think orange-carrot puree and lime-pumpkin butter. Also pepita (pumpkin seeds), which “have a sort of nuttiness you can’t identify. They play really well with citrus.”
If you like basil, expect to do more than shaking hands with it. “It’s my favorite herb on the planet,” he exclaims with resounding pleasure. Chapa, an Argentine griddle bread, is something they use to play with flavors.
Ashland is a brunch-loving burg and Ex Nihilo serves one from 11 to 2 Saturdays and Sundays, featuring a long list of yummies in the $8 to $15 range — croissant bread pudding, roasted tomato gazpacho, corn-avocado ensalada, tacos, strawberry salad (with hazelnuts, feta and greens), green eggs and ham (with baked avocado), mushroom tart, steak sandwich, Arpepe (braised pork or lamb with avocado, herbs, pickled onion), curried chicken salad (with cashew, mango curry, fruit), shrimp-rice, Cubano (pork, pickles, Manchego cheese), and baked lemon ricotta French toast.
Java is by Griffin Creek Coffee. Andi is the pastry chef, though their first pregnancy could cut down on that. For most inspiration, they draw on Spain, Portugal, Argentina (a more meaty “winter vibe”) and the Caribbean islands — no Italian.
One diner commented, “Nothing needs salt. The flavors are alive in my mouth — and this is a lot of food. I had no idea.”
The jovial Kevin is a natural storyteller. If you want to hear the history and complexities of any dish, he will give you an engaging education — time allowing. For instance, the concept of his chicken comes from the American picnic, “switched over” to Spanish style with salad, chicken and cornbread, the latter in the style of southern Spain, with agave and cinnamon. The chicken is no stranger to creme fraiche, red vino and a little lemon and lime. Salad cozies up with huckleberries and is “so beautiful with apples.”
Kevin notes, “I like doing the small plates with so many different flavors going on.”
Ex Nihilo is looking at live Latin-flavored music and Salsa dance, maybe Saturday evenings, with a Christmas show. A patisserie opens in October.
By the way, the pot de creme is TDF — to die for — but instead, let’s live for it. It’s got nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, cerrano chili and padrone (Basque pepper) and is considered “fairly mild” in Basque country. It’s not your usual pot de creme.
Andi made it and, says Kevin, “her desserts are so intricate; she really, really thinks about them.”
While the Calle may be off the Plaza, Kevin observes, “It’s so nice to be here in this magical place where you can hear the creek and smell the trees. It’s been really sweet here, a nice surprise. People track us down (from Eleven). The Calle feels more like part of the community.”
Besides the brunch, Ex Nihilo is open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, at 14 Calle Guanajuato Way.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.