Thursday, April 19, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 7

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Chef James Gentry shakes things up at Rooney's Irish Pub


Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange).

It seems appropriate to hum a few bars of David Bowie’s iconic song “Changes” if you’ve made a recent trip to Rooney’s Irish Pub in Orcutt. Nothing from the outside would tip you off that something is different, but once you’re seated and presented with a menu, it becomes clear—Rooney’s is up to something different.

Chef James Gentry has sailed into his new role at Rooney’s, quietly rolling out new menu items that fit the venue’s more elevated “gastro pub” theme, such as artichoke fritto served with Japanese green onions and manchego cheese.

One glance at the new menu and it’s apparent that Rooney’s isn’t trying to be just another bar in the Santa Maria Valley. The new menu is more purposeful and precise. Ingredients feel exotic (although all of them are locally sourced) and dishes seem elevated and more streamlined, a precision-sharp effort to give the food at Rooney’s a makeover.

It’s all part of an overall evolution aimed at transforming Rooney’s into a gastro pub in the truest sense of the phrase. The term originated in the 1990s in England, where pub food left little to be desired. Instead of pickled eggs and cold meats, pubs offered an array of gourmet offerings, from elevated burgers to fries with truffle oil and more. The upscale more artisanal dishes are aimed at attracting a new type of customer, one looking for unique libations (such as the ones served up at Rooney’s by bartender Mason Frakes) and tantalizing menu items that reflect creativity and refinement.

It’s a concept that’s worked for many venues throughout the United States, and Executive Chef James Gentry, Rooney’s new head chef, thinks it can work there too.

“I’m very passionate about food and this business,” Gentry said. “I truly believe you cook the way you feel.

Gentry attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena, graduating in 2012. Gentry worked at the Chumash Casino Resort and the Far Western Tavern as executive chef before leaving to open up his food truck, Barbecue in the Sticks. His food truck, now run by his brother, quickly picked up steam, gaining popularity in the ever-growing Central Coast food truck community.

Rooney’s Irish Pub’s new head chef James Gentry is the founder of Barbecue in the Sticks, a popular local food truck. At the Orcutt venue, he is reworking some of the classic bar foods, like Buffalo chicken. Gentry’s version uses shrimp and includes a celery root puree and carrot chips.

Gentry’s Instagram is more peppered with photos of his three young children than his meticulously plated dishes. At heart he is a family man, balancing the demanding role of leading a restaurant in a new direction with being a husband and father.

Gentry had his eyes set on taking over the Orcutt space Doc Burnstein’s is set to move out of when he was approached with an opportunity to take over the kitchen at Rooney’s. The idea of transforming the menu was one that intrigued and intimidated him.

“I wanted to keep Rooney’s Irish Pub as simple as possible,” he said. “But at the same time, bring in some of that Santa Maria flair to it.”

Gentry said the first thing he did was examine the menu from a business perspective, scaling back ingredients and looking for ways to trim costs and keep the kitchen budget down. For example, rather than purchasing potatoes to create one menu item, Gentry decided to spread the ingredient over several menu items, including the new rosemary potato wedges and house-made potato chips.

“After I got done with that, I looked at quality of product and execution,” he said. “Then I asked the owners and some others about what their favorite menu items were and what they’d like to see. I worked with those ideas.”

The beloved Irish nachos are still on the menu, but gone are the criss-cut fries, replaced with potato wedges, blanched and then fried. The jalapeños are charred, for an extra depth of flavor. The French-trained Gentry also reworked the fondue sauce in the dish into more of a bechamel sauce, adding a touch of blonde beer to it.

“I’m using indigenous ingredients on the menu that are a little more familiar on the Central Coast,” he said. “The burgers are ground tri-tip with a little short rib fat added.”

Lamb burgers are now on the menu at Rooney’s, thanks to the venue’s new head chef, James Gentry. Gentry was trained at the Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena.

One of the highlights of the new menu is Buffalo shrimp, a spin on Buffalo chicken, a classic bar food favorite. Gentry takes some of the more familiar elements of the dish and adds playful twists. Instead of carrot and celery sticks, he adds carrot chips and a celery root puree. He keeps the beer batter on the shrimp, so the texture and mouthfeel is very similar to chomping down on the classic chicken wing, but tastes much lighter. The combination of the celery root puree, carrots, and shrimp as one composed bite is quite refreshing. The puree is a nice complement to the spicy Buffalo sauce (and yes, it is hot) and the carrot chips are crispy and not greasy or overly salted.

Another standout is the lamb burger, which I was really surprised by. Gentry told me the idea came to him to add lamb to the menu because mutton is a popular meal in Ireland. So the dish retains hints of Rooney’s Irish Pub roots but experiments with a broader international palate. It’s a lamb kabob with a bed of cucumbers and baby greens, topped with an herbed goat cheese and a chimichurri sauce served on a baguette. The sauce cuts through the gaminess of the lamb, creating a balanced and flavorful bite. But the best thing about it really is the size (it’s huge).

“We bake all of our bread in house now,” he said. “A lot of people are utilizing the same vendors so we want to separate ourselves from that yet stay in the simplest form possible.”

Rooney’s Irish Pub is located at 241 S. Broadway St., No. 101, Orcutt. (805) 934-3777.

A new favorite dish of mine is Rooney’s artichoke fritto. This is another example of a “fried” bar food dish that doesn’t feel heavy or greasy at all. The dish comes with manchego cheese, purple ninja radishes, and a bed of Japanese green onions. The green onions are a perfect addition, with a snap of sweet pungent sharpness. Mix everything together with a dip of the avocado ranch sauce for a perfectly balanced bite.

As for how people have taken to the changes, Gentry said reaction has been mostly in favor of the new rollout.

“A lot of the regulars didn’t like change at first,” he said. “But a lot of them that have given it a chance do notice the difference in quality. We knew there would be some backfire in changing the menu. Not everyone likes change.”

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose still likes the occasional pickled egg. Contact her at


Classic vichyssoise from Bell's in Los Alamos.

The Bread Shop in Solvang is legit. Cheese sticks, loaves of fresh baked French bread, challah, and even a loaf called chocolate Nutella brioche are all part of their impressive menu. Check them out at 473 Atterdag Road, Solvang.

• Bell’s in Los Alamos is now open at the former location of Bell Street Farms. Owners Daisy and Greg Ryan, both veterans of some pretty prestigious venues such as Per Se in New York, bring French cafe vibes to the Central Coast. Their vichyssoise (pictured) is one of the best I have ever had. Visit them at 406 Bell St., Los Alamos.

Scratch Kitchen has shrimp and grits on their brunch menu along with bottomless mimosas (which is my favorite combination of two words). Become one of the elite brunchers at 610 N. H St., Lompoc.

• Orcutt is set to welcome a new wine bar to Old Town. Vina et Amici’s, opening in May in the space formerly occupied by Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream, will feature wines from such places as Onx, Lucas and Lewellen, Chamisal, Luna Hart, Cottonwood Canyon, and many more. Do some tastings at 165 S. Broadway, suite 101, Orcutt.

• I ran into Chef Brook Stockwell last week and would you believe she is celebrating a year as head chef at K’Syrah Catering and Events? Congratulations to the big anniversary, and don’t forget to visit 478 4th Place, Solvang, to check out what they do.

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