If you want to hear about Bradenton chef Rich Knowles and his travels, ask about his food.
The stories that inspire some of Knowles' dishes are fascinating enough to fill a J. Peterman Company catalog or a tale from the Dos Equis most interesting man in the world.
Knowles' time in Big Sky, Mont., working at the millionaires-only Yellowstone Club exposed him to the regal Bison herds at Ted Turner's ranch, taking a ski lift to get to work in subzero temperatures and an excursion where his bow hunt landed a mountain goat big enough for a feast. That special time is not lost on the young chef who recently opened enRich, in the former Ezra's restaurant location.
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"I appreciated the fact that I could enjoy cooking in a very neat atmosphere and learn some cool stuff, but in the same day I could go fly fishing, bow hunting in the morning or go snow skiing in the wintertime," Knowles said.
Some of that adventure can be found at enRich in the Montana Plate, a 21-ounce "cowboy cut" grilled ribeye with horseradish mashed potatoes, a half ear of sweet corn, Geraldson's farm grilled veggies with huckleberry balsamic reduction. That ribeye could be a bison filet one time, a bone-in New York Strip or a domestic rack of lamb. Or there's the Tuna Poke, with sushi-grade tuna, avocado, red onion, cilantro, house poke sauce, wonton chips and wasabi kale slaw he picked up from his time at Yellowstone.
Knowles has completed the overhaul of Ezra Café. It is officially open as his own restaurant, enRich, a bistro at 5629 Manatee Ave. W. Since the Herald last spoke to Knowles in September when the eatery was still Ezra, the twenty-something chef has tweaked the restaurant décor and entrance, menu and energy. Knowles purchased the restaurant in July after being hired as executive chef in January, re
turning home from stints in Texas and Montana.
Maybe you won't see antelope steaks or elk chops, but Knowles aims to take diners on a tour from Wyoming to Texas and anywhere else. Knowles focuses on a mix of shared plates, entrees to compliment the bar offerings for lunch and dinner, maintaining a relaxed atmosphere.
Knowles will continue to offer food specials of his own, at times calling in an order from his travels. If you want something to be featured on the menu, the 2004 Manatee High School graduate knows where to get it. A friend of Knowles operates a lamb ranch in Montana, he knows the purveyors who can get him fresh bison meat and all the same, he has friends who fish in the Gulf of Mexico to supply him snapper and scallops.
The Cocktail Bites bar menu offers the only food to order from 3 to 5 p.m., as enRich prepares to turn over from lunch to dinner. The bites, available only at the bar until closing time, feature affordable samplers like duck bacon potstickers for $9.
"It's a way for us to stay open and people enjoy happy hour, enjoy the bar and also eat a few little things," Knowles said.
Need a sweet surprise? enRich has a shotglass serving of a chocolate Tella Panna Cotta made with gelatin in lieu of egg, topped with halzenut and pink Hawaiian sea salt.
Manager Jayme Cox is bullish on the bar cocktail offerings, experimenting with various bitters and adding new wines to the list. Now, it's hard to find a seat at the bar in the evenings where the Apple Cider Tini teases the lips with the cinnamon sugar nutmeg rim or the Blueberry Mule infused with fresh blueberries, vodka, Jamaican ginger beer for extra alcohol and spice. (Copper mugs are on their way to help the mule kick off.)
One of her favorites from the past, the Lolita Margarita, is still on the list.
"We make our own chili honey here, do it as a top-shelf margarita," Cox said. "A little sweet, spicy finish to it, everyone loves it."
Knowles' mentor, chef Scott Mechura, also lends a recipe for the "Carrie Pop," a favorite drink named after Mechura's wife. It features Austin's Deep Eddy grapefruit vodka, club soda and fresh-squeezed lime.
Much has remained in the restaurant cosmetically, save for a new paint job and rerouting diners through an outdoor side entrance leading people through the bistro area showing off the private dining area perfect for business presentations or rowdy holiday parties for up to 50 people.
"We're able to put together just about anything anybody would like," Menstril said of private parties and offsite catering services.
Knowles can't do it alone and he is excited about his staff. It's a mix of the servers who have worked at Ezra for the past decade -- Chris Marinovich, Melissa Marco, Darlene Brugger with manager Cox leading the front of the house -- are all there.
"You don't see anyone have that long of a tenure at any restaurant," Knowles said, praising the wait staff.
In the kitchen, Knowles hired everyone save for his main line cook who started two days before Knowles. Sous chef Jonathan Mestril, 22, is Knowles' "engine."
Mestril borrows on the experience from his Cuban grandmother's big breakfasts and dinners, his uncle's former Oneco restaurant Chef M and other local stops including Bob's Boathouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, O'Bricks Irish Pub and with James Beard Foundation award winning chef Jason Stevens at the former J. Ryan's in Sarasota.
"This place really gave me the opportunity to expand, grow, learn, make a name for myself," Mestril said. "Anything and everything that every other place wouldn't give to me, this place has given."
From his subtle touches to switching to grilled bread from Ezra's goat cheese bruschetta plate to his own Jonny's Cuban black bean soup, Mestril is finding places to make his mark on the menu under Knowles' leadership.
"I'm living the dream here," Mestril said.
Cox is relieved to have a family atmosphere back at the restaurant missing since the Donna Eason was at the helm. The "family" includes customers who attended Cox's wedding, the longtime servers and the actual Knowles family. Diners might see Knowles' father Dick Knowles helping with the books, his mom building flowery centerpieces and siblings stop in to pitch in with a dessert, dishes or hosting.
"I think we're all starting bringing back that family feeling again," Cox said, crediting the Knowles for returning the tight-knit environment. "That's when we work so well."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.