While some winter-weary locals think of warmer climates this time of year — the desert sun in Arizona is a good example — Robert Isaly has done the opposite.
Formerly of Jerome, Ariz., Isaly has recently taken up a Homer address and, as the new chef at Beluga Bar and Grill, he’s brought the taste of the Southwest with him.
“We’re anxious to be able to do some changing up on the menu,” said Beluga manager Diane Hively. “It’s a godsend to have someone willing to go some different directions.”
Isaly’s Southwest influence is evident in the Tuesday taco special that can be ordered with the chef’s homemade black beans and rice. It’s in Isaly’s tortilla soup accented with cilantro crème fraiche and perfectly suited to a chilly winter day. It’s subtly present in the rib-eye steak rub that is the “turf” half of Friday surf-and-turf special.
It isn’t all Southwest, however. In addition to the burgers for which the Beluga Bar and Grill has become known, Isaly is introducing some of his other specialties. Drop by mid-afternoon and you might catch him taking a still-steaming homemade apple pie out of the oven. Order the bread pudding and you’ll notice its delicately browned surface, colorful cherries cooked into its flavorful center and the white chocolate vanilla bean cream sauce poured over the top.
Beluga Bar and Grill is open Tuesday through Friday, but also is available for catering and special events.
“It’s what (Isaly) had specialized in and we have a pretty nice space available,” said Hively.
Beluga Bar and Grill has a north-facing view, what Hively describes as Homer’s “other view.”
“We’re not on the water, but it’s a really unique opportunity to view Homer from this side of things,” she said. “It’s a great spot to watch birds, the action on the lake … and when it starts to get dusk and the lights on the hillside come on, it’s beautiful.”
While studying horticulture in Palm Desert Calif., in the 1980s, Isaly realized the outdoors were too hot for his liking.
“A friend with a job at Marriott was having a lot more fun than I was so I switched careers,” he said of working at Marriott’s Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa, a luxury resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “I started at the bottom in the kitchen, stocking, whatever.”
He also took advantage of Marriott’s management training and developed his customer service skills.
Isaly then became the house manager at Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs and followed that by working as the food and beverage service manager and then the clubhouse manager at the Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert.
From there, he made his move to Arizona, working at the Silverleaf Club in Scottsdale, becoming the clubhouse manager at The Country Club at DC Ranch in Scottsdale and then creating catering menus for outside events and corporate catering for Custom Catering in Tempe.
His path finally led to Jerome in 2008, where he was the sous chef at the Flatiron Café. From Jan. 2011-October 2012, he was chef-owner of Alice’s Jerome Restaurant, a 60-seat organic farm-to-plate concept restaurant.
When Alice’s sold for more than three times the purchase price, Isaly found himself
“free to move about the planet.” He arrived in Homer on Nov. 17, “on a two-week trip to see a friend.”
Not one to sit on the sidelines, Isaly’s arrival coincided with rehearsals of the Nutcracker, so he volunteered with the stage crew for two weeks and “got to meet a lot of people. It was a really fabulous experience.”
Impressed by Homer, when he discovered Beluga was looking for a chef, Isaly put his name in the hat.
“If felt like the right opportunity and situation. They were looking to make some changes and do some different stuff and I said I’d be up for the challenge,” he said.
What he has discovered about the area has confirmed it was the right decision.
“I love the music, the culture, what’s happening with high tunnels and that people are growing their own food. Fresh, local and sustainable are things that mean a lot to me as a cook,” said Isaly, who is looking forward to marrying Beluga’s existing steak and burger menu with “fresh, local products from the sea and the land.”
“They have some excellent things on the menu,” said Isaly of Beluga’s existing menu. “Now to bring in some other things.”
Getting his feet on the ground this time of year, rather than at the height of the summer tourist season, is all part of the plan.
“I said I’d just come in here while it’s slow, learn what they do and by the time we come to the peak season, change things a little bit,” he said.
Among his favorite things to cook: fresh salmon, halibut and scallops.
“And as far as whatever fresh vegetables are growing, I want to bring that to the table,” he said.
He already is introducing fresh, organic greens in the individually made salads. They can be paired with Isaly’s homemade salad dressings.
When not at work, Isaly is enjoying the southern Kenai Peninsula in and out of doors. He’s an avid hiker and is looking forward to an opportunity to try out cross-country skiing.
“I left my car in the Lower 48 so I walk everywhere. I love to dance. I love the café culture and there’s some really good food in this town,” he said.
With Isaly’s arrival, that could be corrected to say “more really good food in this town.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.