Jonathan, who owned and operated Jonathan’s at Gratz Park Inn for almost 16 years, is known for creating locally inspired dishes that are both familiar and innovative. Coba President Lee Greer was a frequent diner at Jonathan’s and invited him to talk shop. Jonathan soon began working part time for Coba as a consultant and participating in tasting panels. In November 2014, he stepped in as executive chef. For Jonathan, that means working to further develop the restaurant’s concept while making adjustments to daily operations and sprinkling regional and global ingredients in key places on the menu.
“I’d say we’re in our teenage stage right now,” Jonathan said. “We’re maturing and getting better, but we still have some growing and learning to do.” To that end, the idea of overhauling the entire menu was never the intention. He’s made it clear that the original concept and the work of Chef Alejandro Velasquez (who returned to his native Texas) did not need to be completely altered—just tweaked here and there. And for the most part, those tweaks involve a larger dose of local and Southern-inspired ingredients, as well as the more exotic flavors of Latin America. It is through those careful alterations that his flair for gastronomic creativity shines through.
For example, the Bacon Wrapped Beef Medallions is a decadent dish comprised of beef tenderloin wrapped in Berkshire pork belly bacon. A rarity in the restaurant world, the bacon is cured and smoked in-house for at least seven days. The combination of ancho chiles, brown sugar and salt makes it a deliciously savory treat. The medallions sit atop thick slices of corn bread skillet cake, garnished with freshly shucked and charred corn relish. The real standout is the sauce—an attention-grabbing mixture of pureed fire roasted bell peppers spiked with a splash of mezcal, an agave-based liquor native to Mexico.
Jonathan explained that while many locals know that all bourbon is whiskey, it’s less common knowledge that all tequila is mezcal. While tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made with upwards of 30 varieties of agave, resulting in a more complex flavor profile. The fresh, smoky, and slightly boozy sauce takes the dish from ordinary to extraordinary.
Those looking for a lighter or vegetarian option will love the Vegetable Salad Taco—a mix of shaved zucchini, carrot, and other seasonal veggies in a cilantro lime vinaigrette, topped with a scoop of red quinoa, crumbled cotija cheese and a side of addictive house-made yucca chips. See the next page for this recipe.
The Ranchero Shrimp & Grits, an existing menu item, was given a makeover with the addition of rich jalapeno cheese grits. Jonathan first cooked the grits thoroughly until that…well, gritty mouthfeel disappeared, then spread them on a sheet pan to cool. From there, the mixture is cut into wedges, coated in cornmeal and fried until crispy. The result is sublime—crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, with noticeable heat that is not overpowering. The simmered shrimp are garnished with fire roasted bell peppers and another fairly unusual ingredient—grilled cactus. With a tangy flavor and a texture similar to okra, the cactus lends an unexpected and authentic element to the dish.
“We wanted the food to be the same caliber as the rest of the place,” said Jonathan. This building is so unique, and I wanted to take certain elements and blend them with others, and just let it find itself.”
One of the ways he’s doing that is by letting diners taste his new creations in weekly specials. Over the next month or so,
Jonathan will be rolling out various new dishes, reinvented classics and bold ingredients. Among them are chicken thigh tacos with buttermilk iceberg slaw, kale & quinoa salad, green tomato pico de gallo, masa (corn flour) fried oysters with baby spinach and bacon, pork carnitas with red pepper mezcal sauce, and a Brazilian fish stew with coconut milk and lime. New permanent menu items will appear around late April or early May.
“Previously we weren’t highlighting the more unusual ingredients because we thought it might turn people off. But I think it’s important to mention them. Breaking the rules is what makes Coba different.”
Indeed, differentiating from the standard Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant is another effort to establish Coba’s unique concept. As Jonathan put it, “We got a fair amount of heat for taking away the complimentary chips and salsa. But we don’t want to compete with restaurants that offer those menu items. I love those types of places, but they can offer that experience in a better, faster and cheaper way than we can.”
What Jonathan seems to be saying (and what becomes apparent from the moment you walk in the door) is that Coba is more than just a restaurant—it’s an experience. Between the two bars, the inventive food, the eye-popping décor, and not to mention, Cocoh!, the confectioner and gelato shop, there is truly something for everyone. You can get chips and salsa anywhere. But if you want Southern and Latin fusion cuisine with beautiful presentation, attentive service, and premium fresh ingredients, there’s really no other place in Lexington that comes close.
Up Close with Chef Jonathan Lundy
What was the last meal you cooked for yourself?
Tossed angel hair pasta with sautéed onions and garlic, zucchini, grated carrots, shredded romaine, crushed pistachios, tarragon, parmesan, lemon and olive oil. I was trying to make multiple people happy, and it turned out pretty well —something between a pasta salad and a salad.
Any special projects, you’re working on? Maybe another book?
No. Right now I’m concentrating on family and the restaurant. My oldest daughter is a senior, and I want to spend as much time with her as possible before she goes to college. I have the rest of my life to work.
Favorite childhood food?
I was a picky eater, and it was the era of the microwave, so I ate a lot of chicken noodle soup and Chef Boyardee.
Something in your fridge that would surprise people?
They’d be surprised by the fact that my fridge is empty!
How do you describe working in your kitchen?
I’m more focused on developing the restaurant concept than day-to-day cooking. I do love the flexibility of this job. It’s amazing for me at this point in my life.
Was there a certain meal or experience that inspired you to
become a chef?
It wasn’t any one thing. I’m dyslexic and I struggled as a student. I knew I needed to figure out what I wanted to do, and the culinary world really appealed to me. Chefs seemed to get away with breaking the rules, they seemed to have a good time.
Do you have a signature dish or ingredient that will follow you everywhere?
I think some general ideas will probably cross over, but Coba is a totally different concept. Jonathan’s was about reinterpreting Southern food, and Coba is a fusion of Latin American cuisine with Southern elements thrown in.
What was your last memorable local dining experience?
I honestly don’t remember, but I love Yamaguchi’s. I have a lot of respect for him. I also really like National Provisions and Cole’s.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
If I do, I sure can’t talk about it!
Favorite meat and way to prepare it?
Boneless skin-on chicken thighs, fried or braised.