Fernando Martinez, chef and partner at Guca Mole, Mussel & Burger Bar and the soon-to-be-open The Place Downstairs.

The partnership of Fernando, Christina and Yaniel Martinez is well on its way to opening its third restaurant in less than three years.

To be called The Place Downstairs, the informal but higher-end restaurant – scheduled to open in January 2014 – will be in the cavernous basement of Mussel & Burger Bar, their red-hot American bistro in Jeffersontown.

Most fans of MBB and Guaca Mole believed it inevitable that the immensely talented Fernando Martinez would someday undertake a significant culinary challenge (as if those two restaurants weren’t innovative enough), and his numerous Facebook posts and pictures of menu testing for The Place Downstairs proved their hunches correct.

The Cuban immigrant said what they’ll find when it opens next year is the culmination of everything he and his wife and cousin have learned since parting ways with Havana Rumba co-founder Marcos Lorenzo a few years ago, and living in Venezuela and Miami.

“I don’t want to call it fine dining because I want this place to feel completely relaxed,” said Fernando Martinez, who, while the executive chef at Mojito spent a half year in Paris studying at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. “It’s going to be driven by technique, some stuff no one else is doing in Louisville.”

An unnamed duck breast dish. Photo courtesy of Fernando Martinez.

Here are some examples from an ever-evolving menu developed by him and his cousin Yaniel, also a chef.

  • Tuna tartare with spicy kumquat marmalade and shrimp chips
  • Foie grass torchon with berry jam, salted marcona almonds and brioche bread toast points
  • Lobster hotdogs on brioche bread with lobster aioli and crispy potatoes
  • Octopus terrine with piquillo pepper vinaigrette, Spanish Alberquina olive oil, black olive powder, caper berries, Piment D’Espelette and crispy garlic
  • Spanish jamon Iberico de bellota, which is sliced Spanish Iberico ham served with traditional tomato bread
  • Prime beef slider of truffled manchego cheese, short rib marmalade, brioche bread slider buns

More you say?

One side of the menu will be called Jars and contain the following:

  • Duck and pork Rillettes server with vanilla confit pineapples and fruit mostarda served with grilled rustic sour dough bread.
  • Smoky egg in a Jar with warm ricotta cheese, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized fennel soubise sauce, crispy Spanish chorizo, smoked egg and toasted French bread.
  • Goat cheese and vegetable conserva with sautéed wild mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, cherry vinegar, roasted garlic, in olive oil

We’ll stop there.

Octopus and chorizo terrine. Photo courtesy of Fernando Martinez.

“I’m going to try to keep my entrée price at $28 and under,” said Martinez while walking through room after room of what once was the basement of Caffe Perusa, Rudolfo Pantoja’s, high-priced, uber-ambitious fine-dining dream that fizzled just months after opening in 2009.

“This place is huge. He must have been planning to do $60 million here! Look at this room. It’s crazy how much money they put into this place.”

Martinez said The Place Downstairs will seat 50 and do one to two turns per night when open Wednesday through Saturday.

A new kitchen, to be built in the expansive basement, will serve double duty for the new restaurant and for a future catering operation.

Fernando will captain that operation while Yaniel will oversee the kitchens at Guaca Mole and MBB. Christina will oversee the front of the house at both locations.

Tuna tartare. Photo courtesy of Fernando Martinez.

Dionisia Conterra, whom Martinez worked with at two Miami restaurants, will be The Place Downstairs’ sous chef once relieved of those same duties at MBB.

The workload, Martinez admitted, will be a big one, but he says the trio has thought it through.

“You always have the stress of opening a new place, but 50 seats is not hard to do, and at least our rent will be covered by Mussel & Burger,” he said, adding that admission will be by reservation only. “It’s great to be working with family, because family cares as much as you do about the business. We have a great team. Ninety-percent of the people I worked with at Mojito before I left there are with me now.”

Martinez said his post-Mojito years taught him and his wife a lot about the restaurant business. When the couple, their two children and his mother moved to Venezuela, Martinez spent many days working at a wide range of restaurants.

“I wasn’t getting paid a thing,” he said. “I was just learning how to do their food right. I’d stay at one place for a couple of days and move to another.”

(As an aside, he said such an ad hoc culinary education is superior to traditional schooling.)

When they moved to Miami, Fernando became a kitchen manager at Chili’s while Christina worked to become a general manager at a Panera Bread restaurant. Both wanted to learn the systems that make chain restaurants so successful.

“Sometimes knowing the business side of restaurants is more important than knowing how to cook,” Martinez said. “I learned how to manage margins, costing, inventory, those things. A lot of mom and pop places lack that systematic way of doing things that help with quality and cost controls.”

He eventually took over the kitchen at the chic Café l’Europe in Palm Beach, and the restaurant’s Zagat Guide score even topped that of nearby Café Boulud, owned by famed chef-restaurateur, Daniel Boulud.

He also worked for rising star Douglas Rodriguez at De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean, a chef he called “a genius,” and one he plans to bring to The Place Downstairs for a special dinner.

“We’re planning a dinner that we’re going to call The New Cuban Revolution,” said Martinez. “It’s going to be Douglas Rodriguez and Reinaldo Alfonso (from Rodriguez’s restaurant in Philadelphia, Alma de Cuba), and we’re going to do a 10-course meal imagining how Cuban food would have been without Castro coming to power.

“We’re going to do a lot of cool things like that.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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