Carolyn Jung | May 8, 2017 | Story Restaurants

Sonoma Wine Country visitors fondly remember chef Ray Tang as the force behind the tiny yet mightily acclaimed Mariposa restaurant that put the sleepy town of Windsor on the map. San Franciscans have known him for the past decade as the proprietor of the lively Presidio Social Club in the former Army post–turned–breathtaking national park. Now, South Bay diners finally have an opportunity to experience his brand of updated American food with the opening of his latest restaurant, The Catamount, in Old Town Los Gatos.

The expansive 10,000-square-foot restaurant, which underwent six months of construction, is housed on a former school site that was home to various establishments over the years, including, most recently, California Cafe. Its name pays homage to the town’s name (Spanish for “the cats”), as well as its surrounding mountainous landscape. Tang’s decision to plant stakes down south wasn’t an impetuous one. It actually started a couple years ago, when he began exploring the newly built Santa Clara Square retail-office development for a possible restaurant venture. That location didn’t pan out, but he remained drawn to the South Bay because he recognized opportunity here. “I kept hearing that fresh, seasonal didn’t exist much here,” says Tang. “You have either very small operators or very high-end. There wasn’t much in the middle.”

That’s just where The Catamount aims to plant itself—square in between its downtown neighbors, such as the lofty Manresa and the down-home Main Street Burgers. With a 230-seat dining room, a 70-seat patio and a kitchen twice that of Presidio Social Club’s, The Catamount can host everything from weddings to corporate meetings to family gatherings. Gunmetal steel and glass dividers can close off spaces without being claustrophobic, allowing the restaurant to handle several events at once, an option that especially appealed to Tang.

Not a fan of the clamor that emanates from the kitchen, Tang enclosed the formerly open one with trendy barn doors. Behind them, the searing heat of a sleek pizza oven burnishes bronze crusts on rib-eyes, roasts and gratins. Presidio Social Club’s pastry chef, Rene Cruz, has assumed dessert duties at The Catamount, turning out his decadent take on old-time favorites, including soft serve. He hopes to start a bread program, which he didn’t have the space for at Presidio Social Club. Thanks to a new $7,000 pasta machine, housemade extruded pastas are another attraction available only at the new locale, tossed with simple ragus or seasonal, local vegetables and herbs. The menu also features a unique Steam of the Day of fish or shellfish. “I love steamed fish,” Tang explains. “It’s so much more delicate and lighter. Plus, when you steam it, then chill it, that can also be really good too.”

A film buff, the 42-year-old Tang drew from White Christmas, when the four main characters journey to Florida, for the look of Presidio Social Club, with its woven chairs and breezy ceiling fans. For The Catamount, he envisioned the Colonial architecture from Lawrence of Arabia, translating that into white plantation shutter accents, a Carrara marble–topped bar with cane siding, brass shelving, coffered ceilings, reclaimed Douglas fir beams, oversize cane chairs and a game table that does double duty for dining. There are modern touches as well, including an electric fireplace lined with glass crystals.

The bar features flat-screen TVs, along with four wine taps and 12 beer taps. Tang continues his barrel-aged cocktail program here, but also offers a selection of less potent cocktails based on fresh-pressed juices owing to the often balmy weather. At the end of the bar, a 1,200-bottle, glassed-in wine room allows for private wine tastings.

The project is a dream come true for Tang, who started dabbling in the kitchen at age 10. “My mom used to leave me alone with TV dinners, and I thought they were disgusting. I figured I would just make my own dinner instead,” he says. “I’m from Hong Kong. We are all wannabe gourmands. So the next logical step is to make it yourself.” After graduating from San Francisco State with a liberal arts degree, Tang got a job at age 22, shucking oysters at P.J.’s Oyster Bar in San Francisco, which he would walk by every day, only to find himself peering into the windows, mesmerized by the cacophony and flames. He went on to work at Postrio, and to open Boulevard with chef-owner Nancy Oakes, before heading to Wine Country to open his first restaurant. “I just love the fast pace of cooking,” he says. “You get to start something new every day, and you get to finish it every day. It’s instant gratification.”

With an aunt who lives in Saratoga, Tang was not a complete stranger to the South Bay. While he is keeping his home in San Francisco, he now also has an apartment right behind The Catamount. If this restaurant flourishes, he might just open up more places down here. “My heart is north,” he says. “But I could very well start a new life here.”

The Catamount
50 University Ave., Los Gatos, 408.442.5533
Starters, $10–$16; mains, $19–$32; desserts, $8–$10
Mon.–Thu., 11:30AM–9PM; Fri., 11:30AM–10PM; Sat., 10AM–10PM; Sun., 10AM–9PM

Originally published in the May issue of Silicon Valley

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