The chef and owner of the new Libelula restaurant in downtown Fresno has a tattoo of a zombie-chef version of Pee-Wee Herman on his arm.
This is an odd thing to point out at the beginning of a story about a new place to eat, for sure, but it’s a perfect symbol about how things here are a little different.
The restaurant is Libelula (pronounced LEE-bay-loo-la, it’s the Spanish word for dragonfly) or for short, Lula’s at the Crest. At 1154 Broadway Plaza, it’s next door to the Crest Theatre at Broadway and Fresno Street.
It opened Tuesday. For now, the cafe is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. It’s a mash up of breakfast, lunch and brunch food.
The type of food you can expect to see on the menu: Vegan eel, deep-fried Brussels sprouts, and cinnamon rolls that measure 8 inches diagonally (yes, we measured them with a tape measure).
The menu has a farm-to-table theme that chef and owner Ian Cookson calls “local centric.”
“We try to do as local as possible,” he said. “We’ve got the best produce in the world, it’d be silly not to be using it.”
Libelula got its name because dragonflies always seem to be around Cookson, his longtime girlfriend and co-owner Kim Sarabia, and his four kids. She’s the one with the pink hair and eyebrows you’ll see managing the dining room and the business end of things. All the kids work there too, including the 16-year-old pastry chef, Ivy.
This is a little restaurant, its kitchen is bigger than its dining room. Its decor is a mishmash of art, images of Frida Kahlo and a Pee-Wee Herman doll
Despite not much room for dancing, it used to host raves. Cookson kept the mural of a city skyline on the walls, but removed a DJ booth that stood about 8 or 10 feet tall in the dining area.
One oddball tidbit: The eatery has a full-sized basement, where Cookson found 50 empty bottles of Smirnoff vodka hidden in paper bags atop a vent. Now, the basement is where the guys who did some painting and other work for him practice with their band.
For Cookson and Sarabia, there was never a question that their restaurant would be located in an evolving part of downtown Fresno.
Although Libelula is clearly a restaurant where creativity has free reign, this is a chef who knows what he’s doing. He’s also the executive chef at The Vineyard Restaurant & Bar, a fine dining establishment in Madera (though over the years he’s been a welder, mechanic, even a Walmart greeter).
The Vineyard restaurant comes with a certain set of expectations, but Libelula is his “alter ego,” he said.
He plays with Indian, Mexican, Italian and other flavors.
“I have no loyalty towards any type of food,” he said. “I think the bottom line is flavor.”
That vegan eel is made from flash-fried shitake mushrooms, cut in a spiral and served with a sweet ginger-tamari glaze and a texture that he says is similar to eel
This isn’t a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, it’s just that some dishes happened to not need animal protein to complete them, he said.
There are also dishes like a Cajun spin on a Monte Cristo sandwich made with andouille sausage and bacon. Diners may find waffles on the menu, or an apple and brie grilled cheese, or the cauliflower tacos he invented to get his kids to eat their vegetables.
And of course, that cinnamon roll. It’s called the “big a$$ cinnamon roll” on the menu and costs $10. It’s made with browned butter and cardamom cream cream cheese icing and has taken on a life of its own on social media.
“It’s big. It’s ridiculous. It’s fun,” Cookson said.