September 30, 2013

TBL3 at Georges California Modern (San Diego)

When talking about food with other people, one of the most frequently asked questions we keep hearing is “So what is your most favorite restaurant in San Diego – or any other city that you like to visit for great food ?” And most people are rather surprised to learn that we don’t have one good, universal answer but constantly struggle with it, as it depends a lot on the context. A well made gobernador taco at a Marisco truck, a plain pizza, a Japanese Bento box or dinner at a fine dining restaurant can be equally good and satisfying – as long as you set realistic expectations for each kitchen’s ambitions and limitations. The most important factor for us is that a chef or cook cares deeply about the quality of his/her food preparations, we care more if something is simple but made from scratch than about misleading by relying on trendy dishes and expensive ingredients but in some instances soulless cooking.
 
When thinking about which meals really stand out for us and are not only good, but memorable and outstanding, we often draw parallels between reading, one of our other favorite activities, and meals: every meal has a chance to become something special, but not unlikely when reading a book, a short story is very rarely as absorbing, in-depth and well written as a long novel. And so a regular two or three course dinner can on a rare occasion be outstanding, but we tend to have much better success with longer tasting menus where similar to a novel author a chef has the chance to express his/her creativity in an unhindered manner. At the same time a tasting menu far from guarantees a special night as too often an author might fail to develop his characters, uses well known sequences or simply copies other successful books. For us a unique, great chef is able to “tell a story” with a tasting menu often through notions of seasonality and locality.
 
San Diego has a rather small number of restaurants that offer tasting menus, and most of them are quite short, and so it created some buzz when Trey Foshee at Georges California Modern announced his unique special tasting menu concept TBL3 – one table per night only from Tuesdays to Thursday with an ever changing 12-14 course tasting. Many lauded his effort to raise the culinary bar significantly in San Diego, but not surprisingly others like food editor Troy Johnson downplayed it as the chef just being envious of other chefs getting more recognition for their cooking and not wanting to be associated just with his “famous” fish taco. And so he complained more about “starting to think about deep vein thrombosis” and his “palate struggled to sustain” and ultimately he mentioned that “the concept doesn’t work here. Tourists come for the sun, not dinner. And locals don’t do degustation.” Interestingly one and a half years after this article TBL3 still exists and actual expanded the days, which is not really surprising knowing the unique concept and the background of Trey Foshee. He graduated from CIA Hyde Park in 1990 and worked subsequently at a number of well-known restaurants in increasingly more important roles including Rockenwagner and L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, La Folie in San Francisco, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel in Hawaii before arriving at the Tree Room & Foundry Grill at the Sundance Resort in Utah in 1997 where he gained national recognition by being named as one of the “America's Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine Magazine. He then finally settled in 1999 in La Jolla and became Executive Chef and partner at George’s at the Cove. Here he is responsible for all the different restaurant concepts like the Ocean Terrace and the fine dining restaurant Georges Modern with the TBL3. Even though we had a few, quite memorable dinners at Georges before, since its inception TBL3 was of highest interest of us, but only the recent extension of available days worked with our schedule and we finally could experience what TBL3 at Georges Modern is all about.


1st Course: Northern divine caviar, corn semifreddo
What a start to the tasting menu – corn semifreddo which intensified and concentrated the natural flavor of corn without being overwhelmingly sweet. The caviar acted as a salty counterpole but was much less salty then most other caviars and added more of a briny, yet slightly fruity flavor. The grilled baby corn brought a grilled, smoky component to the dish which worked perfectly with the other ingredients and created a wonderful complex, yet refreshing course which helped to open up the taste buds - one of the early highlights of the night.  
 
2nd Course: Melon, Tai snapper, finger lie, kale, mustard
Thinly sliced Tai snapper was paired with an interesting mixture of fruitiness and tartness. Melon juice on one side and finger lime and grapefruit on the other side created a good balance to bring out the delicate sweet flavors of the fish. The mustard based vinaigrette supplied a foundation for the dish whereas the fried kale added a textural contrast.
 
3rd Course: Tomato, cucumber, eggplant
The broth made of water eggplant, tomato and basil had a refreshing, almost fruity quality but didn’t overpower the different slices of tomatoes. It was interesting to experience the variety of textures and flavor notes of the different tomatoes. The mini gherkin cucumber added some crunchiness to the dish.
 
4th Course: Potato, truffle, nasturtium, sour cream
Potatoes with sour cream and some herbs are classic German comfort food. Here the dish was brought to the next level with the inclusion of Australian truffles – a very comforting dish which brought back childhood memories and fittingly paired with a white Pinot Noir from Rheinhessen.
 
5th Course: Local spot prawn, wild fennel butter
Dishes throughout tasting menus are often prime examples for complex, well thought-out creations from chefs showcasing innovative techniques and unique flavor combination but sometimes a dish just shines through its simplicity and the quality of its main ingredient. Chef Foshee served here a perfectly prepared single spot prawn highlighting the succulent tender- and sweetness of the meat just slightly accentuated by the wild fennel butter.
 
6th Course: Lima beans, squid, dried squid broth
Sometime you experience surprising combinations in a dish where once you taste them you wonder why you never thought of them before as they are quite obvious like with lima beans and squid. Both ingredients not only have an interesting textural contrast between the slight chewiness and the creaminess but the flavor of the subdued sweetness of the squid complements nicely with the earthiness of the lima beans. The strong umami taste of the dried squid broth helped to magnify this flavor combination
 
7th Course: Stone crab-uni quesadilla, tomatillo-avocado
Chef Foshee’s version of the ubiquitous fish taco has gained quite some recognition far beyond San Diego and here he brought out his next interpretation of a Mexican classic – quesadilla. Instead of the standard meat-cheese combination he chose to replace it with some local stone crab and in a clever twist the cheese with uni which worked extremely well. The house-made corn tortilla was the fitting wrapper but could have been a bit thinner so that the filling might have played an even more prominent role. The tomatillo-avocado salsa completed this great dish with its acidity. The pairing of the dish with a Mexican Cucuapa “Lookout” blonde ale was spot on.
 
8th Course: Lamb loin, sunflower, farro, chanterelle, pine
A dish which worked through its contrasting textures of tender lamb loin served at room temperature and the mixture of wonderful nutty puffed farro and sunflower seeds. The whipped sour cream was the missing link between them and brought the dish together.
 
9th Course: Scallop, lemon balm, mussel juice
Not unlike the course with the spot prawn here we had another course where the quality of a single main ingredient takes the center stage (and it is not coincidence that it is again seafood focused). A perfect scallop steamed in the shell showcased it sweet- and tenderness which was highlighted by the acidity of the lemon balm. The plating throughout the tasting menu was great but this course was particular beautiful with the half shell.
 
10th Course: Mesquite dusted rabbit, fig, pea tendril
Smoking rabbit using mesquite is quite common but in this dish the rabbit loin was actually rolled in mesquite dust which gave it still some smoky flavor but also added some graininess. The pea puree and the mesquite dust both have some related earthy flavors and so the contrasting sweetness of the figs where key to the success of the dish.
 
11th Course: Beef, marrow, garlic, parsley, truffles
The savory courses ended with a sous vide cooked, tender piece of beef. A very first reaction to the course was a bit of disappointment as it seemed to be the “typical” meat focused last course we have seen so often in a “traditional” tasting menu even though it often seems to be out of place. But fortunately this course turned out to be much more balanced and the beef wasn’t only dominating ingredient because the parsley puree, garlic paste and bone marrow could stand up against the beef and the dish ended up to be quite interesting by combining conflicting flavors.
 
12th Course: Sorrel granite, meyer lemon curd, Chino Farms strawberries
A well thought out transition to the sweet part of the tasting menu – sorrel with its bright and tart flavor is often used in savory courses but also worked well with the meyer lemon curd. The well known Chino Farm strawberries added the right level of sweetness.
 
13th Course: Mango semifreddo, cashew milk ice cream, lemon grass, smoked cashew
The description of the course sounded unusual and hard to imagine how it should work together but it turned out to be another highlight of the night. Creamy, yet slightly nutty ice cream worked together with the sweetness of the semifreddo and was counterbalanced by the tartness of the lemon grass gelee. The smoked cashew crumble not only gave some texture but also added a savory component to the dish.
 
14th Course: Mocha Mousse, espresso salt, sweet cream, cocoa nib
A light, yet intense finish to the night – replacing the after dinner espresso or cappuccino with its flavors. The espresso salt really livened up the dessert and showed once more that salt is often also in sweet courses key to complete a dish.
 
 
We had experienced Chef Foshee’s cooking as part of regular menu items before at Georges Modern so we came with high expectations but TBL3 easily met and even exceeded those. It was impressive to see this high level of cooking throughout the whole tasting menu without any disappointing course. Moreover the flow of the courses was very well thought out and it clearly felt like the kitchen enjoyed TBL3 as an opportunity to cook without any limitations. Chef Foshee’s style feels very focused and driven by the essence of a few key ingredients in each dish. Even though many dishes had complex flavor profiles and were playful the kitchen never seemed to forget what each dish was about. The sweet part of tasting menus is often good but still can feel more like an afterthought compared to the complexity of the savory part. TBL3 and pastry chef Lori Sauer are a clear exception from the rule and the sweet part of the night just felt like an extension of the savory courses and was able to continue and complete the experience. But exceptional restaurants go beyond just great food – the ambience with TBL3 literally the best table in the house with a beautiful view of the ocean and great service. It is fun when a server like Mark clearly is enjoying food just beyond as part of his job. Some of the ingredients of the tasting menu actually were foraged from his garden and he had often some interesting thoughts about the different dishes. We have often lamented the lack of outstanding restaurants in San Diego with a unique dining experience, but Georges with TBL3 clearly plays in the same league as the best restaurants in cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.
 
It will be interesting to see how the success of a concept like TBL3 will effect fine dining in San Diego. Hopefully it will provide the kitchen at Georges Modern a way for dialogue with the guests to test out dishes and get feedback about them so that they might in some form also make their way to the regular menu. But perhaps more importantly we hope to see some “trickle-down effect” beyond just Georges and that other restaurants and chefs might see this concept as an inspiration to develop their own approaches to test out more adventurous and creative cuisines and help to further improve the culinary scene in San Diego.
 
 
George’s California Modern
1250 Prospect St.
San Diego, CA 92037
(858) 454-4244
 

August 18, 2013

9-Course Tasting Menu as Pop-Up at Delicias with Chefs Zach Hunter and Steven Molina (San Diego)

In every profession people tend to grow throughout their careers and develop their own style and identity. Part of this development is often based more on a trial and error approach but another part originates through the influence of mentors/supervisors. These influences can originate by a teacher-scholar relationship but more often they form unconsciously over time by just working together and continuously observing. Cooking on a professional level is perhaps one of the occupations where such influences are often particular distinct. At the same time, since chefs early on in their careers often work or stage at a number of well-known restaurants, these influences get mixed together so that at the end each chef has his unique style but the different influences are often noticeable even throughout single dishes.
San Diego has a rather fast rotation of chefs especially on a fine dining level so that very few of them stayed for a longer time and had a significant influence on subsequent generations of chefs. Some of the notable exceptions are Trey Foshee at George’s Modern, Jeff Jackson at AR Valentien and Paul McCabe formerly at Kitchen 1540 and Delicias. The most recent, unexpected move from Chef McCabe to Arizona was quite a blow to the fine dining scene in San Diego but during his stint at Delicias he worked with Sous Chef Steve Molina who took over the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine after McCabe’s departure. Chef Molina graduated in 2008 from the San Diego Culinary Institute and started working in the industry under Chef Vignau at Savory in Encinitas. He then moved to L’Auberge Del Mar were he started as a pantry cook before rising up the ranks to become Sous Chef under McCabe at Kitchen 1540.
 
McCabe’s move to Delicias generated quite some buzz around the restaurant and its future plans which was throughout the years more known as a kind of neighborhood restaurant for the wealthy in Rancho Santa Fe with good but not really ambitious cuisine. The future direction of Delicias was quite uncertain after the recent changes in the kitchen but we were for some time thinking about trying to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina when we heard about a 9-course tasting menu at Delicias as a pop-up with Chefs Zach Hunter and Molina. Chef Hunter graduated in 2005 from the Arizona Culinary Institute to start at Wildfish Seafood Grille in Scottsdale where he quickly became Executive Chef. He decided afterwards to move to Mugaritz in Errenteria/Spain, one of the most respected restaurants in the world. After moving back to the US and working together with Molina under Chef McCabe at Kitchen 1540 he moved to New York to work as Sous Chef at Atera. Most recently he made the decision to move to Austin to work on an own restaurant concept in the near future but had a stopover in San Diego with this pop-up restaurant night which gave us the opportunity to experience two McCabe alumni with a hopefully daring tasting menu.

 
Snack 1: Albacore, pickled watermelon, pork fat, ice plant
The night began with a number of snacks to wet one’s appetite. First we had a small piece of slightly cured albacore, topped with a layer of pork fat and some pickled watermelon – light, refreshing and well balanced.
 
Snack 2: Chicken skin, romesco, dried corn
A play on chicharrones with puffed chicken skin - the slightly smoky romesco with peppery notes didn’t overwhelm the chicken skin too much and the dried corn not only added some additional texture but was also well integrated in the playful presentation with its chicken wire.

Snack 3: Fermented corn, dried shrimp, panko, aioli
The highlight of the four snacks – the corn was fermented for ten days and had a slightly sour taste not unlike good sauerkraut, the dried shrimp added some saltiness and panko gave texture to the dish. A wonderful combination of sour, salty and Umami, of which one was really hoping to have a whole cob of corn.
 
Snack 4: Chicken rillette, mole negro, peach butter
This dish presented in a small cocotte had a nice interplay of the crostini, smoked chicken rillette and mole negro but what brought this dish together was the slight fruitiness of the peach butter.
 
It is always interesting to see the interactions of a kitchen team during work and this night was no difference with both chefs and their team working side by side. It is still surprising why Delicias is not using this open kitchen better to bring a different dynamic and ambience to the restaurant instead of hiding it behind some high partition walls.

1st Course: Uni, crispy grains, dashi gelee, powdered yogurt
The first course as the start of the dinner reminded us on breakfast at the start of the day. Not unlike cereals with milk in the morning we had in this dish a variety of different grains and seeds with powdered yogurt but what deviated it from your standard sweet morning dish was the inclusion of some pieces of uni and dashi gelee which gave the dish a wonderful salty, maritime flavor. Interestingly this strong dish vaguely reminded us of a course we recently had at Atelier Crenn
 
2nd Course: Tuna tartare, smoked trout roe, lettuce, smoked chicken gelee, breadcrumbs
The presentation of this course was unexpected with a larger piece of lettuce as the centerpiece and the other ingredient coating or surrounding it. At first the combination of the crunchy lettuce with the tuna and smoked roe tartare seemed not really to work but after a few bites the dishes started to grow on us and ended up as a surprisingly balanced dish.
 
3rd Course: Salt roasted potatoes, dried squid, egg yolk vinaigrette
Sometimes good dishes don’t have to rely on unusual ingredients or complex preparations but live through their simplicity – here we had simple salt roasted potatoes with a matching vinaigrette – simple and homey yet somehow elegant. The dried squid chip didn’t add much to the dish and was more of a distraction.
 
4th Course: Lobster, shaved Chinese sausage, Meyer lemon – ginger emulsion
The presentation reminded us on some fish’n’chips we got when we lived in England and the pork-fat poached lobster with its “coating” of shaved Chinese sausage worked also along this lines. As good as the surprisingly large piece of lobster was, not unlike fish’n’chips, some kind of starch component was missing in this dish which was a bit too one-dimensional.
 
5th Course: Spot prawns, bone marrow, roasted summer squash, wheatgrass emulsion
This course was one of the highlights of the dinner with its perfectly cooked prawns and the roasted summer squash. The wheatgrass emulsion mixed with the liquid bone marrow gave the dish an earthy foundation.
 
6th Course: Fermented long beans, aged lamb, Meyer lemon emulsion, lamb fat aioli
This was one of the dishes where it is necessary to get a little bit of everything at each bite to get a balanced flavor. The fermented long beans had a surprisingly sour taste which was tamed by the lamb fat aioli whereas the aged lamb brought some gaminess and minerality.
 
7th Course: Venison loin, roasted tomato confit, charred onion
It was interesting and refreshing to see that throughout the night both chefs used some unusual successions and presentations of the dishes not always seen with tasting menus but it appeared with this course they seemed to step back to the default path of ending the savory part with a meat-heavy course. Even though technically very well made with tender sous-vide venison and strong tasting tomato confit the dish seemed to be out of line with the progression of the tasting menu so far and felt too monotonous with its focus on one large piece of meat.
 
8th Course: Tartare of beet and sour cherry, coconut tapioca
The use of vegetables as part of desserts is becoming increasingly popular and this dish had a very unusual combination of beets and sour cherry which was mainly overshadowed by the earthiness of the beets with some hardly noticeable sweet undertones from the cherry and coconut tapioca. This dish was paired with an unusual cocktail based on champagne and vinegar which actually helped to lighten up the dish with its acidity but it was still a rather challenging course.
 
9th Course: Candied carrots, chocolate-stout gelato, fermented carrot chocolate ganache
The last course was another, but much more successful, take on vegetables as dessert – the natural sweetness of the carrots paired perfectly with the maltiness of the chocolate stout and the fermented carrot ganache acted as an overarching theme to bring both together with the unexpected funkiness of the fermented carrots – a perfect ending to the tasting menu on a high note.
 
A pop-up restaurant event has always a unique character as the chef doesn’t really have to rely on return customers and so has the chance to take some culinary risks and try out some unusual flavor and ingredient pairings. It was good to see that Chefs Hunter and Molina were willing to take this road and served interesting courses with some highlights like the uni, spot prawns or the carrot dessert. And even courses which didn’t really work for us like the beet dessert are laudable as it shows their willingness to try to express their own culinary vision without much compromise. Hopefully Delicias will be encouraged by the good attendance of this pop-up, and GM Alex Campbell mentioned that they are thinking of having such events as a seasonal occurrence.
 
When two chefs cook together it is of course hard to determine who had which influence on which course but overall it was interesting to see how far the cooking style of these both chefs has evolved from that of their mentor Paul McCabe. It will be interesting to track how Chef Hunter’s first attempt at an own restaurant in Austin will turn out to be (and hopefully it won’t be the last time he cooked in San Diego) but the night also really reminded us that it is time for us to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina at Delicias and experience his cooking first-hand.
 

Delicias
6106 Paseo Delicias
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
(858) 756-8000

October 23, 2012

Delicias (San Diego) - 9-Course Tasting Menu or Keeping up with Chef McCabe

There is hardly any part of daily life which hasn’t been deeply affected and changed by the internet over the last two decades. Starting from how we purchase nearly every kind of goods, how we keep up to date with news, how we gather information or how we communicate with each other. It is amusing and also sad at the same time to see how many people you see today in restaurants who instead of talking to each other are more occupied to stare on their smart phones and communicate through social networks with each other and the world. Suddenly everybody, even people you have never met in your life before, are “friends” and the importance of anything is measured in how much everybody “likes”. All those social networks from the established to the new ones have/had very little appeal for us as they seem to be more advertisement platforms or trying to extract every detail of your life even without any permission but there is one exception – Twitter. While Twitter is far from something we would truly call communication with its 140 character limitations and often pointless “discussions” it has one major attraction for us as foodies – the possibility of “direct” interaction with chefs. There are many ways to contact a restaurant through their web page or Facebook page but these possibilities normally only give you access to the FOH. Any time you wanted to discuss dishes or menus with any chef there was hardly any other way than going straight into the kitchen during a dinner. Twitter changed this as many chefs started to use it personally to keep in touch with colleagues and customers and it opened up many new possibilities to interact with them.
 
When we recently had unexpectedly some reasons for a celebration we considered a few possible restaurants as good places for an extensive dinner or preferably a multi-course tasting menu. But when we went over our lists we remembered that one of our best dinners we had last year was an outstanding tasting menu at Kitchen 1540 under Chef Paul McCabe. Chef McCabe started to have an impact on the culinary scene in San Diego about ten years ago when he worked as Executive Chef first at Top of the Cove and then Star of the Sea. But he really made a name for himself far beyond San Diego once he started heading the kitchen at Kitchen 1540 and made it to one of the premier dining spots in San Diego. And so it took many by surprise when he suddenly announced end of last year that he would leave Kitchen 1540 for Delicias in Ranch Santa Fe. Delicias was one of these restaurants which exist for many years, 19 in the case of Delicias, but never made a real lasting impact on the dining scene in San Diego. Our single visit some time ago showed good but unremarkable food especially for the relative high prices. Once more details about the move from Chef McCabe surfaced it become more apparent that it was quite lucrative as not only he took over the kitchen but also became partner to owner Owen Perry, at the same time as Alex Campbell, formerly of Bertrand’s at Mr.A, with not only plans to revamp Delicias but also opening additional restaurants over the next years. Through his Twitter account he posted regularly photos of his new dishes and it became obvious that even though Delicias might not have the same customer base as Kitchen 1540 the cooking style of McCabe didn’t change much. Once the renovation of the restaurant and the revamp of the menu were completed recently we felt that now was a good time to try out Delicias. And after just a few tweets with Chef McCabe within several minutes we were able to set up a tasting menu at Delicias on a short notice.
 
1st Course: Shrimps - White shrimp blanket, spot prawn sashimi, ceviche, eggs and tempura
This course was presented as a variation on shrimp ceviche which didn’t do the dish enough justice. In this complex dish we had a number of different shrimp preparations yielding a broad range of textures and flavors - starting from the soft and mild white shrimp blanket to the sweet and tender spot prawn sashimi to the citrusy ceviche with tempura adding some texture. Ceviches can often dominate a dish with their citrus-based sauce but in this dish it was well balanced with some spicy- and saltiness rounding out the flavor profile. A very good start to the tasting menu as the dish helped to awaken the taste buds.
 
2nd Course: Salad - Compressed vegetables and fruits
The trend of having one dish to showcase the abundance of great produce in San Diego also continued with this tasting menu but at the same time it was fascinating to see how different the presentations are between the different chefs or even for Chef McCabe himself compared to his “produce” course during our tasting menu at Kitchen 1540. Whereas at Kitchen 1540 we had a very complex presentation with different dressings and powders here we had the mere opposite – simplicity. Using modern techniques to vacuum seal fruits and vegetables with looser cell structures and high water content helps to intensify the flavors yielding in dishes of stronger tastes of fruits and vegetables like watermelon and cucumber in this course. A great example that modern technique and pure and unadulterated flavors don’t have to be a contradiction.
 
3rd Course: Corn Agnolotti, poached Maine lobster, chanterelle mushrooms, summer truffles
One would expect that a dish which contains lobster, chanterelle mushrooms and summer truffles would center around these special ingredients but even though they were integral for the dish they took a backseat to the most mundane one – corn. Wonderful sweet but not overly saccharine it elevated the agnolotti to light pillows of pasta but also formed the fitting foundation for all other ingredients.
 
4rd Course: Local White Bass, warm summer bean salad, house pancetta, pistou vinaigrette
The White Bass was cooked nicely and very tender and flakey. The bean salad had numerous different types of beans and was a good choice for the mildly flavored fish. But what really brought this dish together was the pistou as it paired well with bean salad as well as the fish and was the overarching theme of the course.
 
5th Course: Pot Pie - Beef tongue, foie gras, vegetables, puff pastry
When we originally set up this tasting menu we agreed on an 8-course menu with Chef McCabe but at the beginning of the night he explained to us that there would be an additional course. For this course McCabe came out of the kitchen to present this dish as the additional free course – a variation on pot pie which included foie gras. Obviously with the current ban on foie gras in California having the rare opportunity to eat this delicacy alone was very exciting but what made the course really stand out was how it was integrated into the dish. The easy way to serve foie gras would have been in a classical presentation au torchon or seared but this pot pie dish was a prime example where the sum is greater than its parts. Using the often underutilized beef tongue as meat for the pie was refreshing as it infused a strong, yet unique, beefy flavor but the foie gras in the sauce elevated the dish to a completely different level. Every bite of the dish included the taste of foie gras but it was balanced enough not to dominate everything but yet the dish wouldn’t have worked without it – simply a brilliant dish and not only a highlight of this tasting menu but one of the best dishes we had in a long time. And it doesn’t happen very often that we talk so much about a dish even days after the tasting menu when we were hoping to have it one more time for dinner at home.
 
6th Course: Colorado lamb rack, faro, harissa yogurt, compressed onion, cucumber, olive
It is always hard to talk about the philosophy of a chef as they often draw their inspiration from many different sources but perhaps this dish is a good example of what we feel is part of Chef McCabe’s philosophy. On one side a rather classical interpretation of a rack of lamb but at the same time supporting the earthy flavors with an ancient, and rarely seen on menus, grain like faro. On the other side using modern techniques to create ingredients and flavors like the compressed onion and cucumber which present an unexpected twist leading to interesting contrasts, might it be, as in this case, by temperature, texture or flavor.
 
7th Course: Cheese – Coach Farm Triple Cream Goat, Roaring Forties Blue, condiments
The cheese course presented two different extremes – a triple cream goat which was very mild but rich and had some light tangy flavors. Whereas the Roaring Forties Blue had a much more pronounced, bolder flavor with nutty undertones.
 
8th Course: Yuzu curd, miso graham cracker, meringue
Yuzu with its distinct taste somewhere between grapefruit and mandarin with some floral notes is a good palate cleanser between the savory courses and the dessert. The miso graham crackers not only added some texture but also interesting umami flavor which reinforced the transition from savory to sweet courses.
 
9th Course: Chocolate tart, crunchy praline, toasted marshmallow, chocolate sorbet, maldon
The tasting menu finished in a classical way with a chocolate based dessert. The chocolate tart had some interesting textural variety by the crunchy praline and toasted marshmallow. Adding some salt flakes helped open up the flavor of the tart. Using chocolate sorbet instead of the ubiquitous chocolate gelato ensured a certain lightness of the course. Perhaps not the most creative and unusual way to end the night but still a satisfying end to a great tasting menu.
 
 
The outstanding experience we had with the tasting menu at Kitchen 1540 under Chef McCabe and his Twitter pictures of some of his dishes since he started working at Delicias set our expectations quite high. At the same time our first dinner at Delicias more than a year ago was unremarkable and the expected clientele at a restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe might imply that a chef has to hold back his creativity to be successful. In the end our concerns appeared to be unfounded and our experiences with a tasting menu at Delicias were on a very similar level as at Kitchen 1540. The creativity and execution of the dishes clearly showed the style we expected from Chef McCabe and it was interesting to see that some of the courses of the tasting menu were variation of dishes from the regular menu, like the lamb or agnolotti. And even though most of the off-menu courses showed a greater level of creativity the flow between off and on menu dishes throughout the tasting menu was uninterrupted and indicated the impact McCabe had on the quality of the regular menu.
 
As much as bad service can ruin a dinner with great food, good service as we experienced at Delicias can elevate an already great night. And it is often the small details like well paced courses, enough time to enjoy some cocktails without being “forced” to start the tasting menu and attentive but unintrusive service which you see surprisingly seldom even at higher end restaurants that set the tone for great service. If there was perhaps one minor quibble than even though the current dining room feels less stuffy than on our last visit it was surprising to see that they used booths with very high backrests close to the kitchen to separate the dining room from the kitchen instead of creating a dining room with an open kitchen which would bring a much better dynamic and liveliness to the restaurant.
 
It will be interesting to see how Chef McCabe will position Delicias as a restaurant in the near future. He has to find a balance to keep the regular menu interesting but not too unusual to attract his regular customers in Rancho Santa Fe but at the same time also create creative dishes to expand the influence of Delicias beyond being just a neighborhood restaurant. Perhaps he might take a similar approach as Chef Foshee at Georges in La Jolla who has an interesting regular menu to satisfy his regular customers but also more recently started TBL3, a special tasting menu, which gained a lot of attention for his restaurant far beyond San Diego. Using a tasting menu like we experienced with Chef McCabe will be the right step to make Delicias such a destination restaurant.
 
6106 Paseo Delicias
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
(858) 756-8000

August 26, 2012

Cocktail 101: Harvey Wallbanger

It is always very interesting to visit cocktail bars or read one of the cocktail books like “Joy of Mixology” and to be initially surprised by the sheer amount of diverse cocktail recipes. When you start diving into the world of cocktails one expects a rather limited number of cocktails. At the beginning it appears as if there are only a few hard liquors like gin, vodka, bourbon or tequila and some additives like bitters or syrups and those can only be combined in a limited fashion. But it doesn’t take long to realize that for example one gin doesn’t taste the same as another gin and that there are numerous bitters and syrups with different flavor profiles. Similar to the market driven cuisine of restaurants more and more mixologists also create market driven cocktails with house-made bitters and other additives which opens up a large world of unique ingredients for all kinds of cocktails. And so instead of a rather limited number of possible cocktails the vast amount of different ingredients appear more like a huge matrix of possible combinations and a near infinite number of cocktails.
Despite a large number of possible combinations and the “everything goes with everything” attitude there are still some liqueurs which seem to exist for just one specific cocktail. Galliano is a liqueur originally created in 1896 in Livorno, Italy and named after an Italian army officer who became famous during the first Italo-Ethiopian war. Galliano has a quite large number of ingredients ranging from star anise, vanilla to ginger, juniper, lavender and citrus. Neutral grain spirit is first infused with these herbs and then vanilla before finally mixed with water and sugar. This yields a liqueur which has a strong sweet anise flavor with some more subtle vanilla and herbal notes. Even though there is more than just one Galliano containing cocktail known everybody associates this liqueur with the Harvey Wallbanger.
 
 
As with every famous cocktail name there are many different stories about the origin of the name. Starting from the legend that mixologist Donato Antone created this drink at his Blackwatch Bar to cheer up a surfer called Harvey after a lost competition and after a few of the drinks the surfer collided with the wall. Another variation claims that the drink was invented on a party by Bill Doner and that a guest later banged his head against the wall and blamed it on the drink. Perhaps the most boring but at the same time most likely one is that the name is the idea of the Galliano marketing team when challenged to come up with the cocktail which showcases the liqueur. This simple cocktail indeed nicely emphasizes the herbal character of the Galliano as the vodka and the orange juice stay more in the background. The Harvey Wallbanger is a good cocktail to slowly sip in the evening after a long day as it is refreshing but at the same time has some complexity by the Galliano.
 
Add orange juice to tall glass, half-filled with ice cubes
 
Add vodka
 
Float Galliano on top by carefully pouring it over the back of a spoon. Decorate glass with orange wedge
 
 
Recipe adapted from “500 Cocktails”
Serves 1
Ice cubes
60 ml (2 fl oz) Vodka
120 ml (4 fl oz) freshly squeezed orange juice
15 ml (0.5 fl oz) Galliano
Orange wedge
 

July 22, 2012

Wolvesmouth Dinner (San Diego) – 6-Course Tasting Menu in a Penthouse

Celebrities are often part of advertisement campaigns as ad agencies tend to believe that people attracted to those celebrities will also decide to buy products used by them. Most of these celebrities often come from the show or music business and only more recently, mainly since the success of the Food Network channel, we have started to see chefs as main characters in some advertisements. Most of these celebrity chefs, like Mario Batali or Bobby Flay, have become such household names even to people who are not really interested in food that their images somehow got detached from cooking itself.  Customers recognize them as being involved with cooking but most people will have problems to actually specify in more detail what kind of cuisine and cooking they represent. At the same time in today’s world of increasing importance of a diverse set of social media, ad agencies have recognized that it might have many advantages to do more focused ad campaigns addressing only a selected subset of potential customers. Using this approach also means that the “face” of the product doesn’t have to have such a broad recognition throughout the population but that he/she has to have a connection with the product. Instead of using for example a mainstream music band a more unknown band with a unique music style might be more attractive - or instead of celebrity chefs choosing chefs which are actually cooking and trying to push the boundaries of their cuisine.

There is of course a large number of excellent restaurants and chefs in Southern California but to stand out nowadays it is necessary to have a very unique, creative cooking style but also noticeable business model beyond your “standard” restaurant. Over the last few years three chefs have shown for us this distinction – Ludo Lefebvre with his pop-up restaurant LudoBites, Laurent Quenioux with the different incarnation of Bistro LQ and Craig Thornton (also known as Wolvesmouth) with his Underground Dinner Series. Born in Orange County Craig Thornton started going into the cooking business by working and learning from Thomas McLaughlin at Serratto in Portland/Oregon. He subsequently went to cooking school at Western Culinary and started to work at some restaurants including Bouchon in Las Vegas and as private chef for Nicolas Cage.  Over the years he more and more realized that the conventional way of serving dinners in a restaurant setting isn’t the best way to fully explore his creative visions and so over time he developed his own Underground Dinner Series at his own loft in LA also known as Wolvesden. These turn out to be more or less very exclusive dinner parties for 12 people each time and are some of the most sought-after reservations.  Craig is doing most of the shopping, prepping, and cooking by himself with some help from friends and since the first time we have seen descriptions and pictures of one of his tasting menus we were more than interested to participate in one of those nights.

A few weeks ago we were contacted by David Brigandi from Edelman that Chef Thornton teamed up with a well known beer brand (“most interesting man in the world” – Dos Equis) and that they were planning to have a few private dinners with a six course tasting menu in San Diego reminiscent of the Underground Dinners during Comic-Con and if we would be interested to join. It didn’t take much contemplating and we immediately accepted the invitation.

The dinner took place at a penthouse in Little Italy close to State Street. Once you entered the building you were greeted and escorted to the private elevator for the penthouse. The elevator opened up to one long room which had two large tables in the center. Before the dinner started the about 30 guests had the chance to mingle and have some small talk with a sitar player providing relaxing background music.

Not surprisingly the penthouse had floor to ceiling windows and even though it was already late night just seeing the myriads of lights from downtown to Little Italy to Point Loma gave you already a good idea about the fantastic view one would have during the day.

The kitchen was unexpected meagerly equipped for such a large dinner and Craig mentioned when we talked before the dinner that he had to improvise and that this kitchen wasn’t by far on the same level as he is used to in his Wolvesden. Two pieces he brought with him was an immersion circulator and a deep fryer. Outside on the patio was also a grill which would play a role in our first course.

1st Course: Ribeye cap, grilled spring onion, pimento cheese, fritter, sweet 100, arugula
Normally tasting menu start slowly with some light first courses but Craig decided to go full steam ahead already with his first course. Ribeye cap is perhaps one of the most overlooked cuts of beef in a restaurant setting. Also known as “butchers butter” it combines the best of both worlds by having the great flavor of a ribeye and the tenderness of a filet. In this dish it was even elevated more by being expertly finished on the grill to give it the right amount of smoky flavor – clearly discernable but not overwhelming the natural beef flavor. The homemade pimento cheese was a fitting companion with its slight heat and creaminess. Pimento cheese is often paired with grits which here took the form of some fritters. The sweet 100 completed the dish with their bursts of sweetness. Overall a really great start to the tasting menu.

2nd Course: Corn soup, crab, agretti, buttermilk, jalapeno, corn
Summer time is also peak time for some of our favorite produce, like corn. Now is the time when fresh corn has this characteristic sweetness and freshness you can’t get from frozen or canned versions. Craig with his market driven cooking approach not surprisingly decided to showcase corn in one of his dishes. Smooth corn soup with some subtle tartness from the buttermilk was the foundation for this chowder-like dish. The crab pieces were a natural addition to it and the corn kernels added some texture to the dish. The inclusion of agretti was interesting and the first time that we tasted this well-sought after Italian vegetable with its acidity.

3rd Course: Halibut, gnocchi, squash, zucchini, zucchini blossom, tomato, pesto ricotta
This was an Italian inspired dish with the different components well executed in itself and pure, unadulterated flavors – moist, flaky fish, lightly grilled vegetables, sweet tomatoes, Roman-style gnocchi with the earthiness from the semolina. What brought this dish together was the pesto. The saltiness and vibrant freshness of the pesto paired well with every single other component on the plate and so you dipped everything into the pesto before you ate it. At the same time the pesto was balanced enough that it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors but just amplified them - one of the highlights of the night.

4th Course: Romano beans, yellow French beans, haricots verts, peach, potato, beet, pistachio, coffee soil, nectarine, saba, lemon oil, horseradish
It’s a good trend to see more and more chefs not shying away from focusing on produce alone as key driver for a creative dish and ignoring meats altogether, and Craig is no exception. Here we had a selection of different types of beans with different textures and flavors accompanied by peaches, potatoes and beets to broaden the flavor spectrum. The pistachios and the ubiquitous “soil” (it seems every upscale place currently uses some homemade soil on their menu) provided some textural balance to the dish. Similar to the pesto in the previous course the horseradish cream tied this plate together.

5th Course: Pork belly, avocado, grilled pineapple, radish, sopes
An interesting and successful take on a deconstructed taco – sous-vide pork belly which was so tender that you didn’t need a knife, sopes for the masa flavor of the tortillas and different fillings like pineapple, avocado and radish. The sauce was a surprising mix of pork reduction, burnt tomatoes, ginger, soy sauce and pineapple juice which combined to a very complex taste covering sweet, sour, salty and tart.

6th Course: Tres leches cake, dehydrated strawberries, strawberry pop rocks, green tea-lime cream
The tasting menu was completed by a tres leches cake which itself would have been an adequate finish. Dehydrating the strawberries helped to intensify their flavor and sweetness and the green tea-lime cream with its tartness ensured that the dessert didn’t end up overly sweet.

There is always some skepticism going to such kind of dinners where you don’t know anybody or if they are even interested in food and facing the possibility of just an advertising event. But reality couldn’t be further from these doubts. The night turned out to be a very relaxing event where people with very different backgrounds, most of them connected through Comic Con, had a chance to experience interesting conversations and unique, creative food. It was interesting to see that such a broad range of personalities, covering screen writers, comic book artists, actors, engineers, former NFL players etc., had no problems to immediately connect. It was also interesting to experience that even though we had many interesting discussions covering movies, books, art and science the conversation always circled back to food once we had a new course in front of us – the unifying power of creative, thought-provoking food.

We had the chance to talk to Craig Thornton before the dinner and got some ideas about the logistics to set up the tasting menu in San Diego as he had to transport all the ingredients from his trusted vendors at the Wednesday Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica by refrigerated truck. He also explained that he got no limitations for this dinner in San Diego about what dishes he would cook but at the same time also admitted that some of them might not have the same level of uniqueness as he would normally present at his regular dinners in LA. And this also reflects our impression of the dinner – a successful night with creative and interesting courses covering some unusual flavor combinations but compared to some of the reports and pictures we read and saw about his LA dinners he seemed to hold back a bit and played safer than usual which is not surprising considering the circumstances of the dinner. For us it was more of a teaser to experience his cuisine for a first time and raised our interest even more, and we see this dinner as a prelude to a real Wolvesmouth dinner in the Wolvesden in the future.