May 22, 2010

Chef Celebration Dinner at Cowboy Star (San Diego)

It is interesting to look over the list of former recipients of the Chef Celebration scholarships and trying to find out what became of these chefs in the culinary world. Some of them stayed in San Diego and are working in different restaurants like Mike Englund (Firehouse American Eatery), Damaso Lee (Trattoria Aqua), Hanis Cavin (Kensington Grill). Some chefs decided to advance their careers in other cities like Michelle Mah (San Francisco, Midi Restaurant), Collin Wehner (Dickinson/ND, Brickhouse Grille) or as private chef (Jeff Heavey). Others moved from the kitchen to the supply side of the business (Josh McGinnis), towards catering (Jeffrey Thomas, Dana Hangauer) or contract foodservice (Polly Sang, Andrew Bard). It is good to see that the Chef Celebration scholarship had a positive impact on the careers of many chefs.

The recent Chef Celebration dinner at Cowboy Star not only included several well established chefs like Christian Graves (JSix), Colin MacLaggan (Avenue 5), Brian Freerksen (La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club), Victor Jimenez (Cowboy Star) and Chris Idso (Pacifica) but also Gabriel Bonis who works at Cowboy Star and is a current Chef Celebration scholarship recipient. So in some ways this year’s Chef Celebration dinner series goes a full cycle by including established chefs which used many years ago the scholarships to move their career forward to chefs who are just starting their careers with the help of such scholarships.

Cowboy Star is located on 10th Ave about two blocks from Cafe Chloe in an interesting red brick building with the prominent “C*” logo.

The interior has - not surprisingly - a rustic western theme with a service staff dressed in “cowboy” style cloths.

We had a nice table close to the open kitchen.

New Fashioned: Jim Beam rye, orange bitters, Monin ginger syrup, brown sugar and finished with ginger ale and served on the rocks. We started the night with a good variation on an “old fashioned” which had a nice balance between the sweetness of the sugar and the bitterness from the orange bitter and the ginger ale but with enough punch from the whiskey

Amuse Bouche: Chilled spring pea soup, crème fraiche garnish (Gabriel Bonis). Fresh tasting amuse bouche which captured the essence of spring. Chilled soups sometimes tend to be served too cold but this one had the right temperature.

1st Course: Grilled asparagus, brown butter hollandaise, marcona almonds, watercress, speck (Christian Graves). We recently had a very good tasting menu at his restaurant which already showed his great ability to use seasonal ingredients without overpowering them. Very tender asparagus with a slight smoky taste from the grilling is accompanied by classical hollandaise sauce. The inclusion of speck and some greens make this a classical spring dish eaten throughout northern Europe during the asparagus season.

2nd Course: Black sesame crusted scallop, cipollini puree, Peruvian potatoes, pea shoots, blood orange and toasted cumin (Colin MacLaggan). Tender scallops which had some crunch from the use of sesame. We also really liked the use of the cipollini puree which added some subtle sweetness to the dish. The orange gave the dish a helpful bitter counterpoint.

3rd Course: Seared salmon, butternut squash ravioli, tomato-tarragon butter, wilted spinach (Brian Freerksen). Again a dish which focused on a few ingredients and let them shine – tender, moist salmon with a nice crust, perfect ravioli with a simple but satisfying filling of butternut squash and fresh tasting sauce, reminiscent of Bearnaise, which had the unique tarragon flavor.

4th Course: Grilled “natural” strip loin, baby carrots, bourbon garlic puree, duck-fat roasted potatoes, sauce bordelaise (Victor Jimenez). Beautiful piece of meat with a classical sauce bordelaise. The bourbon garlic puree was a nice addition to the meat but they unfortunately only included a very small dollop. The carrots could have been a bit more tender and the potatoes very nicely roasted but the duck fat wasn’t really noticeable.

5th Course: Chino Farm strawberry “shortcake”, citrus biscuit, whipped crème fraiche, aged balsamic, basil sprouts (Chris Idso). Tasting these strawberries it is obvious why so many people speak so highly of Chino Farm – outstanding strawberries. The citrus biscuit was good but together with the slightly sour whipped crème fraiche the dish was overall too sour – it would have been better to use whipped cream instead of the whipped crème fraiche.

We had an enjoyable night at Cowboy Star and it was again interesting to see that each Chef Celebration dinner seems to have unifying theme. Whereas the last dinner at Kitchen 1540 was a more playful look at the techniques and ingredients this dinner had a more focused and direct approach on the ingredients. All chefs tried not to overburden the few key ingredients of each dish and instead let them shine by focusing on their quality and natural taste. It was also interesting to see that all dishes had different classical sauces which helped to elevate the dishes without overpowering them.

The service at the beginning of the evening was very rushing – amuse bouche was served before we even ordered our drinks and they even wanted to bring out the first course within minutes without having our beverages. After we complained in a friendly way they acted very professional and made sure that the pacing was perfect throughout the remainder of the night.

640 10th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 450-5880


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