June 26, 2010

Italian-Style Lamb Stew with Green Beans, Tomatoes, and Basil

Stews and braises are often considered as typical fall or winter dishes. Both are soul food which help you to warm up and fill you throughout the cold time of the year. For us stews are not so much a question of the season but of the day of the week. The beauty and at the same time also the limitation of a good stew is that you need a lot of time. During the week there is seldom enough time to simmer a stew for several hours but come weekend we often use a relaxed Sunday afternoon to get a stew started. It is always very satisfying when after some time the appetizing smell of the cooking stew is permeating our home. And since we are used to eat dinner late around 8 or 9 pm, even on a warm summer day at that time the air starts to cool down and it has something relaxing and satisfying to end our weekend with a bowl of stew.

We like to use all kind of meats for stew but recently we have been using lamb more often for our stews enjoying its more distinctive flavor compared to most other meats. This Italian-style lamb stew with green beans, tomatoes, and basil is a nice example of very tender and slightly gamey lamb meat but at the same time the green beans, tomatoes and basil give this stew a summerlike twist. One interesting aspect of this recipe is the choice of the lamb cut. Normally we tend to use boneless lamb shoulder for our stews but this recipe suggested a round bone chop which contains a part of the arm bone. The arm bone includes also a lot of bone marrow and when cooked in the stew for a few hours most of the bone marrow was cooked out and gave the stew a much stronger lamb flavor than we had with any other cuts before. The bone marrow also helped with the potatoes to thicken the stew to give it the right creamy consistency.

Cut meat from bones and reserve bones. It’s not necessary to be very accurate because you can remove the remaining meat from the bones after the cooking. Cut meat in 4cm (1.5 inch) cubes and season with salt and pepper. At the same time preheat oven to 150 C (300 F).

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and cook lamb meat in two batches (so that the pot is not too crowded) for two minutes on each side until the meat is well browned from all sides. Remove all lamb from pot and transfer to a bowl.

Add remaining oil to Dutch oven at medium heat and add onions and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook for about five minutes until onions start to soften and scraping bottom of the pot at the same time to loosen all browned bits.

Add garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add flour and stir for about two minutes until onions are evenly coated.

Stir in one cup water and wine, scraping bottom of pot to loosen all remaining browned bits. Add remaining cup water and stir constantly to dissolve all flour. Add rosemary, tomatoes and one teaspoon salt and bring to simmer. Add meat, bones and accumulated juices and return to simmer.

Cover Dutch oven, place in preheated oven and cook for one hour. Remove pot from oven and place potatoes and green beans on top of meat.

Cover pot, return to the oven and cook for one hour. Remove bones, stir in basil and season with salt and pepper.

Recipe adapted from “Cook’s Illustrated”

Serves 6

2 kg (4.5 lbs.) lamb round bone chops, about one inch thick
3 tbsp Canola oil
3 medium onions, chopped coarse
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
480 ml (2 cups) water
120 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
900 g (2 lbs) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into one-inch cubes
400 g (3/4 lbs.) green beans, halved
½ bunch of basil, minced

June 19, 2010

Marché Moderne (Costa Mesa) – Great Tasting Menu in a Shopping Mall

When you have lived in both Europe and the US you recognize after some time that even so there are many small differences between these two parts of the world the overall regular life in the Western world is not such dramatically different depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. The languages and the sunshine duration might be different but in today’s globalized world most food and other goods are available everywhere and with all the social media and communication devices it’s more difficult to live an isolated life than not to be constantly contacted by somebody. But when we moved about ten years ago from Germany to California there was one thing which struck us early on as quite different in terms of lifestyle – the majority of the social life in California seems to be centered around shopping malls. This doesn’t mean that shopping malls are unknown in Europe but only a small minority of shops is located in them whereas the main social life happens in wide-stretched town centers which have often many different shopping streets with very diverse flairs. These are often closed for cars and meeting places for everybody – something we still miss quite often.

One advantage of such widespread town centers is the adequate availability of affordable renting space which benefits small and independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners. In contrast, in the US shopping malls often have higher rents which are less affordable for independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners. As a consequence the street picture is often dominated by large restaurant and apparel chains – but there are exceptions and it is possible to find a gem between all those look-alike restaurant chains.

Orange County is often considered to be one of the wealthiest and most extravagant parts of California and not surprisingly this is also reflected in its shopping malls. Some very renowned and upscale shopping malls are located in Orange County, like Fashion Island in Newport Beach and especially South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Not surprisingly this shopping mall also has a large variety of chain restaurants but also some unexpected independent restaurants including Marché Moderne, often mentioned as one if the not the best restaurant in OC.

Marché Moderne is owned and was started about three years ago by Florent and Amelia Marneau with her responsible for the sweet part of the menu as the pastry chef and him helming the kitchen. Both of them got their culinary education independently in France and decided to move to the US and work at different restaurants. Florent Marneau worked at Pascal and Aubergine in Newport Beach before working for Joachim Splichal at Patina and Pinot Providence. Amelia Marneau started her career in the US at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel before also moving to Aubergine where the pair met. After working for several years at the renowned Pinot Providence the pair decided to open its own restaurant and started Marché Moderne in 2007.

When you go to a restaurant you obviously expect that the regular menu has interesting dishes and is well executed. But at the same time the regular menu has to appeal to a large variety of customers which means that the dishes can’t be too unusual and risky. Since we prefer to have as creative dishes as possible and give chefs the opportunity to express their cooking philosophy we tend to more and more contact the restaurants and chefs before a visit and try to organize a tasting menu without any limitations to give the chef all creative freedom. When we approached Marché Moderne with the idea of a tasting menu they were open and interested and after some emails back and forth we agreed on a seven-course tasting menu.

Marché Moderne is located on the third floor of the South Coast Plaza close to Nordstrom. From the outside it looks not that different from bistros in France. The biggest difference is your surroundings – Oscar de la Renta and Louboutin shops instead of a French market square.

The inside has an elegant but not overly pretentious feeling which somehow reminded us faintly of Bouchon in Yountville. We were happy even though the restaurant was very well attended throughout the night that they gave us two a nice four top which overlooked one site of the restaurant.

And in our back we could see Chef Florent Marneau in the open kitchen.

Amuse Bouche: Lomo ham, manchego, crispy brussel sprouts. Lomo ham is Spanish dry cured pork loin which had a subtle flavor but wasn’t overwhelmed by the manchego. This Spanish inspired amuse bouche was a good starting signal for a culinary trip which should follow.

1st Course: Hamachi, yuzu sphere, soy vinaigrette, mango & jalapeno sorbet. Chef Marneau’s interpretation of a sashimi course – melt in your mouth hamachi with the expected flavor accompaniments but in unusual presentations. Since we both like ice cream we very much enjoyed the not too sweet but slightly spicy sorbet which was a great wasabi substitute.

2nd Course: Caramelized pork belly, langoustine prawns, soup a la Thai infused lemon grass. When the plate was brought to the table it just contained the pork belly and the langoustine prawn. The moment the server poured the soup on the plate you could immediately smell the flavorful aroma of the soup with the different spices and lemongrass. Both pork belly and prawns were perfectly cooked and could stand up against spices of the soup.

3rd Course: Brown butter roasted loup de mer, mint emulsion, raz el hanut, leeks and fresh coriander, tomato tartare parfume a l’huile de pistache. After two Asian inspired dishes Chef Marneau moved to another very strong dish this time North African influenced. Very moist loup de mer was accompanied by very light and fresh tasting vegetables. But what really elevated this dish were the different sauces and spices which nicely complemented the fish and vegetables but didn’t overwhelm them.

4th Course: Pan seared sweetbread, foie gras sauté et en cube, 1988 Armagnac scented au poivre sauce, morels and Virginia ramps. We like sweetbread and foie gras but you rarely have it this good in one dish. The sweetbread was very nicely prepared and it was good to see a preparation which didn’t use a thick layer of coating but focused solely on the flavor of the sweetbread. Both preparations of foie gras emphasized the distinctiveness of this special ingredient. Fresh morels, which compared to the dried ones only added a slight flavor, and the garlicky ramp perfected this typical French dish.

5th Course: Roasted lamb rib eye, piperade Basque, ragout of Aluvias and flageolet beans. The ragout of the two beans alone was very flavorful and with some bread to sop up the sauce would have made a great course. The tender medium-rare lamb and the piperade, a mixture of onion, garlic, peppers and tomatoes, boosted the Spanish influences of this alleged simple but impressive dish.

6th Course: Roasted duck breast, polenta fries, Pedro Jimenez & basil jus, larded figs. Chef Marneau has shown in the previous dishes that he knows how to cook meat au point and the duck breast was no exception – medium-rare, tender and flavorful. We really liked the polenta fries with their distinct corn flavor which went well with the sauce. The duck prosciutto-wrapped fig with its sweetness was a good balance for this dish.

7th Course: Degustation of mini dessert – Beignet minute macademia gelato, cannelé de Bordeaux & Chambord ice cream, praline millefeuille. We finished the night with a great assortment of French based desserts – very light and freshly made beignet, cannelé de Bordeaux with its caramelized shell which holds a warm interior scented with vanilla and dark rum and praline millefeuille. We started the tasting menu with some good sorbet in the first course and it was a fitting end to finish the night with two good flavored ice creams/gelati – raspberry flavored Chambord ice cream and macademia nut gelato which had also some white chocolate flavor.

We went to Marché Moderne with expectations for an interesting night but this tasting menu clearly exceeded our expectations. When we normally describe a tasting menu we often try to point to the best dishes of the night but at Marché Moderne this is hardly possible since all dishes came out very well executed with great creativity. The whole tasting menu showed a chef with strong roots in French techniques but who enjoyed using influences from all over the world. We really enjoyed that Chef Marneau decided to give the tasting menu an overarching theme of a culinary trip around the world. But he didn’t simply replicate dishes from different regions instead he very creatively used just influences from these countries to create his unique own dishes. And this evening also showed us again that giving a chef complete creative freedom by a spontané tasting menu gives you the best chance to really experience the true philosophy of a restaurant.

The pleasant dining experience didn’t stop at the kitchen. From the first time we contacted General Manager Alyssa McDiarmid to discuss the possibility of a tasting menu to an attentive service which served a well-balanced wine pairing (we in particular liked the champagne and white wines of the first few courses) to a very good and slowly paced tasting menu and some follow-up email after the evening including one from Chef Marneau, the restaurant was very professional but at the same time always welcoming.

The tasting menu at Marché Moderne was without doubt on the same level as some of our favorite restaurants in LA, like Hatfield’s or Bistro LQ, and it clearly shows why many consider this restaurant to be the best in OC. This won’t be the last tasting menu for us at Marché Moderne.

3333 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626-1837
(714) 434-7900

June 12, 2010

Risotto with sausages (risotto con salsiccia)

Italian cuisine is often characterized as driven by seasons and being focused on very few ingredients in each dish. There are pasta dishes like Spaghetti Carbonara which fall under this category. For us the dish which symbolizes this philosophy most is risotto – the Italian way to cook rice.

There are many different ingredients one can use for a good risotto but ultimately only three of them are really required to make a risotto:

- Rice: There are many different rice varieties in Italy but outside of Italy you normally get only two varieties easily – Carnaroli and Arborio. Carnaroli is often considered the supreme variety for risotto and is also the preferred one in restaurants. Arborio is the most well-known rice variety and considered the “standard” risotto rice also due to its good availability.
- Stock: Cooks often use homemade stock (often chicken stock) but some also prefer just plain water so that the taste of the stock doesn’t interfere with the mild taste of the risotto. Since making your own stock is not always possible, commercially available stock is also good enough especially if you dilute it with water to lower the salt content and to soften the flavor.
- Parmesan: Parmesan added at the end of the cooking to the risotto is important to get the flavorfulness. The parmesan should be freshly grated and the real thing: Parmigiano-Reggiano.

These three ingredients are already enough to make the classic “parent” risotto – risotto al bianco. All other risottos are just more complex variations of this white risotto.

Risotto with sausages (risotto con salsiccia) is eaten throughout Italy but is specifically well known for the Tuscany region and considered a winter dish. It is in general a good showcase of two specialities of Italy – risotto and charcuterie. If you are doing your own charcuterie this dish is a perfect way to use your home-made sausage. This is something we are looking forward to try ourselves in the future. But even good store-bought sausages will work fine in this dish. In this case we used mild Italian sausages which had a nice subtle fennel flavor that worked well with the red wine and the parmesan. This sausage risotto is a good example of a dish which doesn’t look great on photos but tasted outstanding.

Heat two tablespoons of butter in a pot at medium-low heat and cook onions and sausages for 5 minutes stirring occasionally until onions start to turn translucent. At the same time bring diluted beef broth to boil and keep it a low simmer during the whole cooking process.

Add the rice and cook with stirring for two minutes until grains start to become translucent.

Pour in red wine and cook until it has evaporated.

Add one ladle of hot stock and cook with stirring until it has been absorbed by the rice.

Repeat adding one ladle of hot stock at a time and wait until it is absorbed before adding more stock. Continue until the rice is tender and the risotto has the desired consistency. This can take between 20-30 minutes and not all broth will be used. When the rice is tender remove pot from heat, add parmesan and remaining tablespoon of butter, let sit for 2-3 minutes and then serve immediately.

Recipe adapted from “The Silver Spoon”

Serves 2

1.5 L (6 cups) diluted beef broth
3 tbsp butter
½ onion, diced
150 g (5 oz) Italian sausages, skinned and crumbled
250 g (9 oz) Arborio risotto rice
100 mL (3/8 cup) red wine
20 g (1 oz) parmesan cheese, freshly grated

June 6, 2010

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant (San Diego) – Restaurant of missed opportunities

Very few chefs in San Diego have such a high reputation as Carl Schroeder, chef and co-owner of Market in Del Mar. After graduating from the CIA in Hyde Park he worked at several well established restaurants in increasingly responsible roles which included sous chef positions at The White Elephant (Nantucket) and The Lark Creek Inn (Larkspur). At Lark Creek Inn he worked with Bradley Ogden who later convinced him to come to San Diego and become Executive Chef at Arterra. Chef Schroeder was able to establish Arterra very fast as one of the leading restaurants in San Diego due to his very creative cooking style which is even more remarkable since Arterra is part of the Marriott Hotel in Del Mar and hotel restaurants most often don’t promise good food in San Diego. As with most talented chefs he decided at some point of his career to open his own restaurant – Market (Del Mar) in 2006.

When we heard over the last few months that he was planning to open Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant as his version of a bistro-style restaurant we were very much looking forward to see how his creative style of cooking would play out in such a setting. Similar to the Market Restaurant Carl Schroeder also partnered this project with Terryl Gavre, also known for her downtown Café 222.

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant is in the old location of the Modus Restaurant on the corner of 4th Avenue and Ivy. The outside looks quite nice with unique doors and gives already an idea of the rustic interior of the restaurant.

The restaurant is an interesting mix between rustic and industrial feel which is not uncomfortable, but we didn’t like that all the walls which don’t have a wood paneling are painted in black. It gives the restaurant an overall too dark ambience.

When we got the menus handed we were quite surprised how uninspired and boring most of these dishes sounded. We had serious problems to find any dishes which piqued our interests and which we hadn’t seen countless times on menus elsewhere. After some discussions we decided on a few dishes which seemed to be the most interesting.

Small Plate 1: Steamed mussels & Andouille sausage, roasted sweet peppers, garlic-parsley toast. Rather standard presentation of mussels but the broth was overly salty and the taste of the andouille sausage was too overwhelming so that it was hard to taste the mussels or anything else.

Small Plate 2: Crispy Dungeness crab & rockshrimp cakes, beluga lentil-arugula salad, chili aioli. Good crab cakes with common sides of cucumber, arugula and lentils. Not overly exciting but one of the better dishes of the night.

Entrée 1: Duck confit, warm red potatoes, grain mustard vinaigrette, mustarda. Large amounts of potatoes with a rather small piece of bland duck confit. Good duck confit should always have a crispy skin but unfortunately this one had only soft, flabby skin. The whole dish was unbalanced and a great disappointment.

Entrée 2: Cabernet braised beef shortribs, Yukon gold whipped potatoes, roasted vegetables. The whipped potatoes were very salty whereas the beef shortribs needed more salt. The best part of the dish were the roasted brussels sprouts.

Cocktail: The sweet withdrawal – Grey Goose vodka, Campari, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier and orange flower water. We enjoy the recent explosion of good cocktail places especially in Los Angeles, e.g. Library Bar, Rivera, Roger Room where market-driven cocktails are one of the best recent food trends and San Diego has also a growing number of good cocktail places like Cowboy Star, Grant Grill Lounge etc. A good cocktail should be well balanced with all ingredients working next to each other. It should have a good punch from the alcohol without being overwhelmed by it. This cocktail was a prime example of how it shouldn’t be done. Any hints of orange and Campari were covered by an unbalanced, unpleasant alcohol taste.

Dessert: Almond lemon bread pudding, roasted strawberries, vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce. The dessert menu was also a bit unspectacular, including the ubiquitous butterscotch pudding but the bread pudding turned out to be the highlight of the night with a nice addition of very good roasted strawberries.

San Diego is sometimes a rather tough place for restaurants to balance staying in business and cooking creative food and there are numerous restaurants and chefs who overestimate the tolerance of restaurant customers in San Diego for very creative food. But in recent years quite a large number of restaurants in San Diego especially those who cook bistro-style/comfort food similar to the Bankers Hill Restaurant, like Alchemy, Urban Solace, Café Chloe, Starlite, Jayne’s Gastropub, Farmhouse Café were able to successfully balance business success with creative cooking. Each of these restaurants has its own unique menu and identity. Based on this promising trend it was a great disappointment, especially with the good reputation of Carl Schroeder, for us to see such an uninspiring and boring menu at Bankers Hill filled with the same old, same old standards one has seen before in countless other restaurants elsewhere. It felt like that the restaurant looked on the menus from all successful restaurants over the last ten years, picked all popular dishes and then instead of adding their own creativity dumped them down further to make sure that even customers who only eat at the Cheesecake Factory won’t find any unexpected dish or ingredient. The restaurant is a poster child for what didn’t work with many restaurants in San Diego a few years ago when they often only tried to be copycats of successful restaurants outside of San Diego without own creativity and cooking for the absolute mainstream and the lowest common denominator. Bankers Hill feels like a restaurant without its own identity which seems to rely only on the reputation of Carl Schroeder. If the same restaurant would have been opened by an unknown chef with less PR power many customers would have been deeply disappointed by its direction.

Even a disappointing menu could have been partially saved by at least well executed dishes. Unfortunately the kitchen showed several slips throughout the evening, starting from a duck confit which never should have left the kitchen to under- or overseasoned dishes.

Service at restaurants in San Diego often tend to be too laid-back and informal but still reasonably professional. Many lapses throughout the service at Bankers Hill made an already not great night quite uncomfortable:
- Server asked what we wanted to drink when he hasn’t even brought the beverage menus. We asked then twice if they also serve cocktails and have a cocktail list. Since he didn’t bring one we assumed the restaurant doesn’t serve any. As we found out later this is not the case.
- A minute after we ordered our food suddenly a server comes to our table, grabs our bread and bread plates, says that we are done with our evening and moves away. It took quite some time and efforts until we got some bread back but still no bread plates.
- It is customary in restaurants that you get an extra plate if you order a mussels dish to put the empty shells somewhere. Apparently not at Bankers Hill where we had to flag down somebody.
- Either they change their layout of the tables or train their servers better not to bump into chairs every few minutes. We stopped counting after the tenth time. Obviously we weren’t the only table with this problem since other tables made very vocal complains to be moved to other tables only to be replaced by other customers who after ten minutes complained for the same reason.
- Some restaurants confuse good service with five different servers asking if everything is fine within four minutes.
- It is hard to remember when we have seen such dirty restrooms anywhere.
- After we finished our entrees we asked our server, like we normally do, that we would like to have a small break between courses and if he could bring us the dessert menus in about ten minutes. He agreed only to come back one minute later with the menus and the question if we want to order dessert now. We explained again that we would like to wait about ten minutes, he agreed again, turns to the table next to us only to come back to us after 30 seconds and asking again if we want to order now. This time we made it very clear what we wanted.
- As mentioned above we asked at the beginning of the night for cocktails and the server seemed to imply that the restaurant doesn’t serve any. Throughout the night we saw later other tables getting cocktails and so we wanted to have some as a “liquid dessert”. When asked for dessert we asked our server again if they serve cocktails and he looks at us surprised – “Cocktails ?” as if it would be strange from us to think that this restaurant serves cocktails. This time we pointed towards two tables away from us which had two cocktails. Server looks at it – “Oh yes, we have cocktails” as if it would be strange not to expect cocktails in this restaurant. He looks at us for about ten seconds without saying anything and we ask again for a cocktail menu. The server looks surprised at us – “Oh, you want cocktails ?” At this point even the table next to us who followed our discussions with the server started laughing and we started to look for the hidden camera.

Overall our visit to Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant was a very underwhelming experience. Issues like bad service and badly executed dishes should never happen in this frequency but are all fixable with better training. What disappointed us much more was the whole concept and uninspired menu of the restaurant which was just a poor copy of many other restaurants without any own creativity. It will be interesting to see if Terryl Gavre and Carl Schroeder will continue this path or at some point will try to create their own unique menu and identity.

2202 4th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 231-0222

June 3, 2010

Chef Celebration Dinner at Urban Solace (San Diego)

This year we were able to visit five of the seven Chef Celebration Dinners. (There will be only one more event as part of the San Diego Beer Week in November). Overall we felt that this year’s dinner series was a good opportunity to check out some of the best chefs in San Diego. This was also the first year the Chef Celebration dinners were organized in the spring instead of fall with an extended list of now seven restaurants. Based on the good attendance of all five dinners it seems this move was a good decision. Especially compared to the last year where some events even had to be canceled or not many people showed up. Part of the greater success was also based on the focus on restaurants which are known to be successful and are in general well-patronised, e.g. Urban Solace, Cowboy Star, Kitchen 1540 etc. But it was also interesting to see that some restaurants had an older clientele for Chef Celebration dinner than during their regular nights. We were surprised that compared to the years before only a small number of restaurants offered a wine pairing even though it seemed to be quite popular in the last years and often presents a good source of income for restaurants.

If one takes a look on the list of participating chefs it is quite obvious that the background of nearly all chefs is founded in Western cuisines, especially French and Italian. Even though many chefs today use influences from all over the world in their cooking it would be perhaps interesting to also invite in the future chefs with a different background. San Diego has for example a number of good Asian restaurants ranging from Chinese, Vietnamese to Japanese. It would not only broaden the scope of the Chef Celebration dinner series and would make it even more interesting and informative but could also open it up for new customer groups.

The Chef Celebration Dinner at Urban Solace was a good example how chefs with different culinary backgrounds can help to brighten up such events. The line-up this time didn’t only include Sean Langlais (The Oceanaire), Matt Gordon (Urban Solace), Joe Magnanelli (Cucina Urbana), Michael Liotta (Quarter Kitchen) but also Norma Martinez (El Vitral). Her Mexican culinary background was quite articulate in her dishes and a refreshing change.

Urban Solace is located in the middle of the main culinary street in San Diego - 30th Street and close to the corner of University Ave. The yellow building has a nice New Orleans style.

When we arrived outside of Urban Solace an interesting looking cow was waiting for us alerting everybody for a good cause. For more information: Daisy the Cow

Urban Solace has a nice patio but somehow this year is too cold so far to sit outside. Inside is one long stretched room with the bar on one side and two rows of tables on the other side of the small wall.

Cocktails: Pear Thyme Sea Salt Martini – Hangar One spiced pear vodka, thyme simple syrup, apple cider, lemon drenched pear, sea salt; The French Strawberry – Germain – Robin fine alembic brandy, fresh strawberry puree, simple syrup, sparkling brut float. The martini was not overly sweet and fruity but had at the same time a punch from the vodka. The French Strawberry emphasizes nicely that now is the best time for fresh strawberries.

Amuse Bouche: Whipped goat cheese, truffle honey, fried squash blossom (Joe Magnanelli). Very good start with this crostini – mild goat cheese which pairs nicely with the truffle honey and some light crunch from the fried squash blossom

Course 1a: Kobe beef salpicon salad, roasted poblano pepper, avocado, cotija cheese, pickled onion served chilled with plantain chips (Norma Martinez). This strong dish reminded us of a deconstructed taco with plantain chips as the “taco shell”. Very tender meat, good slightly sweet-sour pickled onions and cotija cheese to complete this starter.

Course 1b: Raw Alaskan king crab battera, dashi, ginger-soy reduction (Sean Langlais). Battera sushi is a pressed sushi style from Osaka often topped with mackerel. The rice and the ginger-soy reduction were good on this version but the king crab on top of the rice was too flavorless and tastewise hardly detectable. A stronger tasting fish would have been better for this dish.

Course 2a: Seared dayboat scallop, house made cotechino sausage, “The Fam’s” caponata siciliana (Joe Magnanelli). The scallop and the outstanding cotechino sausage (pork sausage from Modena) were really good and were accompanied from the caponata which could have used a little less on the vinegar.

Course 2b: Crispy buttermilk fried sweetbreads, mustard seed jus, pickled greens (Matt Gordon). Unfortunately one doesn’t see sweetbreads often enough on menus in San Diego. Normally you get a few small ones but this time they served one big piece of sweetbread which had a wonderful, surprisingly spicy, crispy coating and a very soft inside. The pickled greens were a perfect companion for the sweetbreads. It would be great to see this dish on the regular menu of Urban Solace.

Course 3a: Maple-whiskey Liberty Farm’s duck, sweet corn spoon bread, glazed baby carrots, candies duck tongue n’ crackling (Matt Gordon). The duck and vegetables were well prepared but what elevated this dish was the very good sweet corn spoon bread. The duck tongues were an interesting addition to the dish.

Course 3b: Meyer’s Ranch red wine roasted beef, charred eggplant, smoked piperade, bagna cauda (Michael Liotta). This dish was an interesting idea by having three very different and distinct sauces with the meat – the anchovies based bagna cauda from Piedmont, tomato/espelette pepper based piperade from the Basque region and the charred eggplant sauce which had some middle eastern reminiscences. All three sauces worked really good with the roasted beef but we felt that the dish had overall too much meat and it would have benefited from some vegetables.

Course 4a: Chocolate flan with cinnamon crisps and strawberry/cucumber relish (Norma Martinez). Good but not outstanding flan. The strawberry and cucumber relish was very good – not overly sweet and very refreshing.

Course 4b: Ate con queso tostadas, candied quince & pink guava, sweet bunuelo, manchego cheese shavings with chipotle infused mango margarita sorbet (Norma Martinez). The tostadas with the manchego shavings were interesting but at bit on the dry side. The candied quince and pink guava jelly was a good pairing for the cheese. The sorbet itself was good and refreshing but didn’t really match with the other parts of the dessert.

After dinner drinks: Espresso and 2006 Trentadue viognier port with strong peach and pear aroma.

Mignardieses: Peanut butter truffle, passion fruit macaroon, lemon cake (Michael Liotta). A nice way to end the night.

We felt that the Chef Celebration Dinner at Urban Solace was a good finish of this year’s series. It had several very good dishes, e.g sweetbreads, Kobe beef salpicon salad. It was interesting to see that in contrast to the other Chef Celebration dinners where one had the feeling that the chefs coordinated their dishes prior to the dinner so that they had some kind of consistency and you didn’t really know who prepared which dish without looking on the menu, the dishes at this dinner were easily distinguishable and very characteristic for each chef.

We hope that the Chef Celebration Dinner series will continue next year and perhaps even with broader range of participating chef with different culinary backgrounds.

3823 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104-3609
(619) 295-6464