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 StreetSan Diego, CA 92104-3609