April 29, 2010

Chef Celebration Dinner 2010 at Nine-Ten (San Diego)

When eating in a restaurant it is often possible to experience some of the best meals in small, unknown restaurants with chefs who still fly under the radar. And one might argue that hunting for those hidden gems is a major drive for many foodies, including us, as it can be very satisfying. On the other site, many well respected chefs and restaurants often deserve their high reputation, even though there are sometimes exceptions when restaurants are just living of former fame. These well established restaurants are cornerstones for the culinary landscape of each city by setting new culinary trends and also providing places to train new chefs.

Our first Chef Celebration dinner of 2010 at Pamplemousse Grille was overall a good start for this year’s dinner series, but just based on the reputation of the participating chefs we were really looking forward to the Chef Celebration dinner at Nine-Ten which included some of the most well known chefs of San Diego – Trey Foshee (George’s Modern), Brian Sinnott (1500 Ocean), Jason Knibb (Nine-Ten), Jeff Jackson (A.R. Valentien), Tim Kolanko (A.R. Valentien) and Jack Fisher (Nine-Ten). We were curious to see if these chefs were able to match our high expectations to come up with an interesting tasting menu.

Nine-Ten is situated in the historic Grand Colonial Hotel in the heart of La Jolla. It occupies the right part of the ground floor.

The restaurant consists of one long rather winding room with a bar in the center.

Amuse Bouche: Crab Salad with orange gelee
Fresh and good tasting crab but the gelee didn’t add much flavor to the amuse bouche.

1st Course: Chilled spring pea soup, marinated clams, smoked ham, almond milk sorbet (Trey Foshee). Normally we are skeptical about chilled soups and are often disappointed but this combination sounded to interesting to miss. Very intense but fresh pea flavor which was together with some asparagus a nice reminder of spring. The accompanying clams and ham gave the soup a nice smoky flavor but also a textural counterpoint. The excellent almond milk sorbet which had a very distinct but light almond taste was the perfect last missing component of the dish. An outstanding dish which would convert anybody to become a chilled soup lover.

2nd Course: Halibut cheek, black spaghetti carbonara, fava leaves, kumquat, squid (Brian Sinnott)
Another highlight of the dinner. Halibut cheeks seem to become one of the current trendy ingredients with a very tender, buttery taste and texture which is somewhere between fish and crab meat. They were unusually paired with black spaghetti carbonara which had a slightly more earthy flavor than conventional paste due to the cuttlefish ink. The squid pieces were the culinary bond between those two main parts of the dish with the kumquats adding some slight bitterness.

3rd Course: Duck breast, spring onions, rhubarb, faro, five spice reduction (Jason Knibb)
Duck breast might appear on every menu and people might get tired of it but what elevated this dish was the use of more unusual ingredients one does not see often enough on menus – rhubarb and faro. Rhubarb which is normally just present as rhubarb jam in dishes was used here as large, very tender pieces of this vegetable to add some bitterness to cut through the fat of the duck breast. Faro, which is one of the many underappreciated grains, added some interesting nuttiness.

4th Course: Bittersweet chocolate cream, devil’s food cake, chocolate sorbet, crunchy meringue (Jack Fisher). What on paper might look like one of these chocolate overkills you sometimes see at the end of tasting menus turned out to be a very light and refreshing take on different chocolate flavors.

Mignardises: Dark chocolate truffle, macaron

We came to this iteration of the Chef Celebration dinner series with rather high expectations but we weren’t disappointed. We were somewhat surprised that in contrast to other Chef Celebration dinners in the past Nine-Ten did not offer a wine pairing. It was interesting to see how these remarkable chefs were able to create a very interesting tasting menu together. Especially the first two courses were outstanding dishes which combined many different flavors in a very clever way. There seems to be a good reason why these chefs have such a high, justified reputation.

910 Prospect Street
La Jolla, CA 92037-4144
(858) 964-5400

April 22, 2010

Indian-style curry with sweet potatoes, eggplant, green beans and chickpeas

Eating out in restaurants is often a good way to (re)discover ingredients which one might have never used or not used for a long time. When we think about what we want to cook we sometimes get inspired by recent restaurants visit. Not so much in terms of replicating any specific dish but by using certain ingredients we enjoyed. In addition, our ever growing cookbook collection tends to focus more and more either towards books about specific ingredients or specific ethnic/regional cuisines (e.g. different Italian regional cuisines, Catalan dishes, Japanese cuisine) which often use underappreciated ingredients.

One ingredient that has recently popped up on many restaurant menus are sweet potatoes, often in the form of sweet potato fries or mash. We have rarely cooked with sweet potatoes ourselves but have always enjoyed it slightly sweet, starchy taste. One of our preferred take-out spots, if we don’t cook or go out dining, is Punjabi Tandoor where we really like their Bengan Bhartha curry, an eggplant based curry with tomatoes and onions. So when we recently looked for a good vegetarian weeknight dinner idea in which we could combine eggplants with sweet potatoes we settled on this Indian-style curry with sweet potatoes, eggplant, green beans and chickpeas:

As much as we like Cook’s Illustrated for its “scientific” approach to “iterative” cooking (cook the recipe, test it with a few people, get their feedback and “improve” the recipe, cook the recipe etc.) it tends to “water down” ethnic cuisines since this approach works towards finding the greatest denominator which is normally counterproductive for authenticity. But similar to the regular discussion between foodies if non authentic restaurants can have good food we think that in the end the taste of a dish matters most, and authenticity is a plus.

This Indian-style curry turned out very well and we liked the sweet flavor of the sweet potatoes and the eggplants, with the green beans and chickpeas giving some texture to the dish. The curry gets a lot of body from the roasting of the spices and the addition of tomato paste. The onion relish added some crunchiness. We prefer our curries not too spicy and just used one chili but this can easily be increased to get some serious heat. We served the curry over Basmati rice and with some mango-papaya chutney and yogurt.

Toast curry powder and garam masala over medium heat until it darkens slightly. Cool down toasted spices.

Heat some oil over medium heat and cook onions and sweet potatoes for about 10 minutes.

Add remaining tablespoon vegetable oil, garlic, ginger, chile and tomato paste and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring continuously to avoid burning the tomato paste.

Add toasted spices and cook for an additional minute, stirring continuously.

Add green beans and eggplants and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Add tomatoes, water and chickpeas and some salt and bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes until green beans are tender.

Stir in cream and cook for about two minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt.

Recipe adapted from “Cook’s Illustrated”

Serves 4

2 tbsp curry powder
1.5 tbsp garam masala
4 tbsp vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 onions, diced
300 g (11 oz) sweet potatoes, diced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 serrano chile, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
400 g (14 oz) green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
400 g (14 oz) eggplant, diced
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, pureed in food processor
1 can (14.5 oz) chickpeas
600 ml (2.5 cups) water
70 ml (1/4 cup) heavy cream

Onion relish
Onion relish:

1 onion, diced
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp paprika
¼ tsp salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Mix all ingredients.

April 17, 2010

Chef Celebration Dinner 2010 at Pamplemousse Grille (San Diego)

Going to a restaurant or cooking at home by itself is always a pleasure and one of our favorite ways to spend time. Eating at a restaurant and doing something good at the same time makes the culinary experience even better. There are of course a number of fundraisers which include dinners for various political or cultural events but culinary occasions are very rare. One of the few exceptions in San Diego is the Chef Celebration dinner series.

Chef Celebration was founded about 15 years ago and is a non-profit organization dedicated “to enhance the knowledge and potential of promising young chefs and lay a foundation of excellence for San Diego’s culinary future.” As part of this mission it has provided numerous scholarships over the years to many aspiring news chefs at the beginning of their career as for example Victor Jimenez of Cowboy Star and Hanis Cavin of Kensington Grill.

One main opportunity to collect money for those scholarships is through the annual Chef Celebration dinner series. Over the last few years on five nights every fall several chefs joined forces at different restaurants to create 4- or 5-course dinners for $65 with $35 going towards the scholarship funds. We really enjoyed many of these dinners since it often allows the chefs to be more creative than in their regular restaurants and for example use ingredients or techniques you won’t find often in San Diego as abalone, escargots, uni or spherification. It is also a lot of fun since you get to experience food from several different chefs in one tasting menu by just visiting one restaurant. Starting this year the Chef Celebration dinners have moved to spring and the number of dinners has increased to seven.

As in previous years the Chef Celebration series kicked off at the Pamplemousse Grille in Del Mar with Jeffrey Strauss (Pamplemousse Grille), Bernard Guillas (Marine Room), Hanis Cavin (Kensington Grill), Jeff Thurston (Prado), Francisco Sedano (Pamplemousse Grille) and Ryan Harris (Pamplemousse Grille) as the particitpating chefs.

Pamplemousse Grille is located on Via De La Valle in a rather nondescript building which stands out by the goose based theme of the restaurant outside...

...which also continues inside

We always enjoy the bread basket at the beginning of the dinner which has a nice selection of delicious warm muffins

Amuse Bouche: Tian of ahi, hamachi & avocado, wasabi caviar & duo of sauces (Jeffrey Strauss). Good tasting fish which was a bit overpowered by the spicyness of the wasabi caviar and two different sauces.

Course 1a: Dukkah crusted Baja prawns, red quinoa timbale, chipotle aioli, cilantro sprouts, tangerine reduction (Bernard Guillas). A nice combination which worked well together only the prawns were rather cold. We were not sure if this was on purpose but thought the dish would have been better with freshly grilled, warm prawns. The red quinoa timbale was outstanding.

Course 1b: Basil escargot chantarelle casserole, pepitas, serrano ham, macademias, madras curry essence (Bernard Guillas).Very good s tarter which showed Chef Guillas French roots with his passion to combine culinary influences from all over the world (see also his recent cookbook). It’s nice to get very tender escargots in this case, they often tend to be rubbery at other places. Wine Pairing – Both first courses were paired with a 2006 Trione Chardonnay which was quite rich with balanced buttery oakiness and citrusy taste.

Course 2: Telecherry crusted scallops, fava, red bell pepper, sweet corn puree, petite herb salad, crisp bacon vinaigrette (Hanis Cavin). The scallops were nice even though very much on the small side. We liked the idea of having three different, very distinct sauces but also thought that the dish was out of balance and missing some kind of vegetables. It felt too protein heavy although again there was not much food on the plate – it might have been more appropriate as an Amuse Bouche. Wine Pairing – 2007 Barnett Pinot Noir, Tina Marie Vineyard, which was not too rich to overwhelm the scallops with some light tannins and raspberry fruit.

Course 3a: Trio of lamb – Colorado lamb rack, herb saddle of lamb, braised lamb shoulder, crepinette with ragout of morels, favas, parisian carrots, english peas, pencil asparagus and red pearl onions (Francisco Sedano). All three different preparations of lamb were nicely cooked but similar to the second course this dish felt too protein heavy. There were several types of vegetables on the plate but overall we felt that there was too much meat on the plate compared to the vegetables.

Course 3b: Pan seared yellow fin tuna, foie gras fried rice, sauteed pea tendrils and plum wine reduction (Jeff Thurston). This Asian inspired dish was the highlight of the night. The excellent fish was accompanied by the outstanding fried rice which had a very distinct and addictive foie gras taste. After that it will be hard to again eat fried rice without foie gras. Wine Pairing – Both third courses were paired with a 2005 Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon which was strong enough to hold up against the lamb and fried rice with some dark fruits, oak and tannins.

Course 4: Trio of desserts – Rhubarb upside down cake, pineapple tartlette, Mexican chocolate panna cotta (Ryan Harris). Nice array of good tasting desserts. It was good to see that the chef tried to showcase very different styles of desserts instead of focusing just on one which often tends to be either too fruity or chocolate heavy and isn’t often the best way to end tasting menu.

The evening ended with some cute pig-shaped cookies and espresso

And the chefs eating dinner at the tables next to us at the end of the evening

Overall the dinner was a good start to this year’s Chef Celebration series even though the composition of some dishes could have been stronger. It was good to see that this dinner at Pamplemousse Grille was very well attended. (Over the last years the Pamplemousse Grille dinner always turned out to be the best visited of the whole series). The wine pairings for three courses were nice and the pours were very generous but we thought that having smaller pours but pairings for all courses (e.g. sparkling wine for amuse bouche and dessert wine for the last course) like we had at other dinners would have been more enjoyable. The service at Pamplemousse Grille was good this time and not rushing like we experienced in the last few years.

We are looking forward to visiting a few other Chef Celebration dinners this year.

514 Via De La Valle
Solana Beach, CA 92075
(858) 792-9090

April 10, 2010

An Old German Family Recipe for Sour Cherry Pie

Coffee and cake on Sunday afternoons in the company of your family and friends at home is one of the most classical traditions in Germany, and although there are so many excellent bakeries around people continue to love baking their own cakes. There is so much pleasure, satisfaction and also relaxation that comes with such a simple process as mixing your own dough, kneading it carefully, seeing it rise and changing its shape and texture and inhaling the beautiful aromas coming out of the oven. One of us grew up in a family that always was, and to this date continues to be, fond of cakes and afternoon coffee and cake sessions. There are lots of early memories of sitting on the kitchen countertop as a small child and watching/learning the whole process, hoping to be allowed to do some mixing and kneading, and also always trying to sneak some fresh dough into one’s mouth. This recipe for a sour cherry pie is one of our family classics and was handed down by at least three generations.

You will notice that this recipe is still in its original German form and therefore calls for some special ingredients such as German baking powder or vanilla sugar (both from Dr. Oetker) which can be found at World Market. The most characteristic flavor of this cake comes from the sour cherries (or black cherries, in a glass, sold for example at Trader Joe’s) that are cooked in their own juice, slightly sweetened with sugar and thickened with starch before being baked inside the cake. Because of the sourness of the cherries, this cake is not overly sweet and pairs nicely with whipped cream. Originally we used a flat sheet of the short pastry as the top of the cake, but later changed it to crumbles for a more crunchy taste.

Sour cherry filling: Remove about ½ of cherry juice from the sour cherries jar (keep about 5 tablespoons aside), and pour the rest into a large cooking pot. Bring to boil over medium heat and add some sugar. Meanwhile, dissolve corn starch in some cherry juice. Remove pot from heat, stir in the corn starch mixture, and let cool to room temperature.

Blend flour and baking powder in a large bowl. Make a well, add the egg and cover with sugar and vanilla sugar. Cut butter into small pieces and place on top.

Knead mixture with hands inside the bowl, or process with a hand mixer for 1-2 minutes (kneading blades), and then place dough onto a work surface. Knead with hands until dough becomes smooth. Place dough onto a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and place into the refrigerator for ca. 30 min.

Roll out a third to half of the dough on a floured surface, transfer dough plate to a greased spring form pan, and form crust edges.

Pour cherry filling onto dough, and distribute evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle cinnamon powder over filling, and crumble the remaining dough evenly over filling. Finish with two tablespoons of sugar.

Preheat oven to 180 C (360 F) and bake for ca. 25-30 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Serves 8-10:

300 g (10 ½ oz) all purpose flour
100 g (3 ½ oz) sugar
1/2 package baking powder (Dr. Oetker / World Market)
1 package vanilla sugar (Dr. Oetker / World Market)
1 egg
150 g (5 ½ oz) butter or margarine
cinnamon powder

1 glass jar sour cherries (Trader Joe’s)
2 tbsp corn starch
1-2 tbsp sugar

April 7, 2010

Hatfield's (Los Angeles) - First Chef's Tasting Menu at Melrose Ave

On our recent visit to the reopened Hatfield’s a few weeks ago (last month's post) we had the chance to get a first glimpse at the new location and prix fixe menu. We were overall very satisfied with our first impressions of the new, bigger location and the first dishes we experienced from the kitchen. Since this first visit was just two weeks after the reopening the restaurant was still in the process of ironing out small kinks and didn’t offer a true chef’s tasting menu. Even though you can always choose from the regular menu of any good restaurant and have a good meal we also believe that often only a chef’s tasting menu tends to give you the chance to really experience the talent of a great chef.

Over the last few weeks the Quinn’s started slowly to perfect their vision of the new and “upgraded” Hatfield’s by first starting to offer lunch and very recently also a chef’s spontanée tasting menu. After hearing this news we knew it was time to go back to Hatfield’s and see if their chef’s tasting menu which was the highlight for us at their old location traveled over well to Melrose Ave.

The restaurant has an interesting large stone resembling an apple outside at the entrance which is a nice touch for a restaurant.

One of the new improvements of Hatfield’s is their new bar. This might be a great place for a late night drink and some upscale bar food. This picture was taken very late in the evening just before we left – this is the reason it does not look more busy at the bar.

When we made the reservation we mentioned that we were planning to go for the chef’s tasting menu and we are not sure if this “labeled” us as foodies but we were very happy that they gave us the best “foodie” table in the restaurant – directly next to the large window of the open kitchen. From here you have a great view of the whole back of the restaurant.

But most importantly you have a perfect view of the whole action in the kitchen. It was fascinating to see the different workflows in the kitchen throughout the night and how concentrated everybody was working starting from Chef Quinn to the Chef de Cuisine Brian Best and the 8-10 line cooks but also how, as the night progressed and less orders came in, the tension eased and quite a lot of talking and joking happened. A perfect table if you are interested in cooking and restaurants.

We started the night with some cocktails. Pimm’s Cup – Pimm’s, gin, cucmber, lemon, Bundaberg ginger beer. Classical approach to a Pimm’s cup with a strong ginger beer taste. Early Spring Bellini – Prosecco frizzante and rhubarb puree. A repeat from the last visit which shows how much we liked this cocktail.

Amuse Bouche: House-cured salmon with celery root slaw. Before we started with our 9-course tasting menu the kitchen started the evening with a nice amuse bouche which reminded us that celery root is often underappreciated and pairs good with the salmon.

1st Course: Sashimi Aji with marinated fennel, apple-shiso sauce and crispy duck cracklings.
The apple sauce was an interesting part of this dish but worked nicely with the delicate aji and the fennel. The crispy duck cracklings gave good textural contrast.

2nd Course: Foie Gras Terrine, Brioche and pineapple-muscat reduction
Unusual presentation by incorporating the foie gras in the cut out slice of brioche. The sweet pineapple sauce was a good counterbalance to the richness of the foie gras but close to being too sweet and overwhelming the dish. Since we didn’t plan to do a wine pairing this evening (we just had one extensive wine pairing the night before) we asked our excellent server Timothy for a recommendation and his choice was a very good Riesling which had some residual sugars to go with the foie gras.

3rd Course: Butternut squash custard, mushroom broth, coconut soup and crispy sweetbreads.
If you just see the cup with the coconut froth at the top one expects nothing unusual but this dish turned out to be very complex and one of the highlights of the evening. Here we have a three layered soup – at the bottom some earthiness from the butternut squash custard, the second layer full of umami from mushroom broth with small mushrooms and on the top some sweetness from the coconut soup. When eaten together all flavors work perfectly together and build a strong foundation for the sweetbreads. At this point Peter Birmingham, sommelier of Hatfield’s, came to our table with a bottle of Vinhas Velhas Luis Pato 07 Bieras and mentioned that he doesn’t think that this course would go well with our Riesling and that he had a little bit left in his bottle and we should try it. This was of course a very generous offer but more importantly it gave us the chance to strike up a conversation with him and it is rare to meet somebody with such passion, enthusiasm and knowledge for wines. His recommended very unusual wine was a perfect pairing for this complex dish and we decided spontaneously to not miss this chance and let him pair all our remaining courses – a decision we definitely didn’t regret.

4th Course: Salmon Roulade and salsify carbonara
Very interesting and successful idea of using salsify as replacement for pasta in this carbonara variation. Pairing: Maranges “Le Croix Moines” 06 Camile Giroud – supple with light raspberry and cherry.

5th Course: Roasted squab breast, oat grains, carrots, ginger, squab jus and oat chip.
Very tender meat with slight, favorable gaminess. The oat grains and carrots gave this dish a rustic foundation. Pairing: Pinot Noir Estate 05, Hallcrest Vineyards – some spicyness and herbal fruit having the right balance to not overwhelm the squab.

6th Course: Braised pork belly, Beluga lentils, Meyer Lemon confit, baby arugula salad.
In a tasting menu of many highlights this dish was still good but overall the weakest course. The pork belly could have been more tender and was quite dried out. The lentil and especially the lemon confit accompanied the meat nicely. Pairing: Cidre Greniers Brut Julien Fremont 08 – You don’t see cidre very often as part of wine pairings but here it really “saved” the dish for us. Not too sweet, subtle fruit, perfect pairing.

7th Course: Pan roasted NY Steak, crispy spaetzle, soy glazed longbeans, béarnaise.
This dish is a good example of the food at Hatfield’s where different cuisines, e.g German (spaetzle), French (béarnaise) and Chinese (soy glazed longbeans) are perfectly combined. Pairing: Clarendon Hills Baker’s Gully 04 – Very strong, rich wine with some blackberry fruit which holds up against the steak.

8th Course: Passionfruit Pavlova with pineapple
Very refreshing passionfruit ice to this meringue-based dessert.

9th Course A: Chocolate soufflé with mousse
The last dessert course was the only course where we each got a different dish. The chocolate soufflé was a good end to the tasting menu. Pairing: Brachetto d’Acqui Il Saulino 08 – light, delicate and raspberry flavored.

9th Course B: Chocolate Napoleon, “inverse” affogato
Very good napoleon (or mille-feuille) but the affogato was the surprising part of this dessert. Instead of having the vanilla flavor in the ice cream and the coffee taste in the liquid this dessert consisted of coffee granite and vanilla cream. Pairing: Dark Stout with Dawny Port – nice play on an Irish Car Bomb with Dawny Port instead of the whiskey.

Mignardies: Chocolate-hazelnut pralines
Reminded us on Kit-Kat but way better.

We came to Hatfield’s with great hopes to have a similar fantastic experience with their tasting menu as in their old location. At the same time we had just the night before an outstanding chef’s tasting menu at Bistro LQ and were wondering if Hatfield’s could hold up against it but we are happy to report that Hatfield’s didn’t disappoint and very fast starts to establish itself also in the new location as one of the top spots for creative high-end dining in LA. But it is also interesting to see how Laurent Quenioux at Bistro LQ and Quinn Hatfield at Hatfield’s are some of the most creative chefs in LA but have very different approaches. Bistro LQ uses often strongly contrasting flavors and ingredients to create dishes with a lot of culinary “tension” whereas Hatfield’s tends to create new dishes with “nearby” flavors which are unique and left you wondering afterwards why nobody else thought about it before, e.g. butternut squash custard with coconut soup or salsify carbonara.

It is great to have Hatfield’s (and their chef’s tasting menu) back on the culinary scene in LA and we will soon be back.

6703 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 935-2977