November 29, 2010

Wine Vault (San Diego) – Oktoberfest Dinner or finally an Oktoberfest we enjoyed

Asking San Diegans what three things they associate most with Germany, many are likely to answer: cars, beer and Oktoberfest. We can agree with the first two items as parts of the image Germany has abroad, but to us Oktoberfest illustrates some of the worst stereotypes about Germany. If you ask Germans, especially outside of Bavaria, about Oktoberfest most of them will just shake their heads and couldn’t care less about it. Every time during Oktoberfest many television channels will air a few documentaries and interviews from Oktoberfest and it will remind everybody what Oktoberfest is about – to squeeze as much money out of visitors as possible, and for the visitors to wear strange clothes that no German would touch (except for Bavarians who are a little bit special in that regard), singing to the most horrible country music and to drink themselves senseless and act like complete idiots. So every time somebody asks us if we are interested to visit one of the Oktoberfest incarnations in San Diego we usually tell them that we prefer to pass.

When we first heard about the Oktoberfest Dinner at Wine Vault we were initially skeptical what it was all about and if it would have any “features” of the original one but the more we looked into it the more we got interested. We liked and have visited Wine Vault several times and enjoyed the Chef’s five-course tasting menu on Saturdays with many interesting dishes and good wine pairings. The Oktoberfest dinner appeared to be an interesting variation on the Wine Vault tasting menus with a slight twist towards Oktoberfest influenced dishes with, most importantly, some good German beer.

When we lived in Germany our preferred style of beers were mainly Pilsner and Hefeweizen. Both styles are the most popular beer styles throughout Germany. San Diego has become one of the beer capitols of the world but many breweries tend towards hoppy ales which was quite a change for us, and it took some time to adapt to it but by now we even often tend to prefer these ales over a Pilsner. But still we crave from time to time to have a nice Pilsner or Hefeweizen and so the Oktoberfest dinner was a perfect chance to combine great beer with good food.

Wine Vault is located on India Street close by to Gelato Vero, Saffron and Shakespeare Pub in a rather nondescript building elevated from the street.

Due to the hidden location a number of signs are placed close by.

Wine Vault has two main seating areas – A covered patio which is very nice in the summer but can be a bit chilly later in the year. This time we were seated inside in the stretched main dining room. The interior is quite spartan with the wooden chairs and tables but not uncomfortable.

The bread service was very good with what tasted like housemade bread.

1st Course: Knight’s salumi sausage, housemade pretzel, sauerkraut, whole grain mustard froth.
Nice sausage from Knight salumi which was filled with Gouda cheese. The sausage was encased by a tasty dough even though it wasn’t the promised pretzel but reminded us more on what is called in Germany as a Stockbrot. The mustard froth was a nice idea to add some spicyness to the dish though it could have been more pronounced. The disappointment of the dish was the sauerkraut. Good sauerkraut should be very mild in taste, hardly sour and braised for a very long time. Unfortunately this version was what you get in most restaurants in the US - overly sour, not long enough braised and tasted like the stuff you get in glasses in the supermarket. The only really good sauerkraut we ever tasted in San Diego can be found at the Linkery.

Paulaner Munich Lager: Classical lager with golden color and traditional light, hoppy finish. It paired nicely with the sausage without overpowering it.

2nd Course: “Clam Chowder”, braised bacon, marinated clams, celery, harissa oil, crispy sourdough. This was not a classical clam chowder and had a more intense, briny flavor but was at the same time much lighter. The base of the clam chowder was a homemade clam broth where the other ingredients were prepared separately and added just at the very end. The harissa oil gave a subtle spicyness to the dish.

Paulaner Pilsner: Overall a quite similar beer to the lager before but with a stronger hoppy finish. The beer had a crisp and dry flavor which went along nicely with the clam broth.

3rd Course: Confit of prawns, brandade cake, brussels sprouts, preserved lemon, wild arugula.
Perfectly tender prawns with a sweet, fresh taste paired with brussels sprouts and brandade cake. The brussels sprouts were finely chopped after the cooking which eliminated their inherent bitterness and resulted in smooth and mild texture. The brandade, a mixture of salt cod, olive oil and potatoes was a fitting starchy foundation of the dish but the salt cod could have been more pronounced as it was hardly detectable. The lemon flavor was a good link to the paired beer.

Paulaner Hefe-Weizen: Classic Bavarian wheat beer with a crisp but also fruity taste. Wheat beers are often drunk with some drops of freshly sequeezed lemon which was replaced here by the preserved lemon of the dish.

4th Course: Roasted pork belly, olive oil potato puree, green apples, micro chives.
Pork belly is very popular in Germany so it is not unlikely to find such a dish on Oktoberfest. The pork belly was roasted and had a similar consistency to braised pork belly. The meat was sprinkled with sea salt which made some bites too salty. The richness of the pork belly was counterbalanced by some fruitiness of the apples – presented as apple slices and apple puree. The use of olive oil instead of butter for the potato puree intensified this fruitiness and also resulted in a smoother puree.

Paulaner Oktoberfest: Bavarian Maerzen style beer with a good balance between the sweetness of malt and the bitterness of the hops. This meat course required a stronger tasting beer which could stand up against the heftiness of the pork belly.

5th Course: Braised short ribs, soubise, crushed potatoes, braised mustard greens, gremolata.
Rather classical dish of fork tender meat with braised greens and potatoes. What set this dish apart was the use of soubise,a bechamel based sauce with pureed onions, and gremolata. Both added some variety to the dish by the sweetness of the onions and the tartness of the lemon in the gremolata.

Paulaner Salvator Double Bock: Very rich, malty beer with some chocolaty aftertaste. The boldest beer of the night was fittingly paired with the last meat course and had no problem to hold up against the different flavors of the dish.

Dessert: Housemade Valrhona chocolate truffles.
The regular dinner didn’t include any dessert but we wanted to end the night with a sweet finish and ordered some of their homemade chocolate truffles. The truffles tasted homemade as they had a good balance between the different filling and the chocolate without overpowering each other. The five truffles had fillings of Whiskey, peanut, ginger, Grand Marnier and hazelnut.

We had many good meals at Wine Vault before and this Oktoberfest dinner was no exception. Wine Vault has found its niche of bistro-style food with sprinkles of fine dining creativity and a strong emphasis on paired tasting menus. The kitchen consistently showcases high quality dishes, with the only exception of the underwhelming sauerkraut that night, using interesting flavor combinations. Their wine pairings are often thoughtful and we particularly liked the beer pairings during the Oktoberfest dinner. The service was less personal than normal but that was understandable as much more coordination is necessary to serve the same course to a fully occupied restaurant at the same time. The only major complain for us was that Wine Vault didn’t replace any glasses between the courses. Even though the beers progressed throughout the nights towards stronger tasting ones we still could taste the previous beers. For a restaurant that is strongly focused on wine/beer pairings it should be obvious to provide the best way to enjoy such pairings. A nice add-on to the dinner were the introductory explanation of Chad Heath from Stone Brewery before each course. Stone Brewery is one of the importers of Paulaner beer in the US and it was enjoyable to get some more information about each paired beer from him.

Overall the Oktoberfest dinner not only supported our notion that Wine Vault is a good place for a relaxing, interesting dinner in San Diego but perhaps even more importantly that it is worth looking more often after these special wine/beer dinners at some of our favorite restaurants as they often provide a great opportunity for a unique night. After our recent Fort Rose winery dinner at Café Chloe this Oktoberfest dinner was another great example.

Wine Vault Bistro
3731-A India St
San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 295-3939

November 21, 2010

German Pancakes with Homemade Raspberry Fruit Quark.

In Germany we have a saying that would translate something like “Have breakfast as if you were a Czar, lunch as if you were a king, and dinner as if you were a peasant”. Although we take a much more Mediterranean approach to food in that dinner is the most important meal of the day for us, we really enjoy trying out new breakfast dishes. Especially on weekends when we have a lot more time in the morning – and what better way is there for a food lover than starting into a new day with trying out a novel dish?

However, this post is not about a new dish this time but about a breakfast recipe that has been handed down verbally over three generations in our family: on how to prepare (one version) of German pancakes. These pancakes are less fluffy than their American counterparts (which we also like very much) because no baking powder is used in this recipe. They are closer to French Crepes in taste but have a thicker consistency. The pancake mix is prepared following a very simple formula that is easy to memorize: take x number of eggs, add 3x tablespoons of flour, 1.5x tablespoons of sugar and milk for a cream-like consistency. We typically eat them with jam after baking them in a frying pan, but this time we combined them with our homemade quark that we recently prepared. So if you have been wondering about what you can do with quark, the preparation of a fruit quark mix is one of the main uses for quark and quite delicious. Its fruity taste and slight sourness nicely balance and cut through the rich buttery taste of the pancakes.

This time we had some fresh raspberries at hand to make German Pancakes with Homemade Raspberry Fruit Quark. This is a nice way to start a Sunday morning together with a cup a coffee !

Place eggs and sugar into a bowl. Add flour and milk and mix until the pancake mix is smooth. Let the mix rest for 10 min.

Meanwhile prepare the fruit Quark: place raspberries, 1/3-1/2 of the Quark and sugar into a bowl.

Mix with a blender, not too long, and mix in the rest of the Quark with a spoon. This helps maintaining a thicker consistency. Add sugar to taste.

Heat butter in a pan. Once the foaming subsides add half of the pancake mix and bake under medium-high heat for about 4-5 min. Check with a spatula when the underside is slightly browned and turn pancake. Bake for another 3-4 minutes, again checking the underside a few times until it also is slightly browned.

Transfer pancake to a plate. Add fruit quark on top and form a role. Enjoy immediately while still warm. Repeat steps with the remaining pancake mix.

Serves 2

Pancake mix:
2 eggs
6 tbsp flour
3 tbsp sugar
300-400 mL (10-13 fl oz) milk
4 tbsp butter

Fruit quark:
300 g (10 oz) homemade quark
250 g (9 oz) fresh raspberries
2-4 tbsp sugar

November 8, 2010

Blanca (San Diego) – Seven Course Tasting Menu or Cooking Dangerously Creative

When we go out to eat we are very open in the choice of the restaurant. It can be an ethnic restaurant with a strong focus on authentic food, a bistro-style place with variations on classic dishes or an innovative high-end restaurant – in the end it is all about good or bad food which distinguishes a restaurant. But like everybody else we have our own preferred styles of restaurants which we are specifically seeking out. Restaurants which get us excited are often using creative and unique flavor combinations which go far beyond just some twists on conventional dishes. They tend to use unusual ingredients and techniques to accomplish it. These chefs have a very special way to express their thoughts on food and ingredients, and it is a stimulating process for us to try to understand what they want to express with their creation – it is “food for thoughts”. Bistro LQ in Los Angeles is a prime example of such a restaurant and has been one of our favorites since our first visit there briefly after they opened about a year ago.

Unfortunately we haven’t had many opportunities so far to experience such Chefs or restaurants of this specific style in San Diego. Only a few special tasting menus at Better Half Bistro and at Blanca under Chef Jason Neroni left us with lasting impressions as restaurants which go far beyond the usual mainstream. But going beyond the mainstream also often means that you take the risk of losing your customers, and this is not only true for San Diego but even for LA in some instances. When we had the chance to talk with Chef Neroni during our tasting menu at Blanca last December, he already sounded quite disillusioned and so it wasn’t a big surprise that he left Blanca after only a few months. His final comment that “The running joke other chefs told me was that all San Diegans want is fish tacos. It was funny for a moment, and then it got annoying because it was true.” might be too much of a generalization but it also contains some truth.

After this short stay from Jason Neroni and the underappreciation of such a creative cooking style in San Diego, we expected Blanca to become more conservative in their choice of the next Executive Chef. We were quite surprised when after a few weeks Blanca announced to appoint Gavin Schmidt. He has an impressive resume mainly focused around San Francisco. Besides Sous Chef positions at Aqua and Fifth Floor Chef Schmidt really made an impact as Executive Chef at Campton Place Restaurant and Chef de Cuisine at Coi. Both restaurants are known far beyond San Francisco as very creative and ambitious restaurants, and are much closer to the cooking style of Jason Neroni than we had anticipated. So we were really curious to check out Blanca and find out how much he might adapt his cooking style to “fit in”. The recent addition of the seven course Chef’s tasting menu at Blanca was a good opportunity for this.

Blanca is located in Solana Beach in one of the small shopping malls along the Pacific Highway. If you don’t really know where to look it is relatively easy to overlook the nondescript building.

Their distinctive “b” sign is found outside and even after you are seated.

The restaurant is separated into two parts – a bar/lounge area and the dining room. The dining room is surprisingly small with a number of cozy booths on two sides. The interior is an interesting mix of subdued elegance with some interesting lamps which reminded us of those used on older ships.

The bread was freshly baked at the restaurant and was one of the best bread services we had in San Diego. We liked the presentation of the butter on the block of steel which was slightly warm to give the butter the right consistency.

Amuse Bouche: Sea urchin, smoked avocado panna cotta, geoduck, apple, cucumber dashi vinaigrette. Over the last few years we have come to love sea urchin with its characteristic taste of the ocean. Its delicate flavor can easily get lost if not carefully paired. Chef Schmidt chose the right combination by focusing this dish on smoked avocado and sea urchin which complemented each other nicely without overpowering. The apple and geoduck gave the dish some textural variety. The vinaigrette helped to emphasize the “fresh sea” character of the amuse bouche. A very strong start of the tasting menu with more creativity than some other restaurants have on their whole menu.

1st Course: Local vegetable composition, encapsulated caramel yoghurt.
Every restaurant talks about the importance of farm fresh food but this dish might be one of the best representations of what it really means by focusing solely on the ingredients. An impressive combination of 14-15 different examples of local produce. Some from well-known local farms, some from the restaurants own garden, some of them collected by the Chef himself who is known for his interest in foraging. Each bite was an experience of a different variation of incredible produce. But this dish also showed the Chef’s ability to combine great ingredients with newer techniques such as spherification. The encapsulated caramel yoghurt was a nice palate cleanser between the different bites of fresh produce.

2nd Course: Fennel apple soup, spot prawn sashimi, long pepper marshmallow.
The fennel apple soup reminded us as a typical example of a fall soup. It had a nice balance between the apple and fennel in which one could clearly taste both with some basil in the background. The prawn sashimi gave some textural counterbalance. But what really set this soup apart was the marshmallow. Similar to the inclusion of fresh eggs that gives many dishes a characteristic taste/mouthfeel the marshmellow slowly started to melt and gave the soup a satisfying creaminess.

3rd Course: Dungeness crab, brown rice porridge, crab tempura, Vietnamese ram tempura, carrot lemongrass emulsion. The porridge reminded us with its creaminess of a risotto. The dish had a good amount of Dungeness crab and we liked the crunchiness of the tempura. Foams and emulsions often don’t add much to a dish and can end up as some kind of gimmick. Here the carrot lemongrass brought some freshness and slight sourness to the dish. It would have been nice to get a second portion of the dish…

4th Course: Black cod, Matsutake, pears, wild flowers.
Perfectly seared black cod which was very moist. We liked the inclusion of pears which gave the dish some fruitiness. The wild flowers were another example of the Chef’s interest in foraging.

5th Course: Fried chicken and octopus, frying peppers, sesame, sassafras.
Our waiter pronounced this dish as a fun dish and we were at first not sure if fried chicken and octopus would work together but even though both kinds of meat had their distinct flavors they weren’t so different and even the consistency was quite similar. This dish was also a good example of the Chef’s use of different sauces and foams, here based on sassafras and peppers, not just as a gimmick but to really bring a dish together and at the same time adding some uniqueness to it.

6th Course: Lamb loin roasted in hay, carrot, potato, wheatgrass.
Another dish which reminded us somehow of fall. The lamb was cooked sous-vide and had a surprisingly distinct taste of hay. The meat was very tender and had despite the hay flavor still some slight gaminess left as you expect from lamb. The spiral of aerated wheatgrass sauce was not only a nice presentation but supported the hay aroma of the dish. Another very creative dish which we felt showed the Chef’s ability to bring some unexpected dimensions to a seemingly “familiar” dish.

Intermezzo: Goat cheese semifreddo, melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melon, pineapple. We like goat cheese and we like ice cream and here we have a great combination of both together – goat cheese semifreddo. The goat cheese semifreddo had the typical slight sourness of goat cheese and was nicely accompanied by the fruitiness of the different variations of melon granite, fizzy melon and pineapple. We also liked the presentation using the same block of steel as for the butter but now frozen.

7th Course: Chocolate truffle cake, bourbon caramel, ginger ice cream.
The chocolate truffle cake had a very strong chocolate flavor but wasn’t overly dense. We really liked the ginger ice cream with its spiciness which helped to cut through the sweetness of the cake and the caramel sauce.

Mignardise: Coconut and coffee pralines.
Nice way to end the tasting menu and like all dishes before it was of high quality and very tasty.

We went to Blanca without really knowing what to expect. Somehow we were expecting that based on the low acceptance of the cooking style from Jason Neroni in San Diego, Blanca would push Gavin Schmidt towards a more mainstream approach covering just well established classic dishes. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though the cooking style of Chef Schmidt is different and more playful than the one from Jason Neroni, who prefers bolder flavors, both seem to try to push boundaries of creative and ambitious cooking in San Diego. Starting from the professional service which made it possible to have a relaxing, slow paced night to the outstanding kitchen Blanca presented for us where we would like to see restaurants in San Diego develop – creative cooking which is not afraid to explore unusual ingredients and flavor combination, utilizing all types of techniques but at the same time having a San Diego edge by using what this city (and California) stands for – some of the best and freshest produce and ingredients one can find anywhere. We really would like to see that more chefs in San Diego would be willing to take some more risks and not just cook for the lowest denominator. The restaurant business is of course very risky and nobody expects that chefs would suddenly completely change their menus but it would be very encouraging to see if organizations such as Cooks Confab, Chef Celebration or Slow Food would use their (media) influence to try to educate the customers more hat good food can be so much more than the next variation on short ribs, roasted chicken, steak or burgers. But at the same time it was not very encouraging to see that Blanca was never more than half occupied during a Saturday night, and it very much reminded us of our tasting menu with Jason Neroni. Hopefully we will have the chance to follow Chef Schmidt vision of cooking in San Diego, and this first visit was just a first glimpse of what we can expect in the future.

437 S Highway 101 # 301
Solana Beach, CA 92075-2221
(858) 792-0072