May 26, 2011

Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort (San Diego) – 11-Course Tasting Menu

Several years ago when we were planning to get married in San Diego we were searching for a good location for the reception dinner with our families coming from Germany. We were looking for a quiet place with very good food and a certain “California” feel. We had compiled a list of several places which looked promising and as part of our “survey” of all these places we also decided to visit the different restaurants to get a general feeling of the quality of the food and the capabilities of the kitchens. One of the possible locations was the Rancho Valencia Resort. The resort is situated in a beautiful part of Rancho Santa Fe and has a relaxed feeling and was overall close to something we were looking for. Unfortunately when we visited the Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort the experience and food was very underwhelming and perhaps one of the most overpriced dinners we yet had in San Diego. Obviously we decided to have our reception somewhere else and tried to forget about our restaurant experience.

Fast-forward several years to 2011 – you always hear that a new chef can have a tremendous effect on the quality of a restaurant kitchen but that didn’t originally impress us when we heard that the Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort had hired Chef Eric Bauer as new executive chef. But over the last few weeks we read on several occasions very encouraging reports that he had completely overhauled the menu and really stepped up game to bring the quality of the kitchen to something you would expect for such a well respected resort. Chef Bauer was born in Chicago and finished his culinary training in 2000 at the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago before he started working at the city’s Ritz-Carlton. He then joined the Four Season hotel chain and worked at different locations, including Carlsbad, Westlake Village and Costa Rica moving up the ranks. He left the hotel chain in 2007 for his first executive chef position as opening chef at the Morel French Steakhouse in Las Vegas. In May 2009 he moved to San Diego to become chef at Anthology were he stayed for a year before finding his current position. Executive Chef Bauer works together at the kitchen with Chef de Cuisine Aaron Martinez. Chef Martinez completed his culinary education in 2003 at the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, worked as sous chef at the Addison in San Diego, at In de Wulf in Belgium and staged at famous Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian before coming to Rancho Valencia last year.

All these indicators of significant changes at the Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort gave us hope that it might be worth changing our mind and giving it a second chance. As usual, a tasting menu would give us the best chance to really experience a “new” restaurant and kitchen team by giving them all creative freedom. Together with a few other San Diego foodies we contacted the restaurant and found out that even though there is currently no tasting menu on the official menu they are willing to create one for everybody who is interested, and so we finally settled on an 11-course tasting menu at Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort. After a few cocktails outside on the patio we went into the rustic and old looking but still comfortable dinner room to be greeted by some snacks to start the night.

Snack 1: Cheese & Crackers
An interesting mix of a cheese cracker and krupuk – dehydrated cheese wafers with a consistency of krupuk but the taste of a mild cheese cracker.

Snack 2: Chicken skin, fava beans, herbs
What again looked like a regular cracker was compressed chicken skin which had an addictive salty flavor and was supported by the earthiness of the fava bean puree. Really outstanding finger food and we could have easily eaten a large bowl of such “crackers”

Amuse Bouche: Veggies
We recently have seen in several upscale restaurants in San Diego very interesting takes on some of the best ingredients one can get in this city – fresh produce - and this amuse bouche was no exception. Showcasing the pure and fresh taste of vegetables as romesco, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and adding a surprising twists with some lettuce granite. A good palate cleanser which also set the right tone for the tasting menu – clean, natural flavors accentuated by unexpected, modern twists.

The bread service showed a wide variety of different breads but most of them lacking the quality of really good bread, often too soft and more reminding us of sandwich bread. This was particular disappointing as the bread was accompanied by outstanding ramp and horseradish butter which would have deserved better bread.

1st Course: Cucumber, mackerel, verbena, borage
A very popular dish in the northern part of Germany is Soused Herring, and this dish with its strong, oily flavor of the mackerel reminded us of it. The cucumber sauce and the borage with its cucumber-like flavor added some freshness, and together with the slight bitterness of the verbena helped to balance the richness of the mackerel. A very strong dish and it was good to see that the kitchen didn’t shy away to use bold flavors.

2nd Course: Carrots & radish, flowers, herb infusion
The roasted carrots and radishes had a very good balance between the “grilled” flavor and the inherent sweetness of vegetables at their peak of ripeness. But what really put the dish together was the use of ham flavored foam. Foam is often seen as a useless gimmick but here it was cleverly used to bring some saltiness and additional layers of flavors to the dish.

3rd Course: Coriander, RV escargot, seaweed, zucchini
Escargots are one of these ingredients one unfortunately doesn’t see often on a menu and if they are part of it they tend to be rubbery because they came out of a can or are completely covered in garlic flavor. These fresh local snails actually showed nicely the natural flavor of escargots and were perfectly cooked. Unfortunately the kitchen tried to add too many other different flavors to the dish with the seaweed, coriander flowers etc. which didn’t cover the flavor of the snails but tried to pull the whole dish in many different directions so that it appeared unfocused.

4th Course: Potato, lovage, peas, marrow
This seemingly simple dish of potatoes turned out to be another highlight of the tasting menu. Perfectly roasted young potatoes with some pieces of fried potato skin highlighted the simple but satisfying taste of a potato. Potatoes are often eaten together with butter which was here substituted by bone marrow crème. Lovage is in Germany also known as “Maggi” spice as it has a similar flavor profile and added some depth to this dish with its umami-like flavor.

5th Course: Halibut, mussel, salsify
Perfectly cooked halibut had a mild taste but the “sea” flavor was accentuated by the slightly smoked mussels. The salsify and the pickled shallots added some freshness to this simple but satisfying dish.

6th Course: Veal tongue, asparagus, rocket, mustard
It was a good idea to serve green and white asparagus next to each other – both tender with the white having a mellower and less bitter taste. The perfectly cooked veal tongue was classically accompanied by some mustard and the rocket brought a second, different level of spicyness to the dish. A well composed dish even though the tongue could have been cut thicker as the subtle flavor was nearly covered by the other ingredients.

7th Course: Foie gras, red onion, beet, eel mousse, sorrel
Foie gras is normally either served with savory or sweet fixings but this dish went into both directions. Both the red onion and the beets are normally savory components but by their preparation showed also some sweetness. The eel flavor of the mousse was hardly noticeable and didn’t add anything to the dish. Chef Bauer seemed to incorporate too many different ideas in this dish without any of them really thought through and so the dish appeared aimless and was perhaps the weakest of the night.

8th Course: Morels, ramps, lamb, barley
Lamb in restaurants is often unfortunately served in such a way that its characteristic slight gaminess which makes it unique isn’t too pronounced as chefs seem to fear it would otherwise not be ordered by guests. So it was refreshing to see that this tasting menu included not the ubiquitous lamb rack or filet but lamb neck which especially if not all fat is cut away like it was the case here has a wonderful “natural” lamb flavor. This rather rustic cut of lamb was fittingly served with barley ramp risotto and morels to underline bold flavor - One of the highlights of the night.

9th Course: Apple foam, celery
We had recently several examples of palate cleansers which use combinations of vegetables and fruits and this was another successful one – Refreshing celery granite was well balanced with some slightly tart apple foam.

10th Course: Fennel meringues, chocolate, licorice
The strong licorice flavor of the ice cream and the related anise flavor of the fennel meringues were successfully balanced by the chocolate ganache. This was a nice example of a chef taking some risks by using strong and unusual flavors like licorice and at the same time counterbalancing them enough so that they are subdued enough to not overshadow the dish but still clearly noticeable. These kind of dishes are a prime examples why we prefer tasting menus in restaurants to give chefs the possibility to successfully experiment with dishes they can’t serve a la carte – very strong dessert.

11th Course: Goat cheese, rhubarb, rose geranium
Another dessert with rather bold flavors – On one side a tart goat cheese flan and on the other side refreshing, sweet rose geranium sorbet. The rhubarb with its combination of tart- and sweetness connected these opposing flavors.

Mignardise: Pistachio macarons
A rather classical ending to a tasting menu with some macarons

Before going home everybody was presented with a small box for some sweets at home – Salted caramel and orange truffles.

Based on our history with the Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort we were initially skeptical what we could expect with this tasting menu but already starting with the amuse bouche and the first few courses it became very quickly clear that this was cooking on a completely different level than several years ago. Chef Bauer and his team showed throughout the tasting menu creativity with nearly flawless execution. Even though one might argue that the techniques used here might be founded in French cuisine the influences throughout the night were diverse and added up to an own style. Chef Bauer showed his strength when his dishes honed in on a few key ingredients, e.g mackerel and carrot dishes, potato and lamb courses but sometimes tended to lose focus and tried to add to many ideas to one dish, e.g. foie gras course and escargot dish. The service throughout the night on par with the kitchen was professional and attentive.

It won’t be difficult to convince foodies with such kinds of tasting menus to visit the restaurant but the real challenge for Chef Bauer will be to overhaul and modernize the regular a la carte menu in such way that he is still adding his own ideas and style without driving away the regular customers which tend to be not overly adventurous eaters. Some of the night’s dishes like the lamb could be good starting points with some small modifications. At the same time it would help if such a tasting menu or at least a shorter version, perhaps a 5-course menu, would be regularly available on their menu to make this place better known for its high quality food beyond just the resort guests. It will be interesting to see if the team at Restaurant at Rancho Valencia is able to master the balance between cooking interesting but not too complex food for their regular clientele and at the same time attracting new customers interested in high end food with unusal and creative dishes.

5921 Valencia Circle
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92091
(858) 756-1123

May 3, 2011

Chef Celebration Dinner 2011 at Cowboy Star (San Diego)

Over the last few years more and more restaurants in San Diego started to offer special dinners like winemakers or brewers dinners which present them with a good opportunity to prepare an unique menu and thereby attract a more unusual customer base for their restaurant. Even though this is just a more recent trend in San Diego there are a few well established dinner series like Cooks Confab and perhaps as the longest running one – Chef Celebration.

The Chef Celebration dinner series started 16 years ago and is a way for the foundation to collect money for their main goal “to enhance the knowledge and potential of promising young chefs and lay a foundation of excellence for San Diego’s culinary future.” Through this money of the dinner series the Chef Celebration foundation provided many scholarships to chefs like Hanis Cavin and Victor Jimenez at the beginning of their careers. Over the last years we have visited and enjoyed many different Chef Celebration dinners. During the last years the foundation typically organized 5-6 dinners per year but this year only three of them were announced. After looking through the different set ups we decided to focus on one dinner this year which had the best potential for an interesting night – Chef Celebration at Cowboy Star. This dinner had a nice mix of chefs from established restaurants as Christian Graves (JSix), Chris Kurth (Grant Grill), Stephane Voitzwinkler (Mr. A’s) and Victor Jimenez (Cowboy Star) and new, upcoming restaurants with Sam Burman (Quality Social) and Craig Jimenez (Craft & Commerce) who was accompanied by his mixologist Nathan Stanton.

Cowboy Star is located close to the corner of 10th Avenue and Market in a red brickstone building about a block from Café Chloe. What makes this restaurant quite unique is its own butcher store.

Part of the charm of Cowboy Star is its rustic “Western” influenced interior starting with the bar close to the entrance…

…and animal skulls and appropriate pictures throughout the room.

Bread service consisted of a good multigrain roll with soft butter.

Cocktail 1: The Broken Arrow – Skyy passion fruit vodka, pineapple chipotle simple syrup, pink grapefruit juice, topped with champagne – We decided to do a limited cocktail pairing by picking a cocktail for each two courses. The Broken Arrow was a good combination of some fruitiness from the passion fruit and pineapple with some slight tartness from the grapefruit and a nice spicy kick form the chipotle.

1st Course: Brandt beef carpaccio, English pea relish, barrage flowers, house-made lemon oil, parmesan reggiano puree, toasted bread (Christian Graves). Carpaccio is normally very thinly sliced beef but this version was a much thicker cut and was more a hybrid between carpaccio and steak tartare. The very tender meat when eating together with the delicate pea relish and slightly salty parmesan reggiano puree showed a perfect balance of flavors. The toasted bread was sprinkled with fresh black pepper and gave the dish a surprising spicy component. Overall a very strong start of the tasting menu and one of the highlights of the night which showed once more the ability of Chef Graves to combine a few “basic” ingredients to create a very complex and flavorful dish.

2nd Course: Grilled Baja octopus, pickled ramps, green grapes, marcona almonds, white gazpacho (Sam Burman). Octopus sometimes tends to be tough and rubbery when not prepared with enough care but here it was wonderfully tender with a pronounced but not overwhelming grill flavor. The pickled ramps, grapes and almonds added different interesting flavor and textural components to the dish but what made it truly special was the use of white gazpacho as a foundation. The gazpacho wasn’t served too cold but at room temperature and had a strong cucumber flavor which complemented the octopus and gave the dish a Spanish character. Another very strong dish and also a reminder for us that it’s time to visit Quality Social.

2. Cocktail: Orange Blossom Special – Maker’s Mark, velvet falernum, ginger syrup, tangerine juice, essence of orange blossom flower – This cocktail had a stronger but still smooth alcohol taste than the first one with a refreshing tartness from the tangerine and ginger.

3rd Course: Soft poached duck egg, spring onion bullion, flavors of rosemary & sage flowers, hazelnut, chanterelle mushrooms, parmesan (Chris Kurth). Poached eggs with their runny yolk are often a key ingredient to elevate a good dish to an outstanding one. Here the soft poached duck egg was the focus of the dish especially since it was a duck egg which is much larger than a regular chicken egg. The spring onion bullion with its light rosemary and sage flavor gave the impression of a spring dish whereas the chanterelles and parmesan gave the dish some umami flavor and body.

4th Course: Fresh line caught wild salmon en croute, beluga black lentils, morel mushrooms, red verjus sauce (Stephane Voitzwinkler). Wrapping the salmon in pastry ensured that the fish stayed moist and flaky. Both the lentils and the morels added some earthiness to the dish and were good matches for the fish. The verjus sauce and the thinly shaved fennel added some acidity and unexpected bright flavors.

3. Cocktail: Old Fashioned - Jim Beam rye, orange bitters, Monin ginger syrup, brown sugar, ginger ale – Old fashioned are often our go-to cocktails to “test out” a cocktail bar and this one didn’t disappoint. It had a good balance between the sweetness of the sugar and the bitterness from the orange bitters and the ginger ale like a good version should have.

5th Course: Roasted Meyer natural beef strip loin, herbed-salt crust, asparagus, creamed forage mushrooms (Victor Jimenez). The beef was served not really hot but just warm and was quite dried out. The asparagus spears were cooked uneven and had some very soft and also hard parts. The best component of the dish was the creamed mushrooms. Overall not a complete disappointment but the weakest dish of the night.

6th Course: Ginger spiced Marcona almond crumb cake, horchata tuile, strawberries and meyer lemons (Craig Jimenez and Nathan Stanton). Written on the menu this dessert sounded very interesting and promising but the actual cake tasted very much like regular almond cake without any hints of ginger and quite dry. What saved the dish for us was the small cocktail served with the cake which was a play on the Deep Dark Secret cocktail with its combination of aged rum, Kahlua liquor and heavy cream.

This year’s visit of a Chef Celebration dinner was again a nice way to explore the cooking of some of the better known chefs in San Diego. It is always interesting to see that for most of these dinners the different chefs seems to talk with each other beforehand to have some continuity within the different courses. Similar to last year’s Chef Celebration dinner at Cowboy Star this year all dishes seemed to be focusing on a few key ingredients and showcased the natural flavor of them. But especially the first four courses all had very thoughtful components, e.g. white gazpacho, English pea relish, parmesan reggiano puree which added an unexpected depth to the dishes. The last two courses seemed to be less balanced and would have benefited from a better execution.

We are looking forward to another round of Chef Celebration dinners next year but were also wondering if spreading out these dinners over a much longer period of time, e.g. one dinner every one or two months, would help to highlight each dinner and attract more people instead of cramming all of them in just a few weeks which sometimes feels like too much.

640 Tenth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 450-5880