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


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