October 23, 2012

Delicias (San Diego) - 9-Course Tasting Menu or Keeping up with Chef McCabe

There is hardly any part of daily life which hasn’t been deeply affected and changed by the internet over the last two decades. Starting from how we purchase nearly every kind of goods, how we keep up to date with news, how we gather information or how we communicate with each other. It is amusing and also sad at the same time to see how many people you see today in restaurants who instead of talking to each other are more occupied to stare on their smart phones and communicate through social networks with each other and the world. Suddenly everybody, even people you have never met in your life before, are “friends” and the importance of anything is measured in how much everybody “likes”. All those social networks from the established to the new ones have/had very little appeal for us as they seem to be more advertisement platforms or trying to extract every detail of your life even without any permission but there is one exception – Twitter. While Twitter is far from something we would truly call communication with its 140 character limitations and often pointless “discussions” it has one major attraction for us as foodies – the possibility of “direct” interaction with chefs. There are many ways to contact a restaurant through their web page or Facebook page but these possibilities normally only give you access to the FOH. Any time you wanted to discuss dishes or menus with any chef there was hardly any other way than going straight into the kitchen during a dinner. Twitter changed this as many chefs started to use it personally to keep in touch with colleagues and customers and it opened up many new possibilities to interact with them.
When we recently had unexpectedly some reasons for a celebration we considered a few possible restaurants as good places for an extensive dinner or preferably a multi-course tasting menu. But when we went over our lists we remembered that one of our best dinners we had last year was an outstanding tasting menu at Kitchen 1540 under Chef Paul McCabe. Chef McCabe started to have an impact on the culinary scene in San Diego about ten years ago when he worked as Executive Chef first at Top of the Cove and then Star of the Sea. But he really made a name for himself far beyond San Diego once he started heading the kitchen at Kitchen 1540 and made it to one of the premier dining spots in San Diego. And so it took many by surprise when he suddenly announced end of last year that he would leave Kitchen 1540 for Delicias in Ranch Santa Fe. Delicias was one of these restaurants which exist for many years, 19 in the case of Delicias, but never made a real lasting impact on the dining scene in San Diego. Our single visit some time ago showed good but unremarkable food especially for the relative high prices. Once more details about the move from Chef McCabe surfaced it become more apparent that it was quite lucrative as not only he took over the kitchen but also became partner to owner Owen Perry, at the same time as Alex Campbell, formerly of Bertrand’s at Mr.A, with not only plans to revamp Delicias but also opening additional restaurants over the next years. Through his Twitter account he posted regularly photos of his new dishes and it became obvious that even though Delicias might not have the same customer base as Kitchen 1540 the cooking style of McCabe didn’t change much. Once the renovation of the restaurant and the revamp of the menu were completed recently we felt that now was a good time to try out Delicias. And after just a few tweets with Chef McCabe within several minutes we were able to set up a tasting menu at Delicias on a short notice.
1st Course: Shrimps - White shrimp blanket, spot prawn sashimi, ceviche, eggs and tempura
This course was presented as a variation on shrimp ceviche which didn’t do the dish enough justice. In this complex dish we had a number of different shrimp preparations yielding a broad range of textures and flavors - starting from the soft and mild white shrimp blanket to the sweet and tender spot prawn sashimi to the citrusy ceviche with tempura adding some texture. Ceviches can often dominate a dish with their citrus-based sauce but in this dish it was well balanced with some spicy- and saltiness rounding out the flavor profile. A very good start to the tasting menu as the dish helped to awaken the taste buds.
2nd Course: Salad - Compressed vegetables and fruits
The trend of having one dish to showcase the abundance of great produce in San Diego also continued with this tasting menu but at the same time it was fascinating to see how different the presentations are between the different chefs or even for Chef McCabe himself compared to his “produce” course during our tasting menu at Kitchen 1540. Whereas at Kitchen 1540 we had a very complex presentation with different dressings and powders here we had the mere opposite – simplicity. Using modern techniques to vacuum seal fruits and vegetables with looser cell structures and high water content helps to intensify the flavors yielding in dishes of stronger tastes of fruits and vegetables like watermelon and cucumber in this course. A great example that modern technique and pure and unadulterated flavors don’t have to be a contradiction.
3rd Course: Corn Agnolotti, poached Maine lobster, chanterelle mushrooms, summer truffles
One would expect that a dish which contains lobster, chanterelle mushrooms and summer truffles would center around these special ingredients but even though they were integral for the dish they took a backseat to the most mundane one – corn. Wonderful sweet but not overly saccharine it elevated the agnolotti to light pillows of pasta but also formed the fitting foundation for all other ingredients.
4rd Course: Local White Bass, warm summer bean salad, house pancetta, pistou vinaigrette
The White Bass was cooked nicely and very tender and flakey. The bean salad had numerous different types of beans and was a good choice for the mildly flavored fish. But what really brought this dish together was the pistou as it paired well with bean salad as well as the fish and was the overarching theme of the course.
5th Course: Pot Pie - Beef tongue, foie gras, vegetables, puff pastry
When we originally set up this tasting menu we agreed on an 8-course menu with Chef McCabe but at the beginning of the night he explained to us that there would be an additional course. For this course McCabe came out of the kitchen to present this dish as the additional free course – a variation on pot pie which included foie gras. Obviously with the current ban on foie gras in California having the rare opportunity to eat this delicacy alone was very exciting but what made the course really stand out was how it was integrated into the dish. The easy way to serve foie gras would have been in a classical presentation au torchon or seared but this pot pie dish was a prime example where the sum is greater than its parts. Using the often underutilized beef tongue as meat for the pie was refreshing as it infused a strong, yet unique, beefy flavor but the foie gras in the sauce elevated the dish to a completely different level. Every bite of the dish included the taste of foie gras but it was balanced enough not to dominate everything but yet the dish wouldn’t have worked without it – simply a brilliant dish and not only a highlight of this tasting menu but one of the best dishes we had in a long time. And it doesn’t happen very often that we talk so much about a dish even days after the tasting menu when we were hoping to have it one more time for dinner at home.
6th Course: Colorado lamb rack, faro, harissa yogurt, compressed onion, cucumber, olive
It is always hard to talk about the philosophy of a chef as they often draw their inspiration from many different sources but perhaps this dish is a good example of what we feel is part of Chef McCabe’s philosophy. On one side a rather classical interpretation of a rack of lamb but at the same time supporting the earthy flavors with an ancient, and rarely seen on menus, grain like faro. On the other side using modern techniques to create ingredients and flavors like the compressed onion and cucumber which present an unexpected twist leading to interesting contrasts, might it be, as in this case, by temperature, texture or flavor.
7th Course: Cheese – Coach Farm Triple Cream Goat, Roaring Forties Blue, condiments
The cheese course presented two different extremes – a triple cream goat which was very mild but rich and had some light tangy flavors. Whereas the Roaring Forties Blue had a much more pronounced, bolder flavor with nutty undertones.
8th Course: Yuzu curd, miso graham cracker, meringue
Yuzu with its distinct taste somewhere between grapefruit and mandarin with some floral notes is a good palate cleanser between the savory courses and the dessert. The miso graham crackers not only added some texture but also interesting umami flavor which reinforced the transition from savory to sweet courses.
9th Course: Chocolate tart, crunchy praline, toasted marshmallow, chocolate sorbet, maldon
The tasting menu finished in a classical way with a chocolate based dessert. The chocolate tart had some interesting textural variety by the crunchy praline and toasted marshmallow. Adding some salt flakes helped open up the flavor of the tart. Using chocolate sorbet instead of the ubiquitous chocolate gelato ensured a certain lightness of the course. Perhaps not the most creative and unusual way to end the night but still a satisfying end to a great tasting menu.
The outstanding experience we had with the tasting menu at Kitchen 1540 under Chef McCabe and his Twitter pictures of some of his dishes since he started working at Delicias set our expectations quite high. At the same time our first dinner at Delicias more than a year ago was unremarkable and the expected clientele at a restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe might imply that a chef has to hold back his creativity to be successful. In the end our concerns appeared to be unfounded and our experiences with a tasting menu at Delicias were on a very similar level as at Kitchen 1540. The creativity and execution of the dishes clearly showed the style we expected from Chef McCabe and it was interesting to see that some of the courses of the tasting menu were variation of dishes from the regular menu, like the lamb or agnolotti. And even though most of the off-menu courses showed a greater level of creativity the flow between off and on menu dishes throughout the tasting menu was uninterrupted and indicated the impact McCabe had on the quality of the regular menu.
As much as bad service can ruin a dinner with great food, good service as we experienced at Delicias can elevate an already great night. And it is often the small details like well paced courses, enough time to enjoy some cocktails without being “forced” to start the tasting menu and attentive but unintrusive service which you see surprisingly seldom even at higher end restaurants that set the tone for great service. If there was perhaps one minor quibble than even though the current dining room feels less stuffy than on our last visit it was surprising to see that they used booths with very high backrests close to the kitchen to separate the dining room from the kitchen instead of creating a dining room with an open kitchen which would bring a much better dynamic and liveliness to the restaurant.
It will be interesting to see how Chef McCabe will position Delicias as a restaurant in the near future. He has to find a balance to keep the regular menu interesting but not too unusual to attract his regular customers in Rancho Santa Fe but at the same time also create creative dishes to expand the influence of Delicias beyond being just a neighborhood restaurant. Perhaps he might take a similar approach as Chef Foshee at Georges in La Jolla who has an interesting regular menu to satisfy his regular customers but also more recently started TBL3, a special tasting menu, which gained a lot of attention for his restaurant far beyond San Diego. Using a tasting menu like we experienced with Chef McCabe will be the right step to make Delicias such a destination restaurant.
6106 Paseo Delicias
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
(858) 756-8000

August 26, 2012

Cocktail 101: Harvey Wallbanger

It is always very interesting to visit cocktail bars or read one of the cocktail books like “Joy of Mixology” and to be initially surprised by the sheer amount of diverse cocktail recipes. When you start diving into the world of cocktails one expects a rather limited number of cocktails. At the beginning it appears as if there are only a few hard liquors like gin, vodka, bourbon or tequila and some additives like bitters or syrups and those can only be combined in a limited fashion. But it doesn’t take long to realize that for example one gin doesn’t taste the same as another gin and that there are numerous bitters and syrups with different flavor profiles. Similar to the market driven cuisine of restaurants more and more mixologists also create market driven cocktails with house-made bitters and other additives which opens up a large world of unique ingredients for all kinds of cocktails. And so instead of a rather limited number of possible cocktails the vast amount of different ingredients appear more like a huge matrix of possible combinations and a near infinite number of cocktails.
Despite a large number of possible combinations and the “everything goes with everything” attitude there are still some liqueurs which seem to exist for just one specific cocktail. Galliano is a liqueur originally created in 1896 in Livorno, Italy and named after an Italian army officer who became famous during the first Italo-Ethiopian war. Galliano has a quite large number of ingredients ranging from star anise, vanilla to ginger, juniper, lavender and citrus. Neutral grain spirit is first infused with these herbs and then vanilla before finally mixed with water and sugar. This yields a liqueur which has a strong sweet anise flavor with some more subtle vanilla and herbal notes. Even though there is more than just one Galliano containing cocktail known everybody associates this liqueur with the Harvey Wallbanger.
As with every famous cocktail name there are many different stories about the origin of the name. Starting from the legend that mixologist Donato Antone created this drink at his Blackwatch Bar to cheer up a surfer called Harvey after a lost competition and after a few of the drinks the surfer collided with the wall. Another variation claims that the drink was invented on a party by Bill Doner and that a guest later banged his head against the wall and blamed it on the drink. Perhaps the most boring but at the same time most likely one is that the name is the idea of the Galliano marketing team when challenged to come up with the cocktail which showcases the liqueur. This simple cocktail indeed nicely emphasizes the herbal character of the Galliano as the vodka and the orange juice stay more in the background. The Harvey Wallbanger is a good cocktail to slowly sip in the evening after a long day as it is refreshing but at the same time has some complexity by the Galliano.
Add orange juice to tall glass, half-filled with ice cubes
Add vodka
Float Galliano on top by carefully pouring it over the back of a spoon. Decorate glass with orange wedge
Recipe adapted from “500 Cocktails”
Serves 1
Ice cubes
60 ml (2 fl oz) Vodka
120 ml (4 fl oz) freshly squeezed orange juice
15 ml (0.5 fl oz) Galliano
Orange wedge

July 22, 2012

Wolvesmouth Dinner (San Diego) – 6-Course Tasting Menu in a Penthouse

Celebrities are often part of advertisement campaigns as ad agencies tend to believe that people attracted to those celebrities will also decide to buy products used by them. Most of these celebrities often come from the show or music business and only more recently, mainly since the success of the Food Network channel, we have started to see chefs as main characters in some advertisements. Most of these celebrity chefs, like Mario Batali or Bobby Flay, have become such household names even to people who are not really interested in food that their images somehow got detached from cooking itself.  Customers recognize them as being involved with cooking but most people will have problems to actually specify in more detail what kind of cuisine and cooking they represent. At the same time in today’s world of increasing importance of a diverse set of social media, ad agencies have recognized that it might have many advantages to do more focused ad campaigns addressing only a selected subset of potential customers. Using this approach also means that the “face” of the product doesn’t have to have such a broad recognition throughout the population but that he/she has to have a connection with the product. Instead of using for example a mainstream music band a more unknown band with a unique music style might be more attractive - or instead of celebrity chefs choosing chefs which are actually cooking and trying to push the boundaries of their cuisine.

There is of course a large number of excellent restaurants and chefs in Southern California but to stand out nowadays it is necessary to have a very unique, creative cooking style but also noticeable business model beyond your “standard” restaurant. Over the last few years three chefs have shown for us this distinction – Ludo Lefebvre with his pop-up restaurant LudoBites, Laurent Quenioux with the different incarnation of Bistro LQ and Craig Thornton (also known as Wolvesmouth) with his Underground Dinner Series. Born in Orange County Craig Thornton started going into the cooking business by working and learning from Thomas McLaughlin at Serratto in Portland/Oregon. He subsequently went to cooking school at Western Culinary and started to work at some restaurants including Bouchon in Las Vegas and as private chef for Nicolas Cage.  Over the years he more and more realized that the conventional way of serving dinners in a restaurant setting isn’t the best way to fully explore his creative visions and so over time he developed his own Underground Dinner Series at his own loft in LA also known as Wolvesden. These turn out to be more or less very exclusive dinner parties for 12 people each time and are some of the most sought-after reservations.  Craig is doing most of the shopping, prepping, and cooking by himself with some help from friends and since the first time we have seen descriptions and pictures of one of his tasting menus we were more than interested to participate in one of those nights.

A few weeks ago we were contacted by David Brigandi from Edelman that Chef Thornton teamed up with a well known beer brand (“most interesting man in the world” – Dos Equis) and that they were planning to have a few private dinners with a six course tasting menu in San Diego reminiscent of the Underground Dinners during Comic-Con and if we would be interested to join. It didn’t take much contemplating and we immediately accepted the invitation.

The dinner took place at a penthouse in Little Italy close to State Street. Once you entered the building you were greeted and escorted to the private elevator for the penthouse. The elevator opened up to one long room which had two large tables in the center. Before the dinner started the about 30 guests had the chance to mingle and have some small talk with a sitar player providing relaxing background music.

Not surprisingly the penthouse had floor to ceiling windows and even though it was already late night just seeing the myriads of lights from downtown to Little Italy to Point Loma gave you already a good idea about the fantastic view one would have during the day.

The kitchen was unexpected meagerly equipped for such a large dinner and Craig mentioned when we talked before the dinner that he had to improvise and that this kitchen wasn’t by far on the same level as he is used to in his Wolvesden. Two pieces he brought with him was an immersion circulator and a deep fryer. Outside on the patio was also a grill which would play a role in our first course.

1st Course: Ribeye cap, grilled spring onion, pimento cheese, fritter, sweet 100, arugula
Normally tasting menu start slowly with some light first courses but Craig decided to go full steam ahead already with his first course. Ribeye cap is perhaps one of the most overlooked cuts of beef in a restaurant setting. Also known as “butchers butter” it combines the best of both worlds by having the great flavor of a ribeye and the tenderness of a filet. In this dish it was even elevated more by being expertly finished on the grill to give it the right amount of smoky flavor – clearly discernable but not overwhelming the natural beef flavor. The homemade pimento cheese was a fitting companion with its slight heat and creaminess. Pimento cheese is often paired with grits which here took the form of some fritters. The sweet 100 completed the dish with their bursts of sweetness. Overall a really great start to the tasting menu.

2nd Course: Corn soup, crab, agretti, buttermilk, jalapeno, corn
Summer time is also peak time for some of our favorite produce, like corn. Now is the time when fresh corn has this characteristic sweetness and freshness you can’t get from frozen or canned versions. Craig with his market driven cooking approach not surprisingly decided to showcase corn in one of his dishes. Smooth corn soup with some subtle tartness from the buttermilk was the foundation for this chowder-like dish. The crab pieces were a natural addition to it and the corn kernels added some texture to the dish. The inclusion of agretti was interesting and the first time that we tasted this well-sought after Italian vegetable with its acidity.

3rd Course: Halibut, gnocchi, squash, zucchini, zucchini blossom, tomato, pesto ricotta
This was an Italian inspired dish with the different components well executed in itself and pure, unadulterated flavors – moist, flaky fish, lightly grilled vegetables, sweet tomatoes, Roman-style gnocchi with the earthiness from the semolina. What brought this dish together was the pesto. The saltiness and vibrant freshness of the pesto paired well with every single other component on the plate and so you dipped everything into the pesto before you ate it. At the same time the pesto was balanced enough that it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors but just amplified them - one of the highlights of the night.

4th Course: Romano beans, yellow French beans, haricots verts, peach, potato, beet, pistachio, coffee soil, nectarine, saba, lemon oil, horseradish
It’s a good trend to see more and more chefs not shying away from focusing on produce alone as key driver for a creative dish and ignoring meats altogether, and Craig is no exception. Here we had a selection of different types of beans with different textures and flavors accompanied by peaches, potatoes and beets to broaden the flavor spectrum. The pistachios and the ubiquitous “soil” (it seems every upscale place currently uses some homemade soil on their menu) provided some textural balance to the dish. Similar to the pesto in the previous course the horseradish cream tied this plate together.

5th Course: Pork belly, avocado, grilled pineapple, radish, sopes
An interesting and successful take on a deconstructed taco – sous-vide pork belly which was so tender that you didn’t need a knife, sopes for the masa flavor of the tortillas and different fillings like pineapple, avocado and radish. The sauce was a surprising mix of pork reduction, burnt tomatoes, ginger, soy sauce and pineapple juice which combined to a very complex taste covering sweet, sour, salty and tart.

6th Course: Tres leches cake, dehydrated strawberries, strawberry pop rocks, green tea-lime cream
The tasting menu was completed by a tres leches cake which itself would have been an adequate finish. Dehydrating the strawberries helped to intensify their flavor and sweetness and the green tea-lime cream with its tartness ensured that the dessert didn’t end up overly sweet.

There is always some skepticism going to such kind of dinners where you don’t know anybody or if they are even interested in food and facing the possibility of just an advertising event. But reality couldn’t be further from these doubts. The night turned out to be a very relaxing event where people with very different backgrounds, most of them connected through Comic Con, had a chance to experience interesting conversations and unique, creative food. It was interesting to see that such a broad range of personalities, covering screen writers, comic book artists, actors, engineers, former NFL players etc., had no problems to immediately connect. It was also interesting to experience that even though we had many interesting discussions covering movies, books, art and science the conversation always circled back to food once we had a new course in front of us – the unifying power of creative, thought-provoking food.

We had the chance to talk to Craig Thornton before the dinner and got some ideas about the logistics to set up the tasting menu in San Diego as he had to transport all the ingredients from his trusted vendors at the Wednesday Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica by refrigerated truck. He also explained that he got no limitations for this dinner in San Diego about what dishes he would cook but at the same time also admitted that some of them might not have the same level of uniqueness as he would normally present at his regular dinners in LA. And this also reflects our impression of the dinner – a successful night with creative and interesting courses covering some unusual flavor combinations but compared to some of the reports and pictures we read and saw about his LA dinners he seemed to hold back a bit and played safer than usual which is not surprising considering the circumstances of the dinner. For us it was more of a teaser to experience his cuisine for a first time and raised our interest even more, and we see this dinner as a prelude to a real Wolvesmouth dinner in the Wolvesden in the future.

June 9, 2012

Evolve Cuisine (San Diego) – “Explore your Senses” Tasting Menu

Trends in the food world are no different than trends in other parts of life. Some of them evolve over time and become part of the mainstream food world like “farm-to-table”. Today hardly any restaurant doesn’t use some kind of play on the theme of farm-to table to describe their approach towards ingredients and dishes. And even though the concept gets overused by now it also describes a pleasant development of a stronger consciousness of restaurants and customers alike towards a more thoughtful approach regarding sourcing of ingredients. Some other trends get so overhyped that they become more of a stigma than description so that they slowly fade away and only might reappear under a completely different premise as it happened with molecular gastronomy. One of the big buzzwords of the restaurant world in the 90s with pioneers like Ferran Adria, it became more and more a cuss word for restaurants who didn’t understand the original intend but forgot that the quality of the final dish is key to a successful restaurant not the abundant use of new fancy techniques. Over time many of the techniques and tools used during the molecular gastronomy heydays became standard tools of many advanced kitchens like, sous-vide, vacuum sealer, different stabilizers and enzymes and are used today without much reluctance. Chefs using these modern tools understand by now that these are just tools to achieve a better dish and not their main focus. This new attitude was also captured by the seminal work of Nathan Myhrvold and his team who wrote the book which labeled this field – Modernist Cuisine.

We have seen quite a few restaurants in San Diego using tools from the modernist cuisine arsenal and incorporating it in very impressive ways, like at Blanca, Georges and Kitchen 1540 by using for example sous-vide, liquid nitrogen or transglutaminase to name a few. But at the same time none of these restaurants strongly advertised their use of these tools as they were just aids to achieve their final dishes. And so it was just a matter of time until the first chef in San Diego would use a more “direct” way to clearly advertise his work as part of the Modernist Cuisine movement – Evolve Cuisine.

Evolve Cuisine is the brainchild of Chef Daniel Barron. We first heard about Chef Barron when we read about his work at Anqi in Costa Mesa which is an Asian Fusion restaurant that also offered special molecular gastronomy tasting menus at their chefs table. He got his start into the culinary world through the American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Program at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, Michigan before he worked successfulyl in a number of restaurants in Nashville (Mad Platter), New York (Cesca) and Atlantic City (Donald Trump’s Premier Casino Restaurant). More recently he moved to San Diego to take a position as Executive Chef at Blue Point Costal Cuisine where, similar to Anqi, a special molecular gastronomy tasting menu was offered on request beside the regular standard menu. Finally beginning of this year he decided to be able to create dishes without any restrictions in a conventional restaurant setting and started Evolve Cuisine to focus on the “culinary intersection of modernist cuisine and fresh, organic fare”. Chef Barron is working at Evolve cuisine together with Pastry Chef Jeff Bonilla, who is best known in San Diego for his work with Cups and as Executive Pastry Chef at Kitchen 1540, and Mike Yen, mixologist who worked at Nine-Ten, Avenue 5 and Kitchen 1540.

Evolve Cuisine is at this point not planned as a restaurant but as a catering service which uses the currently highly popular pop-up concept to promote its ideas, dishes and philosophy. The most recent incarnation of the Evolve pop-up was focused on exploring the senses” with a 7-course tasting menu at Fixtures Living.

Fixtures Living is during the day an interesting place to buy furniture for kitchen, bath and outdoor but not the first place you think about for a pop-up restaurant. As it turns out the space is very well suited for such an event with its few communal tables, several small booths and bar. It’s a beautiful open space which allowed a lot of interaction between the guests.

The open kitchen gave everybody the chance to see the chef and his team preparing and plating the different courses.

Amuse Bouche 1: Duck confit ravioli
The night started with a reception and three amuse bouches prepared by the three cooks helping Chef Barron throughout the night. The first one was a deep-fried ravioli filled with duck confit. The ample duck confit had a good but delicate flavor which was easily overshadowed by the fried pasta dough. The amuse bouche would have been more successful if the pasta wouldn’t have been deep-fried to let the duck confit shine. So the dish had mainly the ubiquitous flavor of deep fried food.

Amuse Bouche 2:  Smoked duck breast
If there is one kind of utensil which symbolizes best what went wrong with molecular gastronomy it is any kind of syringe – unwieldy, awkward to use in a restaurant setting, doesn’t add anything to any dish and should simply be forbidden to be used by any chef. This amuse bouche proved the point as the idea of combining smoked duck breast, bing cherries and coconut milk was interesting but the execution lacked and it was hard to get a good taste of all the components.

Amuse Bouche 3: Seared Yellowfin tuna
For us clearly the most successful amuse bouche of the night – Conceptually a simple dish with some seared tuna and a yuzu based aioli but the flavors of the fish and the aioli nicely came together to form a very tasty bite which we would have liked to have as a larger portion.

Cocktail 1: Tequila shooter
Mike Yen also prepared two excellent small cocktails to go with the amuse-bouches during the reception. The tequila shooter resembled visually a hefeweizen beer but also the flavors reminded us of this class of beers with its slight fruitiness and subdued tartness.

Cocktail 2: Cranberry-lime Cosmopolitan
The Cosmopolitan was slightly on the sweet side but nicely balanced by the encapsulated cranberry and lime juice. A good play on this classical cocktail and we couldn’t resist to ask for seconds.

1st Course: Smell – Crab consommé, sweet pea, truffle
For this dish we were instructed to pour the broth over the peas and pea shots and stir everything. By this, one created a kind of chowder with a wonderful mix of truffle and crab aroma. The flavor of the liquid resembled the heady aroma with a very delectable taste of the crustaceans which was never overwhelmed by the truffle flavor. The balance between both flavors was impressive. The peas delivered a welcomed textural counterpoint and made this dish to one of the highlights of the tasting menu.

2nd Course: Sight – Sculpin, honeysuckle, red chile
Sculpins, also known as scorpion fish, are very unusual looking creatures and even though we weren’t served a whole one this dish was a good example for mildly flavor fish. This piece of fish was lightly coated but the crust didn’t interfere with the flavor of the sculpin. Both sauces, one of them characterized from Chef Barron as an Asian-inspired pesto, accompanying the fish had some Asian influences and the red chile added some heat to the dish. The dish would have benefited from another component, like a vegetable, otherwise it was too protein heavy and felt one-dimensional.

3rd Course: Sound – Lavender, pork jowl, mustard
Some grassfed beef, smoked, sous-vided and then seared, was the foundation of the dish. It was combined with pork jowl, starting point of guanciale, mustard green and a lavender based vinaigrette to yield an impressive salad which only had the “mistake” of being too small. The pop rock made from mustard were a nice gimmick but didn’t add much to the dish.

4th Course: Touch – Chicken liver, ahi, pumpernickel, peach
With the controversy around foie gras in California and a few protesters somewhere outside Chef Barron decided to rename all foie gras into “chicken liver” for the evening. Here the foie gras was incorporated into a panna cotta which still had the characteristic taste of the foie gras but at the same time made it particular light. Pairing foie gras with ahi is quite unusual but due to the lightness of the foie gras panna cotta this combination worked really well as the foie gras didn’t overwhelm the fish. The pieces of peach brought some burst of fruitiness and sweetness and completed the dish.

Cocktail Intermezzo: Acid rain
Mixologist Mike Yen introduced another one of his creations midway through the tasting menu. In addition to having a nice flavor profile with strong notes on lemongrass and some sweetness from the pink cotton candy rose which slowly dissolved in the cocktail the visual aspect of the cocktail was also entertaining – once you poured the cocktail over the small rocks in the glass you created some “fog” from the dry ice.

5th Course: Taste – Beef cheek, uni, fava beans
This course showed again the advantages of sous-vide cooking. Instead of braising the beef cheeks which would result in tender meat with a more fibrous texture cooking it sous-vide gave an equally tender meat but with a much more satisfying texture resembling a steak. The beef checks were paired nicely with some grits made out of hominy and pumpernickel and a sauce created from uni and eel as two main components -a strong dish and one of the highlights of the night.

6th Course: Sensory overload – Duck confit, spot prawn, blackberry, horseradish
Chef Barron described this dish as using every part of the duck – the spot prawn was filled with duck confit accompanied by some seared foie gras, dried duck sausage and a blackberry sauce. Even though the different components were executed well this dish also showed what happens if you are using too many techniques just for the sake of it. The dried duck sausage didn’t add anything to the flavor and had a distracting texture but would have been much more enjoyable if it wouldn’t have been unnecessarily dried. This dish also was again too protein-heavy and felt unbalanced, some non-protein components would have helped the dish.

7th Course: Dessert – Watermelon, prosciutto, basil, love & break dancing
Pastry Chef Bonilla mentioned that he wanted to capture different parts of summer and the dish indeed included variations on ingredients which are associated with summer and its grilling season – grilled corncake, candy prosciutto, caramelized goat cheese, lemon air and watermelon semifreddo. All components of this dessert came nicely together and created a great finale of the tasting menu. Especially the watermelon semifreddo was exceptional and so it was no surprise that an extra portion of it was successfully requested at our table.

We went to this tasting menu from Evolve Cuisine with little expectations and were even a little bit skeptical if we would witness an evening where technique trumps flavor and creativity. But we came away quite impressed from this night and enjoyed the whole experience a lot. Starting from the location with its communal tables which created a nice setting for interesting conversations to the professional but yet pleasant service to the good pacing of the menu. But most importantly the food presented throughout the night turned out to be creative, well executed and used all kinds of techniques just trying to achieve the best flavors for any dish. It was good to see another new chef in San Diego who could bring new creativity and culinary momentum to this city which recently lost some of its best chefs. If there could have been perhaps one improvement to this tasting menu it would be that Chef Barron tended to cook quite protein-focused but those dishes which had more vegetables and other components, like the consommé, mustard green salad and beef cheeks, were the highlights of the night and hopefully he can extend this to all of his dishes. Evolve Cuisine positions itself as focusing on modernist cuisine and even though they use, like many other chefs, modern techniques advertising themselves in this direction might limit their customer base. Buzzwords like modernist cuisine might attract a few foodies but still discourage many other potential guests and it also doesn’t do dishes of Evolve Cuisine justice enough. They should instead describe themselves as what they are – a team of very talented chefs focusing on developing creative, well executed dishes exploring new flavor combinations. Even though Evolve Cuisine won’t have any pop-up events until fall we are already looking forward to visit them again in the future and take part in their culinary journey.

(239) 287-5463

April 30, 2012

Pork and Tomatillo Stew – Cooking with “Green Tomatoes”

If you read a tourist guide of San Diego or just walk through the streets of some of the more popular neighborhoods like North Park or Hillcrest you get the impression that the culinary scene of this city covers a wide variety of restaurants. There are many variations of “Western” influenced restaurants, like Italian or French but also many “Asian“ restaurants ranging from Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese to Thai. You will also find many unique restaurants using the outstanding produce of this region and showcasing the world class beer scene of San Diego but one cuisine is strangely at the same time under- as well as overrepresented in San Diego – Mexican. San Diego is in a unique location as it forms a large bi-national/transborder community with Tijuana and one would expect that this would also have a significant impact on the variety of the Mexican cuisine in San Diego. You can find some kind of taco shop at nearly every street or shopping mall in San Diego but otherwise one would get the impression that the Mexican diet only consists of tacos and burritos and hardly anything else. There are a few unique Mexican restaurants throughout San Diego representing less Americanized versions of Mexican food but it took us quite some time to realize it before we slowly started to explore it. The books from Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless were very helpful guides to get a better understanding of the vast variety of regional culinary differences in Mexico and its unique use of unusual ingredients and flavors not often found in Western and Asian cuisines.
If you visit one of the ubiquitous taco shops in San Diego you will always find a salsa bar to dress up your tacos or burritos and part of it will be some kind of salsa verde. Salsa verde has often a very interesting and complex flavor including some tartness with floral undertones. One of the key ingredients for salsa verde are tomatillos, one of these unusual ingredients associated with Mexico and not found as much in other cuisines. Tomatillos might look like green unripe tomatoes and both plants belong to the nightshade family but tomatillos are actually related to cape gooseberries.

Tomatillos with their unusual papery husk were domesticated by the Aztecs more than three thousand years ago and remained all the time an important food staple in this region. The culinary use of tomatillos is quite broad ranging from raw as a salad ingredient to jams and marmelades to cooked in stews and sauces for meats. For our first own use of tomatillos we decided to cook them appropriately in a Mexican inspired Pork and Tomatillo Stew.

Instead of using only tomatillos in the braising liquid as the main flavor component we decided to go for a more complex flavor profile supporting and at the same time balancing out the tartness and fruitiness of the tomatillos by incorporating tomatoes, orange juice and beer into the stew. The pork turned out to be as fork tender as expected in such a stew but initially the stew overall had a stronger tartness than expected and the desired counterbalancing fruitiness was subdued and hardly noticeable. One of the golden rules of braising is to rest stews overnight so that the flavors can blend together but we hardly ever do it with our stews as we don’t think that the overall flavor improves significantly. But the exception proves the rule as with this stew it was critical to rest it overnight. Eaten on the same day the stew was good but nothing exceptional. Once we reheated it the next day all the flavors came together and we had a wonderful balanced stew without any overwhelming tartness. It made for a very satisfying Mexican influenced dinner when served together with rice and lime-spiked sour cream.

Combine tomatillos, tomatoes, beer and orange juice in a pot bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Heat oil in pot over medium high heat, add garlic and cook for two minutes until garlic is golden brown.

Add pork in batches and cook for 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until brown, remove to bowl.

Add onions to pot over medium heat and cook for 8 minutes.

Add tomatillo mixture, pork, cilantro, jalapeno, 1 tsp salt and ½ tsp black pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer partially covered for two hours.

Season stew with salt and pepper. Add kidney beans and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Mix lime juice with sour cream and serve stew with white rice and sour cream.

Recipe adapted from “Gourmet Today”
Serves 6
900 g (2 lbs) boneless pork should, cut into 1.5 inch cubes
4 tbsp canola oil
8 garlic cloves, peeled
350 ml (12 ounces) Chimay Red
450 g (1 lb) tomatillos, husked, washed and quartered
1 can (28 oz) whole tomatoes, drained, juice reserved and chopped
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, leaves and stems chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
1 can (16 oz) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 tbsp lime juice
225 g (8 oz) sour cream

February 27, 2012

Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (San Francisco) – Belated Farewell with a 9-Course Tasting Menu

Travel time – the best time to indulge in one of our favorite hobbies. There is hardly any day when we don’t talk about our next potential trip, and for us arranging and planning a journey is already part of the fun. First we will have long discussions where we should go next going back and forth between new destinations we haven’t visited before and revisiting places we liked a lot but never feel we have visited extensively enough. Once we decide on a place the next question circles around how we will get there – driving/flying directly or should we travel slowly with several stopovers to get to know even more locations. But the most extensive planning is always around the time at the destination itself. Starting with finding the best hotels and reading many travel review pages the most time is spent on finding the most unique points of interest and best places to eat.

There are many different ways to explore the culinary scene of any city – starting from discussion boards as Chowhound and eGullet, local newspapers to the numerous food blogs every part of the world seems to have by now. And so it is rather easy to come up with a very long list of interesting restaurants covering a wide range of cuisines for every city, but the hard part is to decide how to prioritize this list to make a final decision on the restaurants. As much as we like to explore new places there are a few cities we visit quite regularly – Los Angeles and Las Vegas are fairly close to San Diego and we go to them, especially Los Angeles, many times every year. One city which isn’t as close by but we really started to enjoy the moment we visited it for the first time several years ago is San Francisco. Over the years we kind of lost our heart to San Francisco and hope to live there at one time but until then we try to visit the city at least once a year. There are many attractive features about San Francisco far beyond just food but the vast culinary scene of the city has always attracted us and makes the selection of the restaurants for each visit fun and painful at the same time. We always try to find the right balance between the many different ethnic restaurants often with unique regional places, e.g. diverse Italian restaurants from different regions, old-established places, like Chez Panisse and high-end places with unique tasting menus. On one of our last trips we were contemplating a number of places with more conventional tasting menus to add to our mix of restaurants for that particular trip. Some of the restaurants we were considering were Gary Danko, Campton Place or Murray Circle but in the end we decided to go for the 9-course tasting menu at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton.

One of the aspects which attracted us to the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton was its chef Ron Siegel. He has a quite interesting and impressive background with many diverse influences throughout his career covering several well known and influential mentors. Born in New York he moved as a child to San Francisco and started to work as a butcher at John’s Town and Country Market in Palo Alto when he was 16. During the next several years he worked at several different jobs outside of the culinary world like construction and maintenance but finally decided to focus on his culinary passion and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy. In 1991 he found his first mentor with George Morrone, opening chef of Aqua, and worked under him for two years as a line cook. Morrone was also responsible for helping Siegel to find a position at Daniel in New York under the guidance Chef Daniel Boulud. It was here that he met one of his key mentors with Thomas Keller who was in the process of opening the French Laundry and hired Chef Siegel as the opening sous chef. The successful start of the French Laundry facilitated his first position as executive chef at Charles Nob Hill focusing on the fusion of French and California cuisine. After five years he moved to Masa’s in San Francisco as the executive chef before in 2004 he took over the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. Throughout his career Chef Siegel had a strong foundation from French cuisine which he combined with different other influences. Perhaps the most unusual one, Japanese, came through the one event which made him famous far beyond the close circle of foodies – becoming the first US chef in 1998 winning Iron Chef Japan in a battle using lobster against Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai. All these features combined let us hope to be in for an exciting and unusual tasting menu at the Dining Room.

The restaurant is located inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco which opened 20 years ago but is located in a more than a century old building. The hallways inside the hotel towards the restaurant are fittingly decorated to match the history of the landmark building.

The interior of the restaurant continues the theme from outside and looks very much like a restaurant from the 50s or 60s with very old fashioned décor. Once we entered the restaurant we significantly lowered the average age of the guests...

Even our seats had covers which we had last seen in one of the old movies. Overall we weren’t expecting that the Ritz-Carlton and its restaurant would be outfitted overly modern but were still surprised how old fashioned and partly also worn everything looked.

Pomegranate Martini and Old Fashioned
As always we wanted to start the night with some cocktails but that caught the restaurant a bit by surprise as they didn’t even have a cocktail menu/list but were willing to mix us something. The pomegranate juice gave the martini a good balance between sweetness and some sourness. The old fashioned was one of the better versions we had in quite some time. This cocktail often tends to be unbalanced either focusing too much on the interplay of sugar and bitters or the bourbon. In this version all three components could easily be tasted but at the same time worked perfectly together to be a true cocktail where the sum is greater than its parts.

Amuse Bouche 1: Pastry, white bean paste
Somehow this amuse bouche appeared like a reminiscence to the famed Gougères at French Laundry but with a nod to Asian influence due to the white bean paste - a simple but nice start to the tasting menu.

Amuse Bouche 2: Nantucket scallops, shaved fennel
Good interplay between the raw anise-flavored fennel and the sweetness of the scallops. The fennel also had a nice textural contrast to the soft scallops.

Amuse Bouche 3: Poached quail egg, prosciutto, white truffle, brioche
Classical breakfast pairing of runny egg with some prosciutto and white truffle shavings. Lightly toasted brioche sticks to soak up the white truffle infused egg yolk – unfortunately the egg yolk was completely set and not runny so that a key component of the dish was missing. It was quite disappointing that a kitchen on that level had problems to serve a poached egg.

1st Course: Sashimi of Kampachi, yuzu gelee, asian pear marinade
This dish clearly showed the Japanese influences from Chef Siegel. Flawless Hawaiian yellowtail with its mild flavor and buttery, tender texture was paired with the delicate sweetness of the Asian pear and the unmistakable complex citrus and floral flavor of yuzu. A dish you could also find in a better sushi place.

2nd Course: Abalone, shiitake mushrooms, chard, dashi broth
Abalone harvest season in California has very tight regulations due to the dwindling population over a long time and so you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Abalone had a mild slightly sweet flavor with a not overly rubbery texture. The dashi broth enhanced the maritime flavor of the dish whereas we hoped to get some bitterness from the chard but it was hardly noticeable and didn’t add much to the dish which appeared a bit one-dimensional.

3rd Course: Black cod, elephant garlic, shortrib ravioli, watermelon radish
Pairing braised meats with fish is getting more and more common in recent times and to avoid that the braised shortribs overpower the delicate black cod Chef Siegel tamed the braised meat by using it as a filling for the ravioli. The pasta acts as a buffer between the flavors of the meat and fish and allows both of them to shine. The elephant garlic added a very mild garlic flavor to the dish whereas the braised watermelon radish just offered some texture to the dish.

4th Course: Lobster, marina di chiogga squash puree, sunchoke chips, red wine shallots
The tender lobster and the squash puree paired nicely but both ingredients have naturally a sweet component which rendered this dish on the overly sweet side. The shallots brought some welcomed slight bitterness but overall the dish was missing some balance.

5th Course: Hot foie gras, huckleberries, brioche, rome apple juice with longpepper
A large piece of foie gras with the wonderful buttery and livery flavor one expects, expertly prepared with a slight smokey, crunchy exterior. The sides covered the well known spectrum of sweet ingredients to counteract the richness of foie gras but stayed only within established culinary boundaries. More and more chefs try, especially in tasting menus, to present unusual pairings of ingredients to explore new culinary areas. We wished that Chef Siegel would have tried something more unusual here otherwise this dish felt like a foie gras dish we had in many tasting menus before.

6th Course: Quail, salsify, pomegranate, matsutake, Madera sauce
One of the dishes were we saw some attempts to bridge French and Japanese flavors. Quail and salsify with the Madera sauce were classical French cuisine whereas the matsutake mushroom, even though often picked at the US West coast, is strongly associated with Japanese cooking. The strong, meaty matsutake flavor went well with the quail and the pomegranate seeds added a nice tartness and some texture. Overall one of the stronger dishes of the night.

7th Course: Beef ribeye, celery root, porcini mushrooms, sancho pepper reduction
Another dish which was very well executed on a technical level with perfectly medium rare and tender ribeye but paired, here with porcini mushrooms, celery root, potatoes, as we have seen it many times before. The sancho pepper reduction didn’t really add much to the dish and so it felt like a déjà vu with prior tasting menus.

8th Course: Cheese selection, bread, condiments
Normally we expect in such high-end restaurants that it is possible to select a few cheeses from a cheese cart. Unfortunately here at the Dining Room no cheese cart was to be seen and the selection was made for us. The bread was just regular baguette with the condiments just a few slices of apple and some almonds – one of the more disappointing cheese courses.

Intermezzo: Persimmon sorbet, carrot granite
Refreshing and unusual combination between persimmon and carrot with the vegetable providing the sweet component whereas the fruit added some tartness. A surprising palate cleanser which we wished to be much larger.

9th Course: Chocolate-layered cake, vanilla ice cream, pineapple puree, gingerbread cake, pear sorbet, caramel sauce
Dessert came with two variations of cake - both of them moist and not too heavy but also not too far from the expected norm. The dessert was lightened up by some fruit sorbet and puree but overall followed the theme of the savory courses – well made on a technical level but it felt like we had the same course in many tasting menus before.

We finished the tasting menu with an espresso

As much as we had hoped for a cheese cart we were surprised about the large selection on the mignardises cart and were able to taste a large selection of their very good sweets.

Ritz-Carlton hotels are not really known as edgy, modern places but once we entered the hotel we were surprised how old-fashioned everything looked and started wondering how much the Dining Room would fit in. Part of the fascination of every great restaurant is not only the cuisine and service but also the ambience which should form a coherent unit with the philosophy of the chef. Chef Siegel’s reputation was letting us to expect a tasting menu anchored in French cuisine but with modern interpretations, often including Japanese influences, and brimming with creativity. The technical execution of many dishes revealed indeed the strong French cuisine background of Chef Siegel and was mostly on a high level, perhaps with the major exception of the failed poached egg. But what we were completely missing were the creativity and surprises one expects from tasting menus at this level. There were sometimes sprinkles of Japanese influences by the use of some Japanese ingredients but mostly the dishes had either a clear French or Japanese background without many efforts to create any new directions. But even the many dishes with French influences were staying very close to the expected norm without any surprises. There was hardly any dish throughout the tasting menu were we didn’t comment how they reminded us of dishes we had eaten at other occasions before, everything felt like repeats. It speaks volume that the two things we remember most from this dinner were the intermezzo, with its unusual and successful combination of persimmon and carrot, and the huge mignardises cart – both are normally only a side notes of a tasting menu.

Besides the uninspired dishes the service at the Dining Room was far from its very good reputation. Prior to our visit we often read about the flawless and polished service at the restaurant but that was different from our experience. Starting from a very rushed service at the beginning which slowed down after we asked for a more reasonable pace to servers which didn’t really know what they were serving (and had to help each other to get together all components of a dish which they were serving) the service was simply not very professional. But worst was when the maitre’d started to bad-mouthing restaurants when talking with other guests. He compared other one star Michelin restaurants in San Francisco to the Dining Room and in particular slandered about One Market and its “horrible food and service” which was quite ironic as we just ate there a few days before and had a much better experience than at the Dining Room.

It didn’t came as a surprise when some time after our visit to the Dining Room we read that Chef Siegel was closing the restaurant to renovate and reopen it under a different name and different, more casual, concept. On one side we particularly enjoy restaurants which offer tasting menus and so seeing another one closing or changing its direction wasn’t encouraging. But at the same we felt that the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton was clearly past its prime and was in need of a readjustment. Perhaps this new concept will give Chef Siegel the opportunity to go back to his roots of creative cooking.

600 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 296-7465