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.