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.