March 21, 2015

9-Course Tasting Menu at Solare (San Diego)

The origin of tasting menus is quite obscure and there are many different theories going as far back as to the Ancient Greeks and Romans who have been reported to serve multi-course menu consisting of 16-20 dishes. Individual courses might not have been as sophisticated as those of today’s cuisine, but these “tasting menus” already showed a similar progression that we are used to seeing today. Another important historic influence were traditional Japanese Kaiseki menus with their specific order, focus on seasonality, and elaborate presentations, highly reminiscent of today’s Western tasting menus - Thomas Keller cites them as a significant influence as “the Kaiseki dinner is very similar to the way we serve food in the French Laundry”. Over the last century, tasting menus were heavily influenced by French cuisine, and Escoffier is often credited as having “invented” tasting menus in modern times while working at the Ritz hotels. The French influence is also apparent with chefs like Paul Bocuse in France, and Thomas Keller in the US, who were both at the forefront to establish tasting menus at their restaurants and who thereby had a tremendous influence on later generations of chefs. Tasting menus present a unique opportunity for chefs to represent their individual cuisine and philosophy. However, except for French restaurants and those influenced by Modernist Cuisine, tasting menus are not that common to find on other types of cuisine.

Chef Accursio Lota was born in Menfi, a small town in Sicily, and was exposed to fresh ingredients and cooking early on in life as both his mother and grandmother used fruits and vegetables from their own garden, fish from the local sea, and olive oil harvested and produced from their own olive trees. So it seems like a natural progression that he ended up graduating from culinary school. One of his most influential, early mentors was Chef Sergio Mei at the Four Seasons Hotel Milan where Chef Lota was able to dive deep into the Italian culinary tradition. But Chef Mei was also instrumental in motivating him to move to California to work at the Biltmore Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara which gave him a different perspective to cooking. Not unlike in Sicily, the Biltmore kitchen also focused on local produce with Mediterranean flavors, but it also incorporated numerous other influences from the melting pot of California. In 2009, he returned to Sicily to work as Sous Chef at Hotel Imperiale in Taormina where, for the first time, he had the culinary freedom to develop his own style. In 2011, Chef Lota moved back to California to join Chefs Guillas and Oliver as Sous Chef at the Marine Room which gave him a wide exposure to fusion cooking. In 2012, he decided to fine tune his personal cooking style even more by starting Limone, an underground restaurant, focusing on multicourse dinners. In the same year he accepted the offer from owner Randy Smerik to join Solare as Executive Chef.

Solare was started in 2008 by Chef Stefano Ceresoli and his wife Roberta Ruffini, but in2012 the couple decided to sell Solare to only focus on their other restaurant at that time, Caffe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach. They recently closed the latter one as well to start Piazza 1909 in La Jolla. Solare was bought by Randy Smerik, and his two sons Brian and Tommy Smerik. Randy Smerik has an unusual background for a restaurant owner as he had originally worked in the IT field for 25 years, including being a vice president at Intel, a founder and CEO of Tarari and Osunatech, but he is also on the Board of Directors for Fortaleza Tequila. Since offering Chef Lota the Executive Chef’s position at Solare, he has given him free hand to realize his cooking style which also included implementing an Italian inspired 9-course tasting menu.

Solare has a rather unique set up for their tasting menu which is served at the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table is a kitchen counter with two bar stools and a perfect view of the action in the kitchen. These types of kitchen counter/Chef’s tables are one of our favorite ways to dine as it gives you a very close look to the processes of the kitchen, and interaction of the chefs and cooks.

1st Course: Shrimp, squid, clam, zucchini carpaccio, onion confit, tomato, caperberry, dehydrated lobster broth
Three impeccable pieces of seafood were the stars of this plate and showcasing the variety of flavors and textures of seafood, ranging from tender and subtly flavored squid to soft and briny clams. Instead of the obligatory lemon, caper berries, tomatoes and onion confit added some desired acidity to the dish. The dehydrated lobster broth sprinkled over the seafood added some salinity and enhanced the natural flavors.

2nd Course: Squash blossom, ricotta, mint pesto, pomodoro sauce
One of the classical Italian appetizers which is often served with greasy, soggy blossoms, tasteless ricotta and drowned in sauce. Here we had a prime example how to make it right – flavorful homemade ricotta was wrapped in a delicate squash blossom which allowed us to taste the floral flavor. Small dots of slightly acidic tomato sauce and herbal, but not overpowering, mint pesto helped to accentuate the dish yet provided a playful way to mix and match different flavor combinations so that every bite was different – a beautiful dish.

3rd Course: Carpaccio di Wagyu, wagyu beef sirloin, borrage flowers, arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary salt, balsamico pearls
The wagyu beef carpaccio had a surprisingly strong, pleasant beefy flavor, whereas the arugula provided some textural contrast, and the Parmigiano added the necessary saltiness. We liked the idea of adding the acidity by balsamico pearls instead to just some liquid amount of acetic balsamico as it was much easier to include the desired amount of balsamico in each bite which gave way to a perfect balance of salty, bitter, acidic and Umami.

4th Course: Risotto, vino bianco, scorza di limone, squid ink reduction, scallop
The risotto had the perfect consistency of creaminess with some bite from the al dente rice corns. The mixture of white wine, lemon marmalade and squid ink gave a very interesting combination of bitterness and acidity from the wine and marmalade with the savori- and saltiness of the squid ink. All these flavors worked really well with the beautifully seared scallop.

5th Course: Ravioli with ricotta & spinach, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, sea beans, pecorino
Pasta can be such a simple and yet difficult dish – just semolina, eggs and water - but rarely do you find such delicate finished pasta like in this dish - substantial yet thin enough that it didn’t overpower the filling of the homemade ricotta and spinach. The lightness of the dish continued with the accompanying vegetables like asparagus, tomatoes and sea beans. By far not the only dish where we wished we could get a second helping.

6th Course: Tuna, broccolini, fingerling potatoes, nostralina olives, limoncello, special olive oil, sea asparagus
A rather classic dish with the combination of tuna, broccolini, potatoes and olives – well executed dish with moist fish, not overcooked broccolini -  but what really elevated it was the olive oil Chef Lota added at the table – DOP Val di Mazara from his home town. A very complex olive oil with notes of pistacchio, citrus and artichoke, and a low acidity which brought the dish together.

 7th Course: Rabbit loin, carrots, kale, potato, brussel sprout, demi glace
Rabbit is often decried as being as tasteless as badly prepared chicken, but in this dish the rabbit loin had a nice distinct meaty, slightly sweet flavor which stood up surprisingly well against the other ingredients. This dish was another example of the ability of Chef Lota to create very complex but yet balanced flavor profiles in his dishes spanning from sweetness by the carrots, to bitterness by the brussel sprouts and kale, to Umami by the demi glace.

8th Course: Pistacchio crusted rack of lamb, lamb loin, potato-saffron timbale, pickled cipollini, pesto
Placing the pesto in the middle of the plate clearly indicated the overarching theme of the dish. The pesto worked equally well with all other components – lamb loin, rack of lamb and potato-saffron timbale and connected these parts to a coherent finish of the savory part of the tasting menu.

9th Course: Chocolate mousse, crispy almonds, candies pistacchios, berries, orange peel, amaretto cherry
The combination of fruits and chocolate ensured that the night didn’t end in an overly heavy dessert. The different nut preparations reminded us of some type of granola, and the dish was a continuation of the savory courses – excellent execution with very balanced flavors.

Every cuisine is associated with certain attributes which are obviously often strong generalizations since there is no such thing as a singular type of cuisine: every country has many regional or even local variations. French cooking is often described as complex and relying on technique and elaborated sauces, whereas Italian food is more focused on simpler dishes which let seasonal ingredients shine. Chef Lota impressed us with how he was able to capture this general “Italian” philosophy throughout the tasting menu, but at the same time was able to instill his own style. He presented us each course explaining the seasonality and the local farms where the ingredients came from, and with his thoughts on how the different components of the dish should work together. Focusing on few key ingredients in each dish required flawless execution of each of them. What really made all these dishes stand out, and seems to be a reflection of his style, was the complexity and yet effortlessness of the seasoning of the dishes. Many dishes had seemingly secondary components, like for example the dehydrated lobster broth or Val di Mazara oil which was essential in bringing the dishes together. Or dishes like the risotto were the combination of scorza di limone and squid ink reduction created something greater than the sum of its parts.

This tasting menu was a prime example how the menu format of a tasting menu allows a talented chef to showcase the cuisine from his/her native country, yet instilled with his/her own interpretations. We wish more chefs, especially from ethnic restaurants, would use this concept to present the many facets of their cuisines. We are looking forward to follow Chef Lota in his interpretations of Italian cuisine throughout the seasons.

Solare Ristorante
2820 Roosevelt Rd
San Diego, CA 92106
(619) 270-9670

April 22, 2014

Kitchen 1540 (San Diego) – 11-Course Tasting Menu with Chef Jonathan Bautista

The first look when deciding on the next restaurant to visit is always for the online menu to get an idea about the cooking style and creativity of the chef and how it overlaps with our preferences. But the second look often immediately follows to the personal background page of the chef. It is always very interesting to read the vita of a chef and the different restaurants and chefs he worked for during his career. Having worked for well-known chefs or in prestigious restaurants obviously doesn’t guarantee that a chef will run a good restaurant himself but at the same time it is important to have experienced and successfully worked under high-pressure environments to fully comprehend the restaurant business. And so it is fascinating to put together “family trees” of well-known chefs like Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter or Daniel Boulud to realize their far reaching impact on the dining scene in pretty much every part of the US and even beyond. But the impact of established chefs is not only apparent on the national level but can be quite strong on a local level which was nicely illustrated recently in an article about the influences of just two chefs, Daniel Patterson of Coi and David Kinch of Manresa, on the dining scene in San Francisco. Both chefs have trained and mentored many chefs over the years in their kitchens that their influence on the culinary landscape in San Francisco is undeniable through restaurants like Outerland, Commis or Rich Table but goes even to national acclaimed ice cream shops like Humphry Slocombe. The impact is perhaps best summed up by Chef Evan Rich with (Kinch and Patterson) don't only teach you to cook. They teach you how to think about food”. And it illustrates that one of the backbones of a great culinary city are strong, visionary chefs who provide environments for aspiring chefs and reasons for them to stay in that city.
San Diego might not yet have the depth as a culinary city as San Francisco which can also be explained by the missing opportunities for young chefs to grow and get mentored by such established chefs but over the last few years several chefs, like Trey Foshee, Jeff Jackson, Matt Gordon and Paul McCabe, and their restaurants have started to fill out this role. We recently had the chance to experience two former chefs, Zach Hunter and Steven Molina, who had worked under McCabe at a pop-up dinner at Delicias. Steven Molina has since then moved to Sea & Smoke to run the day-to-day operations of the restaurant but we also met Chef Bautista again at that dinner whom we first encountered as sous chef at a tasting menu at Kitchen 1540. And it reminded us that it was more than time to set up another tasting menu at Kitchen 1540 where he was now running the show as Chef de Cuisine. Chef Bautista finished his culinary education at the Art Institute in San Diego in 2005 before he started working at Roy’s where he moved up the ranks to sous chef. He then moved over to Kitchen 1540 where he started working under Paul McCabe, worked briefly at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink in LA, before returning to Kitchen 1540 as Chef de Cuisine.  Interestingly, when we finally made the reservation with Chef Bautista we pretty much found out at the same day that he was planning to start working as Chef de Cuisine at Georges Modern around the same time. Even though we briefly considered cancelling the reservation since it would be on one of his last days at Kitchen 1540 we also felt that it might be a good chance to experience his own cooking before he would work together with Trey Foshee, and it would be interesting to see how his cooking style will be influenced in the future. (The restaurant gave us a very nice but also very dark place and so the pictures are quite grainy)
1st Course: Hamachi, fermented plum, soy, cucumber, daikon
Raw fish is often seen as a start to a tasting menu since the delicate fish acts as a welcoming canvas for a wide variety of flavors to awaken the palate. Here we had a nicely done version with hamachi which was lightly torched to give it a unique flavor that held up against the soy yuzu sauce and the fermented plum. The daikon and cucumber added some textural contrast. Overall a very good start to the tasting menu especially with the sake pairing and its floral undertones.

2nd Course: Ocean trout, geoduck, aged parsnip, sorrel, wild trout roe
Wood sorrel gave the broth its deep green color and with its tangy, citrusy flavor paired well with the ocean trout. The crispy skin and a piece of geoduck added some crunch whereas the trout roe was integral to the dish with the small bursts of brininess.

3rd Course: Vegetables, caper, lemon, brown butter
The bounty of outstanding produce in San Diego is often depicted with a salad course but Chef Bautista took a different path by showcasing it through some outstanding lightly grilled/seared vegetables from Chino Farms ranging from cauliflower, aubergines to turnips. This course was really about the natural flavors of these vegetables only accentuated by a light lemony sauce. One of the highlights of the tasting menu, raising the question why not more chefs in San Diego use these flavors as centerpieces of dishes instead of focusing on meat.

4th Course: Cuttlefish, parmesan, dashi, basil
This course reminded us most on influences from Ink in LA – cuttlefish cut into thin pieces and pressure cooked so that it resembles visually and texturally pasta is combined with uni and abalone on one side and a parmesan and dashi sauce on the other side to give a Japanese inspired version of Spaghetti Carbonara. A really well thought out course which combines creativity with flawless execution and you would wish to have a really large bowl.

5th Course: Hamachi belly, Chino turnips, nettle chimichurri
It was interesting to see the different approaches between this course and the previous one – the cuttlefish course showcased many different ingredients, flavors and complexity whereas this course was all about simplicity and clean flavors. Succulent hamachi belly and slightly sweet turnips complement each other without blending the flavors. Both are wood roasted to accentuate their roles and the nettle chimichurri connects both with its herbaceous taste.

6th Course: Geoduck belly, razor clam, sunchoke, BBQ, yuzu
Tender geoduck belly stood up surprisingly well against the different variations of sunchoke, like sauce and chips, with its nutty flavor. The restrained use of yuzu helped to bring the plate alive. The sunchoke chips and razor clam added some nice texture.

7th Course: Local spiny lobster, fermented onion, crosnes, black trumpet
This might have been actually the first time that we had black trumpet mushrooms and it is easy to understand why they are so thought after with their meaty consistency and fruity and earthy flavor with reminiscence of black truffles. The butter poached lobster and the fermented onion sauce with its slightly sour, funky undertones were unexpected companions to the mushrooms but worked remarkable well.

8th Course: Pork short ribs, alba white truffles, potato polenta, kohlrabi
Beef short ribs might be one of the most overused ingredients on any menu currently and so it was a nice change to see pork short ribs especially with such an interesting mole-like glaze. The white truffles were an unexpected pairing but worked remarkably well as they stood up against the mole without overpowering the dish. The potato polenta acted as the base of the dish whereas the pickled kohlrabi, a vegetable which should be used more often by chefs, brightened up the dish with some acidity and muted sweetness. Another highlight of the night for which we wished for a much larger portion.

9th Course: Lamb, ash, parley, chestnut, oats
Very tender sous vide lamb is coated in ash which gives it a slightly bitter undertone, but what really sets this dish apart is the combination of three different sauces/puree – parsley puree, chestnut puree and fermented strawberry sauce. Each of the three sauces has a very different, distinct flavor which pairs well with the lamb and it’s interesting to try out various combinations of them with each bite. And as in many of his dishes Chef Bautista adds some textural component, here some oats, to avoid a too uniform overall consistency.

10th Course: Cinnamon bun, bay leaf ice cream
Kitchen 1540 doesn’t have a regular pastry chef and so Chef Bautista is also responsible for the sweet part of the tasting menu. We started with a wonderful light and airy “unwrapped” cinnamon bun which was accompanied by bay leaf ice cream. Bay leaf is one of these spices you often add to your dishes and it doesn’t have a very prominent flavor but it adds often an important base to many dishes. Here bay leafs took the center stage and the ice cream showed some floral notes with hints of nutmeg and some surprising sweetness. The shaved apple pieces completed this great dessert with some welcomed tanginess.

11th Course: Root beer, persimmon, maple
We normally don’t like root beer a lot and so we were a bit skeptical about the last course but actually the root beer foam had the typical herbal notes which often remind us on some medicine and toothpaste but paired well with the cake and the maple ice cream and was a good end to an outstanding tasting menu.
When we were setting up the tasting menu we were initially a little bit skeptical as it was on one of the last days of Chef Bautista at Kitchen 1540 and so it was hard to judge how much he would be willing to put a lot of efforts in this tasting menu. But at the same time we also felt that it was a last chance to experience his cooking (and potentially creative cooking in general) at Kitchen 1540. Once we started the tasting menu it turned out to be one of the best we had experienced in San Diego. This was one of these rare occasions where everything turned out to be a perfect night – great food, good pairings, relaxed yet professional service. Often even at the most well known restaurants or chefs some small annoyance happen, e.g. disappointing courses or rushed service but here we just sat down, had a great time and were surprised how fast more than four hours were flying by. Most importantly the food was on a very high level with many well thought out courses which often showed bold yet refined and complex flavors, perhaps best characterized by two of the highlights - the cuttlefish and the pork course. And so it is not really surprising that Chef Bautista decided to take the next career step by moving to Georges as Chef de Cuisine as he seems to be ambitious enough not to stay in this comfortable but not really challenging position at Kitchen1540. And since his cooking is already on a very high level the only logical step as he mentioned in a discussion was only to work under Trey Foshee or move somewhere else. It will be interesting to see where his successor, Chef Brandon Fortune, formerly of Amaya and Aquamoree, will push Kitchen1540 – continue as bastion of fine dining or converting it to a “hotel restaurant”. The cooking style of Chef Bautista shows influences from chefs he worked with and tends to be complex and perhaps sometimes even a bit overthought whereas Chef Foshee has a focused style often aiming at the elemental, pure flavor of the ingredients. Having both work together at Georges will be interesting especially for TBL3 to see how much they will influence each other and especially if Chef Bautista’s style will change over time. We are looking to meet him again at our next TBL3 experience !
1540 Camino Del Mar
Del Mar, CA 92014
(858) 793-6460

September 30, 2013

TBL3 at Georges California Modern (San Diego)

When talking about food with other people, one of the most frequently asked questions we keep hearing is “So what is your most favorite restaurant in San Diego – or any other city that you like to visit for great food ?” And most people are rather surprised to learn that we don’t have one good, universal answer but constantly struggle with it, as it depends a lot on the context. A well made gobernador taco at a Marisco truck, a plain pizza, a Japanese Bento box or dinner at a fine dining restaurant can be equally good and satisfying – as long as you set realistic expectations for each kitchen’s ambitions and limitations. The most important factor for us is that a chef or cook cares deeply about the quality of his/her food preparations, we care more if something is simple but made from scratch than about misleading by relying on trendy dishes and expensive ingredients but in some instances soulless cooking.
When thinking about which meals really stand out for us and are not only good, but memorable and outstanding, we often draw parallels between reading, one of our other favorite activities, and meals: every meal has a chance to become something special, but not unlikely when reading a book, a short story is very rarely as absorbing, in-depth and well written as a long novel. And so a regular two or three course dinner can on a rare occasion be outstanding, but we tend to have much better success with longer tasting menus where similar to a novel author a chef has the chance to express his/her creativity in an unhindered manner. At the same time a tasting menu far from guarantees a special night as too often an author might fail to develop his characters, uses well known sequences or simply copies other successful books. For us a unique, great chef is able to “tell a story” with a tasting menu often through notions of seasonality and locality.
San Diego has a rather small number of restaurants that offer tasting menus, and most of them are quite short, and so it created some buzz when Trey Foshee at Georges California Modern announced his unique special tasting menu concept TBL3 – one table per night only from Tuesdays to Thursday with an ever changing 12-14 course tasting. Many lauded his effort to raise the culinary bar significantly in San Diego, but not surprisingly others like food editor Troy Johnson downplayed it as the chef just being envious of other chefs getting more recognition for their cooking and not wanting to be associated just with his “famous” fish taco. And so he complained more about “starting to think about deep vein thrombosis” and his “palate struggled to sustain” and ultimately he mentioned that “the concept doesn’t work here. Tourists come for the sun, not dinner. And locals don’t do degustation.” Interestingly one and a half years after this article TBL3 still exists and actual expanded the days, which is not really surprising knowing the unique concept and the background of Trey Foshee. He graduated from CIA Hyde Park in 1990 and worked subsequently at a number of well-known restaurants in increasingly more important roles including Rockenwagner and L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, La Folie in San Francisco, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel in Hawaii before arriving at the Tree Room & Foundry Grill at the Sundance Resort in Utah in 1997 where he gained national recognition by being named as one of the “America's Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine Magazine. He then finally settled in 1999 in La Jolla and became Executive Chef and partner at George’s at the Cove. Here he is responsible for all the different restaurant concepts like the Ocean Terrace and the fine dining restaurant Georges Modern with the TBL3. Even though we had a few, quite memorable dinners at Georges before, since its inception TBL3 was of highest interest of us, but only the recent extension of available days worked with our schedule and we finally could experience what TBL3 at Georges Modern is all about.

1st Course: Northern divine caviar, corn semifreddo
What a start to the tasting menu – corn semifreddo which intensified and concentrated the natural flavor of corn without being overwhelmingly sweet. The caviar acted as a salty counterpole but was much less salty then most other caviars and added more of a briny, yet slightly fruity flavor. The grilled baby corn brought a grilled, smoky component to the dish which worked perfectly with the other ingredients and created a wonderful complex, yet refreshing course which helped to open up the taste buds - one of the early highlights of the night.  
2nd Course: Melon, Tai snapper, finger lie, kale, mustard
Thinly sliced Tai snapper was paired with an interesting mixture of fruitiness and tartness. Melon juice on one side and finger lime and grapefruit on the other side created a good balance to bring out the delicate sweet flavors of the fish. The mustard based vinaigrette supplied a foundation for the dish whereas the fried kale added a textural contrast.
3rd Course: Tomato, cucumber, eggplant
The broth made of water eggplant, tomato and basil had a refreshing, almost fruity quality but didn’t overpower the different slices of tomatoes. It was interesting to experience the variety of textures and flavor notes of the different tomatoes. The mini gherkin cucumber added some crunchiness to the dish.
4th Course: Potato, truffle, nasturtium, sour cream
Potatoes with sour cream and some herbs are classic German comfort food. Here the dish was brought to the next level with the inclusion of Australian truffles – a very comforting dish which brought back childhood memories and fittingly paired with a white Pinot Noir from Rheinhessen.
5th Course: Local spot prawn, wild fennel butter
Dishes throughout tasting menus are often prime examples for complex, well thought-out creations from chefs showcasing innovative techniques and unique flavor combination but sometimes a dish just shines through its simplicity and the quality of its main ingredient. Chef Foshee served here a perfectly prepared single spot prawn highlighting the succulent tender- and sweetness of the meat just slightly accentuated by the wild fennel butter.
6th Course: Lima beans, squid, dried squid broth
Sometime you experience surprising combinations in a dish where once you taste them you wonder why you never thought of them before as they are quite obvious like with lima beans and squid. Both ingredients not only have an interesting textural contrast between the slight chewiness and the creaminess but the flavor of the subdued sweetness of the squid complements nicely with the earthiness of the lima beans. The strong umami taste of the dried squid broth helped to magnify this flavor combination
7th Course: Stone crab-uni quesadilla, tomatillo-avocado
Chef Foshee’s version of the ubiquitous fish taco has gained quite some recognition far beyond San Diego and here he brought out his next interpretation of a Mexican classic – quesadilla. Instead of the standard meat-cheese combination he chose to replace it with some local stone crab and in a clever twist the cheese with uni which worked extremely well. The house-made corn tortilla was the fitting wrapper but could have been a bit thinner so that the filling might have played an even more prominent role. The tomatillo-avocado salsa completed this great dish with its acidity. The pairing of the dish with a Mexican Cucuapa “Lookout” blonde ale was spot on.
8th Course: Lamb loin, sunflower, farro, chanterelle, pine
A dish which worked through its contrasting textures of tender lamb loin served at room temperature and the mixture of wonderful nutty puffed farro and sunflower seeds. The whipped sour cream was the missing link between them and brought the dish together.
9th Course: Scallop, lemon balm, mussel juice
Not unlike the course with the spot prawn here we had another course where the quality of a single main ingredient takes the center stage (and it is not coincidence that it is again seafood focused). A perfect scallop steamed in the shell showcased it sweet- and tenderness which was highlighted by the acidity of the lemon balm. The plating throughout the tasting menu was great but this course was particular beautiful with the half shell.
10th Course: Mesquite dusted rabbit, fig, pea tendril
Smoking rabbit using mesquite is quite common but in this dish the rabbit loin was actually rolled in mesquite dust which gave it still some smoky flavor but also added some graininess. The pea puree and the mesquite dust both have some related earthy flavors and so the contrasting sweetness of the figs where key to the success of the dish.
11th Course: Beef, marrow, garlic, parsley, truffles
The savory courses ended with a sous vide cooked, tender piece of beef. A very first reaction to the course was a bit of disappointment as it seemed to be the “typical” meat focused last course we have seen so often in a “traditional” tasting menu even though it often seems to be out of place. But fortunately this course turned out to be much more balanced and the beef wasn’t only dominating ingredient because the parsley puree, garlic paste and bone marrow could stand up against the beef and the dish ended up to be quite interesting by combining conflicting flavors.
12th Course: Sorrel granite, meyer lemon curd, Chino Farms strawberries
A well thought out transition to the sweet part of the tasting menu – sorrel with its bright and tart flavor is often used in savory courses but also worked well with the meyer lemon curd. The well known Chino Farm strawberries added the right level of sweetness.
13th Course: Mango semifreddo, cashew milk ice cream, lemon grass, smoked cashew
The description of the course sounded unusual and hard to imagine how it should work together but it turned out to be another highlight of the night. Creamy, yet slightly nutty ice cream worked together with the sweetness of the semifreddo and was counterbalanced by the tartness of the lemon grass gelee. The smoked cashew crumble not only gave some texture but also added a savory component to the dish.
14th Course: Mocha Mousse, espresso salt, sweet cream, cocoa nib
A light, yet intense finish to the night – replacing the after dinner espresso or cappuccino with its flavors. The espresso salt really livened up the dessert and showed once more that salt is often also in sweet courses key to complete a dish.
We had experienced Chef Foshee’s cooking as part of regular menu items before at Georges Modern so we came with high expectations but TBL3 easily met and even exceeded those. It was impressive to see this high level of cooking throughout the whole tasting menu without any disappointing course. Moreover the flow of the courses was very well thought out and it clearly felt like the kitchen enjoyed TBL3 as an opportunity to cook without any limitations. Chef Foshee’s style feels very focused and driven by the essence of a few key ingredients in each dish. Even though many dishes had complex flavor profiles and were playful the kitchen never seemed to forget what each dish was about. The sweet part of tasting menus is often good but still can feel more like an afterthought compared to the complexity of the savory part. TBL3 and pastry chef Lori Sauer are a clear exception from the rule and the sweet part of the night just felt like an extension of the savory courses and was able to continue and complete the experience. But exceptional restaurants go beyond just great food – the ambience with TBL3 literally the best table in the house with a beautiful view of the ocean and great service. It is fun when a server like Mark clearly is enjoying food just beyond as part of his job. Some of the ingredients of the tasting menu actually were foraged from his garden and he had often some interesting thoughts about the different dishes. We have often lamented the lack of outstanding restaurants in San Diego with a unique dining experience, but Georges with TBL3 clearly plays in the same league as the best restaurants in cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.
It will be interesting to see how the success of a concept like TBL3 will effect fine dining in San Diego. Hopefully it will provide the kitchen at Georges Modern a way for dialogue with the guests to test out dishes and get feedback about them so that they might in some form also make their way to the regular menu. But perhaps more importantly we hope to see some “trickle-down effect” beyond just Georges and that other restaurants and chefs might see this concept as an inspiration to develop their own approaches to test out more adventurous and creative cuisines and help to further improve the culinary scene in San Diego.
George’s California Modern
1250 Prospect St.
San Diego, CA 92037
(858) 454-4244

August 18, 2013

9-Course Tasting Menu as Pop-Up at Delicias with Chefs Zach Hunter and Steven Molina (San Diego)

In every profession people tend to grow throughout their careers and develop their own style and identity. Part of this development is often based more on a trial and error approach but another part originates through the influence of mentors/supervisors. These influences can originate by a teacher-scholar relationship but more often they form unconsciously over time by just working together and continuously observing. Cooking on a professional level is perhaps one of the occupations where such influences are often particular distinct. At the same time, since chefs early on in their careers often work or stage at a number of well-known restaurants, these influences get mixed together so that at the end each chef has his unique style but the different influences are often noticeable even throughout single dishes.
San Diego has a rather fast rotation of chefs especially on a fine dining level so that very few of them stayed for a longer time and had a significant influence on subsequent generations of chefs. Some of the notable exceptions are Trey Foshee at George’s Modern, Jeff Jackson at AR Valentien and Paul McCabe formerly at Kitchen 1540 and Delicias. The most recent, unexpected move from Chef McCabe to Arizona was quite a blow to the fine dining scene in San Diego but during his stint at Delicias he worked with Sous Chef Steve Molina who took over the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine after McCabe’s departure. Chef Molina graduated in 2008 from the San Diego Culinary Institute and started working in the industry under Chef Vignau at Savory in Encinitas. He then moved to L’Auberge Del Mar were he started as a pantry cook before rising up the ranks to become Sous Chef under McCabe at Kitchen 1540.
McCabe’s move to Delicias generated quite some buzz around the restaurant and its future plans which was throughout the years more known as a kind of neighborhood restaurant for the wealthy in Rancho Santa Fe with good but not really ambitious cuisine. The future direction of Delicias was quite uncertain after the recent changes in the kitchen but we were for some time thinking about trying to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina when we heard about a 9-course tasting menu at Delicias as a pop-up with Chefs Zach Hunter and Molina. Chef Hunter graduated in 2005 from the Arizona Culinary Institute to start at Wildfish Seafood Grille in Scottsdale where he quickly became Executive Chef. He decided afterwards to move to Mugaritz in Errenteria/Spain, one of the most respected restaurants in the world. After moving back to the US and working together with Molina under Chef McCabe at Kitchen 1540 he moved to New York to work as Sous Chef at Atera. Most recently he made the decision to move to Austin to work on an own restaurant concept in the near future but had a stopover in San Diego with this pop-up restaurant night which gave us the opportunity to experience two McCabe alumni with a hopefully daring tasting menu.

Snack 1: Albacore, pickled watermelon, pork fat, ice plant
The night began with a number of snacks to wet one’s appetite. First we had a small piece of slightly cured albacore, topped with a layer of pork fat and some pickled watermelon – light, refreshing and well balanced.
Snack 2: Chicken skin, romesco, dried corn
A play on chicharrones with puffed chicken skin - the slightly smoky romesco with peppery notes didn’t overwhelm the chicken skin too much and the dried corn not only added some additional texture but was also well integrated in the playful presentation with its chicken wire.

Snack 3: Fermented corn, dried shrimp, panko, aioli
The highlight of the four snacks – the corn was fermented for ten days and had a slightly sour taste not unlike good sauerkraut, the dried shrimp added some saltiness and panko gave texture to the dish. A wonderful combination of sour, salty and Umami, of which one was really hoping to have a whole cob of corn.
Snack 4: Chicken rillette, mole negro, peach butter
This dish presented in a small cocotte had a nice interplay of the crostini, smoked chicken rillette and mole negro but what brought this dish together was the slight fruitiness of the peach butter.
It is always interesting to see the interactions of a kitchen team during work and this night was no difference with both chefs and their team working side by side. It is still surprising why Delicias is not using this open kitchen better to bring a different dynamic and ambience to the restaurant instead of hiding it behind some high partition walls.

1st Course: Uni, crispy grains, dashi gelee, powdered yogurt
The first course as the start of the dinner reminded us on breakfast at the start of the day. Not unlike cereals with milk in the morning we had in this dish a variety of different grains and seeds with powdered yogurt but what deviated it from your standard sweet morning dish was the inclusion of some pieces of uni and dashi gelee which gave the dish a wonderful salty, maritime flavor. Interestingly this strong dish vaguely reminded us of a course we recently had at Atelier Crenn
2nd Course: Tuna tartare, smoked trout roe, lettuce, smoked chicken gelee, breadcrumbs
The presentation of this course was unexpected with a larger piece of lettuce as the centerpiece and the other ingredient coating or surrounding it. At first the combination of the crunchy lettuce with the tuna and smoked roe tartare seemed not really to work but after a few bites the dishes started to grow on us and ended up as a surprisingly balanced dish.
3rd Course: Salt roasted potatoes, dried squid, egg yolk vinaigrette
Sometimes good dishes don’t have to rely on unusual ingredients or complex preparations but live through their simplicity – here we had simple salt roasted potatoes with a matching vinaigrette – simple and homey yet somehow elegant. The dried squid chip didn’t add much to the dish and was more of a distraction.
4th Course: Lobster, shaved Chinese sausage, Meyer lemon – ginger emulsion
The presentation reminded us on some fish’n’chips we got when we lived in England and the pork-fat poached lobster with its “coating” of shaved Chinese sausage worked also along this lines. As good as the surprisingly large piece of lobster was, not unlike fish’n’chips, some kind of starch component was missing in this dish which was a bit too one-dimensional.
5th Course: Spot prawns, bone marrow, roasted summer squash, wheatgrass emulsion
This course was one of the highlights of the dinner with its perfectly cooked prawns and the roasted summer squash. The wheatgrass emulsion mixed with the liquid bone marrow gave the dish an earthy foundation.
6th Course: Fermented long beans, aged lamb, Meyer lemon emulsion, lamb fat aioli
This was one of the dishes where it is necessary to get a little bit of everything at each bite to get a balanced flavor. The fermented long beans had a surprisingly sour taste which was tamed by the lamb fat aioli whereas the aged lamb brought some gaminess and minerality.
7th Course: Venison loin, roasted tomato confit, charred onion
It was interesting and refreshing to see that throughout the night both chefs used some unusual successions and presentations of the dishes not always seen with tasting menus but it appeared with this course they seemed to step back to the default path of ending the savory part with a meat-heavy course. Even though technically very well made with tender sous-vide venison and strong tasting tomato confit the dish seemed to be out of line with the progression of the tasting menu so far and felt too monotonous with its focus on one large piece of meat.
8th Course: Tartare of beet and sour cherry, coconut tapioca
The use of vegetables as part of desserts is becoming increasingly popular and this dish had a very unusual combination of beets and sour cherry which was mainly overshadowed by the earthiness of the beets with some hardly noticeable sweet undertones from the cherry and coconut tapioca. This dish was paired with an unusual cocktail based on champagne and vinegar which actually helped to lighten up the dish with its acidity but it was still a rather challenging course.
9th Course: Candied carrots, chocolate-stout gelato, fermented carrot chocolate ganache
The last course was another, but much more successful, take on vegetables as dessert – the natural sweetness of the carrots paired perfectly with the maltiness of the chocolate stout and the fermented carrot ganache acted as an overarching theme to bring both together with the unexpected funkiness of the fermented carrots – a perfect ending to the tasting menu on a high note.
A pop-up restaurant event has always a unique character as the chef doesn’t really have to rely on return customers and so has the chance to take some culinary risks and try out some unusual flavor and ingredient pairings. It was good to see that Chefs Hunter and Molina were willing to take this road and served interesting courses with some highlights like the uni, spot prawns or the carrot dessert. And even courses which didn’t really work for us like the beet dessert are laudable as it shows their willingness to try to express their own culinary vision without much compromise. Hopefully Delicias will be encouraged by the good attendance of this pop-up, and GM Alex Campbell mentioned that they are thinking of having such events as a seasonal occurrence.
When two chefs cook together it is of course hard to determine who had which influence on which course but overall it was interesting to see how far the cooking style of these both chefs has evolved from that of their mentor Paul McCabe. It will be interesting to track how Chef Hunter’s first attempt at an own restaurant in Austin will turn out to be (and hopefully it won’t be the last time he cooked in San Diego) but the night also really reminded us that it is time for us to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina at Delicias and experience his cooking first-hand.

6106 Paseo Delicias
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
(858) 756-8000

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