Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rancho Valencia, The Restaurant (Rancho Santa Fe, CA)

Rancho Valencia, The Restaurant
5921 Valencia Cir, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
Sat 04/30/2011, 07:30p-12:10a

Nestled in a high-end residential neighborhood in Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Valencia was the vision of San Diego developer Harry Collins (the family also owns La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla). Built in 1989, but looking much older due to its antique Spanish- and Mediterranean-style, the resort was sold last year to a group led by Jeff Jacobs, scion of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, for $15 million. In preparation for a renovation of the property, the hotel has completely revamped the kitchen staff, bringing in a trio of chefs to revitalize the Restaurant's admittedly staid menu.

Executive Chef Eric Bauer is a native of Chicago, and trained at the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College from 1998 to 2000. Following graduation, he worked at the City's Ritz-Carlton, then moved on to the Four Seasons hotel chain, starting as a cook but moving up the ranks to become a sous, and later executive sous chef. One of Bauer's first assignments was at the nearby Aviara resort in Carlsbad (now a Park Hyatt), where he was mentored by Chef Pascal Vignau (who now runs Savory in Encinitas). He left Aviara in 2003, then worked at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village up in Los Angeles and the Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica, where he trained in Latin and Mediterranean cuisine under Chef James Cassidy. In October 2007, Bauer left to pursue an Executive Chef position at Morels French Steakhouse & Brasserie at The Palazzo in Las Vegas, where he stayed until January 2009. He returned to San Diego in May that year, helming the kitchens at Anthology in Downtown's Little Italy, where Bradley Ogden serves as consulting chef. Bauer left to join Rancho Valencia's team in May last year, and was replaced at Anthology by Todd Allison, who was most recently at the Hilton Checkers in Downtown LA.

Chef de Cuisine Aaron Martinez, meanwhile, attended the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, graduating in 2003. He worked at the three-star Michelin Martin Berasategui in San Sebastián, Spain, and also was the opening sous chef at Addison (under William Bradley), cooking there from 2006 to 2009. Following, he traveled to Heuvelland, West Flanders, Belgium and took on a position at the famed In de Wulf before joining the Rancho Valencia team in 2010. Martinez is joined by Sous Chef David Volk, who comes to us having worked at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco and Blanca in Solana Beach (now helmed by Gavin Schmidt), among other places.

Rancho Valencia Restaurant Interior
Though described by the resort as an "elegant Mediterranean setting," the dining room is clearly starting to show its age.

Rancho Valencia Restaurant Tasting Menu
The Restaurant's regular menu of "Coastal Ranch cuisine" can best be described as tired, featuring such straightforward selections as iceberg salad, onion soup, roasted and braised lamb, 32 oz. prime côte de boeuf, chocolate chip cookie sundae, and carrot cake. We, of course, were here for something entirely different: an unadvertised, contemporary degustation of 11 or so courses, priced at a very reasonable $110. I'm told that, given time, the rest of the menu will be similarly refreshed. Click for a larger version.

kale chips goat cheese sable, green garlic & ham
snacks: goat cheese sable, kale chips, green garlic & ham
We were curiously greeted by a platter of wrinkled kale chips, crisp in consistency and somewhat disconcertingly tangy in savor. The sablés, meanwhile, were more to my liking, showing off the chèvre beautifully while accenting the cheese with a delightfully salty crunch from the prosciutto.

Our amuse bouche was a humorous riff on crudités, a classical French dish of raw veggies with dipping sauce. Though crudités usually comprise carrot sticks, celery, broccoli, and the like, what we had here was a combination of romaine purée, lettuce granité, pickled carrot, and wildflowers. It was a lovely celebration of the vegetables, with each of their unique tastes forcefully conveyed on the palate--a light, bright, refreshing burst of flavor, grounded by the lusciousness of the romaine.

Bread Basket Horseradish Butter, Ramp Butter
Bread service consisted of brioche, pecan raisin, ciabatta, and squaw varieties, served with a wonderful ramp butter and an equally intriguing horseradish butter.

pickles, yellow tail, horseradish, chickweed
1: pickles, yellow tail, horseradish, chickweed
The first proper course brought together the seemingly suddenly popular hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) with pickled cauliflower, onion, and cucumber, all in a horseradish-chickweed jus. I really appreciated the clean, focused flavor of the fish, and how it was paired with the considerable acidity at play here. The additional crunch from the veggies was a bonus.

english peas, dungeness crab, lemon balm & dill english peas, dungeness crab, lemon balm & dill
2: english peas, dungeness crab, lemon balm & dill
Dungeness crab was shaped into terrine form, topped with dill fronds, lime tapioca, and placed in a sea of brazenly verdant pea velouté. I definitely enjoyed how the inherent sugariness of the crustacean was presented here, and how that was moderated by the green, herbaceous flavors in the dish, while the whole shebang was perked up by a tinge of citric tang. I found the texture of the peas tremendously satisfying as well.

pacific northwest morels, hazelnuts & pine
3: pacific northwest morels, hazelnuts & pine
Morels arrived grilled and strewn amidst a commixture of pine soil, hazelnuts, nettle, wood sorrel, and yarrow. Described by my dining companions as "Noma-esque" and tasting of a "savory Ferrero Rocher," the dish tactfully conveyed the essence of a forest floor (much in the same way as Craig Thornton's wandering the forest dish), showing off an earthy, nutty sweetness countervailed by the herbaceous flavors of the various greenery. Easily the most avant garde, cerebral dish of the evening.

cherries, dutch white asparagus, black truffle & nasturtium
4: cherries, dutch white asparagus, black truffle & nasturtium
White asparagus was cooked near meltingly tender, and demonstrated just a hint of the vegetable's signature astringency. The tableside pairing of a murky truffle jus (which was so dark as to suggest the use of squid ink) was a welcomed addition, the heady savors of the fungus permeating the asparagus admirably. Bing cherries stuffed with black truffle were an interesting addition--nicely restrained in their sweetness--but not absolutely necessary for me.

alaskan halibut, potato, oyster & ramps
5: alaskan halibut, potato, oyster & ramps
Delicate, lean, flaky, slightly spongy to the touch, and finished with a delightfully crisp crust, halibut was presented in the best light possible. Its natural flavor was accentuated by the use of a fish fumé broth, while the oyster-ramp emulsion added further depth and complexity. Rounding things out were the hay-smoked potatoes, which served to ground the dish.

turnips, tête pressée, lovage, spring onion turnips, tête pressée, lovage, spring onion
6: turnips, tête pressée, lovage, spring onion
Tête pressée translates to "pressed head," and is merely an epithet for head cheese. As you'd expect, the dish showed off a delectably meaty savor, and was supremely supple in body, with a lovely bit of crispness as well. Given the gravity of the tête, the grilled spring onions, lovage, chives, celery, and turnips were crucial in balancing the dish.

Squab Roasted in Hay
Prior to the serving of our next course, a trio of beautifully hay-roasted squabs was presented to us. I recall their aroma as being quite intoxicating.

rhubarb, radish, wild squab & mustard rhubarb, radish, wild squab & mustard
7: rhubarb, radish, wild squab & mustard
Squab was marvelous, simply one of the best preparations that I've experienced in a while. Cooked to a pleasingly rare temperature, the bird deftly conveyed a perfect confluence of smoky and savory flavors, heightened by the application of a sauce made from its bones and hay. The meat was then paired with a rhubarb-mustard gel and various radishes, the combination of which provide tart, almost floral counterpoints to the dish.

beet root, rose & yogurt
8: beet root, rose & yogurt
Serving as a sort of intermezzo in the meal, beet root was joined by rose granita and yogurt, making for a bright interplay of sugary and lactic flavors that served to cleanse the palate.

verbena, mascarpone, crows pass strawberries & elderflower verbena, mascarpone, crows pass strawberries & elderflower
9: verbena, mascarpone, crows pass strawberries & elderflower
Strawberry was presented in sliced, consommé, and meringue "chip" form. A cremeux of mascarpone cheese showed off a prototypical sourness, moderated by the berries as well as the elderflower, while the verbena added a touch of levity to the fray. A light, refreshing dessert, with a lovely "green" floral character.

Mignardises were created from local chocolate and came in two varieties: salted caramel and orange truffle.

One of my dining companions described her expectations of the food here as "WASP-y pedestrian," but the reality was far from it. Rather than tepid hotel fare, what we received was what looks to be some of the most exciting cooking going on in San Diego at the moment, a combination of bold, lusty flavors, artful plating, and a dash of restrained modernist verve. The kitchen is capable of doing great things as we've seen, and it's my hope that this rejuvenation can spread to the rest of the menu as well.

David Volk, Eric Bauer, Aaron Martinez


Anonymous Bryan said...

Kevin, do you have to call ahead to request this menu?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 6:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the LOOKS of the meal, I would say it appears to be one of the most progressive restaurants in Southern California. You have to wonder what they would be able to do outside of the constraints of a "waspy" San Diego clientele.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 8:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jennifer @ WanderingSeoul said...

Pretty dishes! I like the mascarpone dish the most. :)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 8:48:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Christina: My sentiments exactly.

Bryan: Yes, I would definitely call ahead. We gave them a couple weeks notice.

Anon: Indeed. But perhaps the solid financial backing of the hotel allows the chefs to be more creative than they otherwise could?

Jennifer: That's because you have a thing for desserts. ;)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Cinderella said...

My parents, who have been going semi-annually for the last ten years, ate there recently are were horribly disappointed.

They said the menu was limited, the quality of entrees offered was second rate, and the cooking was uninspired.

It appears as though Chef did something for your group that is not standard for the hotel guests.

That is almost misleading Kevin, although you made it plain that this was done for your guests as something special.

Yet a real review of this place should be for what it is, Keven - not what it could or should be.

The hotel and thwe restaurant need upgrades/renovating/bringing them more up to date.

I don't think they have the money - I think they are in financial trouble.

They shouldn't be a Relais & Chateaux property anymore - until and if that is ever done.

I love your site, and your reviews. But Rancho SF doesn't deserve your publicity until what you review is what the public would be served on a nightly basis.

Friday, May 06, 2011 6:31:00 AM  
Blogger Lori Lynn said...

Wow! Lots of creativity coming from that kitchen. Squab in the pan, awesome - so glad they present it before constructing the dish.

Friday, May 06, 2011 1:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Kevin, Its nice to see you went down to the Restaurant to see it. Despite what Cinderella said, I have been in 2X and second time asked to only have what was prepared for everyday diners. And the food was "similar" to what you saw. I would receommend a look again on only menu available items.

On a second note, you mentioned that Aaron was the opening Sous at Addison just up the road, but have still yet to dine in Addison. It is exactly 6 minutes off the freeway from where you dined. Addison is southern California's only 5 star, 5 diamond restaurant and has a Relais & Chateaux Chef to boot. Just wondering about when you will head there?

Friday, May 06, 2011 2:28:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Cinderella: Since your parents have been going there for ten years, how do they think the food has evolved during that time? Though the degustation is not advertised, I believe that it is indeed available to the public. It just has to be arranged in advance.

Lori: Yep, I love it when they present a dish before plating it. I wonder what they did with all the meat that wasn't served to us...

Will: Interesting. Was the menu that you had the same as the one posted on RV's web site? As for Addison, either it or Blanca will likely be my next restaurant in SD. The locals are steering me toward the latter though.

Saturday, May 07, 2011 5:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Kevin, I had the hiramasa which was available on the menu, the rock cod, the asparagus and the filet and they are all prepared just this good and show the same plating technique and skill. Worth a try.

As far as blanca, I have no comment because I havent been but have heard the newest chef (in a long line) is doing the best out of em all.

But this local says go to Addison.


Sunday, May 08, 2011 2:27:00 PM  
Blogger Rodzilla said...

Thanks for the review Kevin. I'm moving out to SD for the summer, and am hoping the main dining menu changes in that time.

Bianca is also high on my list, right behind the next Relate pop-up. Let me know when you're coming to town, I'd love to work something out!

Sunday, May 08, 2011 9:54:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Will: Hmmm sounds like you had a different menu at RV than what's posted on their web site. Did you have the bar menu perhaps? As for Addison, their maître d' Will Costello is actually a reader of the blog, and emailed me last year inviting me to try the place out. I may set something up through him sometime in the near future.

Rod: What are you moving out here for? Is there even going to another iteration of Relate? Last I heard, Chef Moody was actually looking to do something in LA!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger Rodzilla said...

I have an internship with SHARP for the summer.

I know he's planning another San Diego pop up, but not sure about any LA ventures.

Thursday, May 12, 2011 6:33:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Deleted comment due to Blogger outage:

Rodzilla said...
I have an internship with SHARP for the summer.

I know he's planning another San Diego pop up, but not sure about any LA ventures.

Sunday, May 15, 2011 3:37:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Cool man. What are you going to be doing at Sharp? If Dan does do another pop-up, maybe we can meet up there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011 3:38:00 PM  
Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

Just a quick note. Chef Aaron Martinez who was responsible for the food of this tasting will be taking over the restaurant 1500 Ocean @ Hotel Del Coronado. The menu will be completely revamped. I'm very excited to see what he has planned.

Thursday, June 02, 2011 6:17:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

What happened with Aaron exactly? Why did he leave? Was the hotel not letting him do his thing?

Sunday, June 05, 2011 2:24:00 AM  
Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

1500 Ocean came to him and offered him the exec position and full control of the menu. RV couldn't match it so he left. Curious to see who is going to fill his spot if anyone at all. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, June 05, 2011 6:58:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

My guess is that RV will revert back to a more traditional menu, sadly.

Thursday, June 09, 2011 3:43:00 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

This is my first time visit here. From the tons of comments on your articles,I guess I am not only one having all the enjoyment right here!
book hotel valenia

Thursday, March 23, 2017 4:41:00 AM  

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