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

Friday, April 29, 2011

Pheast Underground Dinner (Los Angeles, CA)

Pheast Underground Supper Club
Los Angeles, CA 90066
Fri 04/29/2011, 07:30p-02:45a

Living Room

Though high-end underground dining has existed in some form or another for years here in LA, the movement really took off last year with the arrival of Craig Thornton's Wolvesmouth. Since then, several new underground supper clubs have popped up, the most promising of which appears to be Isaiah Frizzell's Pheast.

A self-described hillbilly, Frizzell hails from the small town of Columbia, Tennessee. Though his grandfather was famed country music singer Lefty Frizzell, he grew up poor, with his family moving constantly around the South for the better part of 12 years. The family finally disintegrated when he was 16, and the young Chef was left homeless in Dallas. Frizzell pursued cooking as a way to find himself, even going as far as to use food stamps to purchase luxury goods such as caviar and jamón ibérico, his copy of Larousse Gastronomique in hand. He eventually took on an interest in Indian cookery, then dabbled in vegetarian, macrobiotic, and even vegan cuisines (he once served as a vegan personal chef) before coming back to classic omnivore cooking once he started working in professional kitchens.

Inspired by the musings of Jeffrey Steingarten as well as Thomas Keller's seminal French Laundry Cookbook, Frizzell taught himself the intricacies of contemporary cooking (even getting versed in pastry), and eventually started working as a sous for Dallas chef Tony Gardizi. The duo would create spontaneous degustations of 10 or more courses, and through these dinners, Frizzell refined his skills, and more importantly, cemented his own personal culinary style. After some traveling, he moved from Seattle to Los Angeles late last year and settled in Los Feliz, a location that allows the Chef to easily partake in his daily hikes through Griffith Park, a constant source of inspiration for his cooking.

Frizzell eventually got involved with a razor, a shiny knife, helping the supper club with their last event here in Los Angeles. There, he met fellow chef Linda Lloyd, and the two launched Pheast. Entitled My Bloody Valentine, their first event, a 10-courser with wine and cocktails, was supposed to occur on Valentine's Day, but the event was subsequently cancelled after Lloyd pulled out because of family issues. Pheast's next event, held in Silver Lake, was at the end of March and featured products from The Cheesestore of Silverlake and McCall's. Frizzell then returned home to Dallas to cook before coming back to LA to work with Libry Darusman (from Mark Gold's Eva) at his Room Forty pop-up. Darusman, it turns out, would also be assisting in tonight's meal, held at a quaint residence in Del Rey, not too far from Waterloo & City.

Welcome Cocktail
Upon arrival, we were handed a welcome cocktail created by our host Nick, a friend of Frizzell's. A blend of Pig's Nose Scotch, orange, lemon, and star anise, finished with a clove-sugar rim, the drink deftly used the citrus to offset the weight of the whisky, while the anise and clove added a lovely sweet spice on the finish.

clam, uni, dashi, sesame, zucchini, cucumber
1: clam, uni, dashi, sesame, zucchini, cucumber
For our first course, a delightful trio of clams arrived sitting atop a "sand" of powdered shiitake, white sesame, and black sesame. I thoroughly enjoyed how the ocean-y savor of the clam played with the earthiness of the mushroom-sesame combination, and how the zucchini and cucumber served to lighten things up. At the same time, the uni sauce accentuated the brine of the dish, but was a bit overwhelming at times. The dashi shot, finally, contributed a marked umami complexity to the mix, and helped tie everything together.

yuba, milk skin, nasturtium, edamame, english pea, lavender, yuzu
2: yuba, milk skin, nasturtium, edamame, english pea, lavender, yuzu
Being somewhat of a pea and edamame fiend, I was especially looking forward to this course. Taken alone, the yuba was fairly blunt in flavor, but the tofu skin worked beautifully when eaten in concert with the light, bright pea purée and blanched soybeans. I also adored the floral component contributed by the lavender, as well as the prick of citric tang from the yuzu.

bouquet of greens with soil
3: bouquet of greens with soil
Dishes composed of raw vegetables and "soil" have become in vogue in the past few years, and here we get to see Frizzell's interpretation of the concept. He utilized purslane, broccolini, kale, carrot, and various flowers, set in a hazelnut-chicory-almond-salt-pepper-sugar soil, with the whole amalgam finished with a carrot, yuzu, olive oil, and S&P vinaigrette. The bitter, biting, unadulterated flavors of the greens were forcefully conveyed here, yet deftly countered by the gravity of the carrot broth, while the nutty "dirt" served to ground the dish. Quite nice.

Knife Balancing
Knife balancing skills.

artichoke heart, veal sweetbread, shiso, mango, longpepper mayo
4: artichoke heart, veal sweetbread, shiso, mango, longpepper mayo
Veal sweetbread arrived in tempura'd form, accompanied by a shiso-mango emulsion and long pepper mayonnaise. As expected, it was a delectable nugget of crisp, savory goodness, gorgeously accented by the heat of the mayo, while the mango added a slight tinge of sweetness. I wasn't quite as sold on the artichoke however, which didn't quite fit in the dish for me.

crab, honeydew, oat, stinging nettle, peppercorn
5: crab, honeydew, oat, stinging nettle, peppercorn
Crab was superb, supple and fresh, with a delightful sweetness heightened by the money melon and finished beautifully by the spice of pink peppercorn. I also appreciated the subtle astringency of the nettle purée, as well as the tempering effect of the oat groats. Just a very well integrated dish.

Preparing Chicken - Isaiah Frizzell Preparing Chicken - Libry Darusman
Preparing Chicken - Isaiah Frizzell Preparing Chicken - Libry Darusman
Preparing the chicken dish. When it comes to tattoos, Darusman might be the only chef in the city with more than Cole Dickinson (Michael Voltaggio's Chef de Cuisine at his upcoming Ink).

chicken, momofuku xo sauce, sugar snap, noodle
6: chicken, momofuku xo sauce, sugar snap, noodle
Standing erect, a chicken drumstick (my favorite part of the bird) arrived perfectly cooked, showcasing a profound depth of flavor further heightened by the deep, heady relish of the Momofuku-inspired XO. It was an immensely satisfying combination to be sure, one expertly balanced by the relatively subdued tastes of the snap peas and noodles. Chicharrón of chicken skin, meanwhile, added a lovely bit of textural variation to the dish.

Prepping Lamb - Isaiah Frizzell Prepping Lamb - Libry Darusman
Getting the tube meat ready for service.

crispy lamb rillettes, fingerling confit, pickled blue-foot, arugula
7: crispy lamb rillettes, fingerling confit, pickled blue-foot, arugula
Tonight's pièce de résistance was a disk of lamb rillettes, coated in panko bread crumbs and fried crisp. As you'd expect, the lamb itself was a tender, salty, unabashedly savory eating experience, an admixture of deep, dark flavors moderated by the confit potatoes, tangy mushrooms, and peppery arugula. I was a bit concerned about the cherries, but they worked surprisingly well in the dish, adding a refreshing bit of tart sweetness to things.

Plating Dessert - Libry Darusman Plating Dessert - Libry Darusman
Plating the sweet stuff.

rose, goat cheese, strawberry, raspberry, elderflower, pistachio, malt
8: rose, goat cheese, strawberry, raspberry, elderflower, pistachio, malt
Our multifaceted dessert consisted of rose cremeux, Nick's homemade lavender-honey-lemon goat cheese, almond sugar, strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, raspberry and strawberry coulis, elderflower fluid gel, pistachio, and malt "cookie dough." I absolutely adored the intense floral character of the cremeux, and how that played with the tangy chèvre and unmitigated sugariness of the berry fruit. A lovely mélange of flavors, all finished with a trace of salt from the pistachio. One of my dining companions even commented that the dessert "tasted like Valentine's."

I had high hopes for Pheast, and indeed, Frizzell and company did not disappoint, putting forth a superb suite of dishes showcasing modern technique and an intriguing blend of global influences. We were able to speak with the Chef on multiple occasions throughout the evening, and his energy and enthusiasm were palpable, his motions and movements spry, but deliberate. He was cooking a mile a minute in an admittedly lilliputian kitchen, yet was able to turn out food that managed to surprise, delight, and impress us all. This "traveling kitchen band" is the most exciting thing to hit the LA underground dining scene since Wolvesmouth, so I recommend that you get in while you still can.

Isaiah Frizzell

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Paladar Underground Restaurant (Los Angeles, CA)

Paladar Underground Dinner
Los Angeles, CA 90007
Thu 04/28/2011, 07:00p-10:00p

Paladar Exterior

Underground dining seems to be all the rage these days. Of course, at the high-end you have places such as Wolvesmouth and Pheast, but on the other end of the spectrum, I was surprised to find out about Paladar, a supper club launched a year and a half ago by two undergraduate students at USC: Alex Chang (a kinesthesiology major) and Bobby Kronfli (a music industry major). Chang serves as chef, while Kronfli runs the front-of-the-house and handles the business side of things (perhaps a natural fit, given that his family owns Italian wine bar Bacaro LA). As for the name, paladar refers to small, family-operated restaurants run out of someone's home, popular in Latin America, and indeed, true to form, Paladar takes place inside the two roommates' North University Park apartment.

Two seatings of roughly 30 people each are available: 7:00 and 9:00. As for the menu, normally three courses are offered (app, main, dessert), priced at a very affordable $15 (key for their mostly student clientele). Tonight, which happened to be the last dinner served at this location, the supper club returned to its roots, offering up classic American fare with a Paladar twist. In addition, I also requested some additional courses ahead of time so that I could better gauge the food. BYOB is encouraged, though cocktails are sometimes available, and I'm told that there were even occasional wine pairings from Paladar's resident sommelier, Cameron Parsons.

Hermitage Brewing Wheatopia
Taking full advantage of the BYO policy, I brought along a couple of beers and a Beaujolais. The Hermitage Brewing Wheatopia, interestingly enough, was a hefeweizen that didn't quite taste like a hefeweizen. It certainly wasn't bad though, being very easy-drinking with a subtle smokiness and pleasant malt character.

Bicycle Bread Company Bread Dipping Sauce
Bread is provided by Bicycle Bread Company, a local bakery founded by USC graduate Stephen Gordon back in 2008 (he was later joined by his younger brother Ben Gordon, a USC undergrad). I believe what we had tonight was a Honey Wheat, which I found quite delicious, especially when paired with the accompanying dipping sauce.

Fanny Bay Oysters/ Guanciale/ Wasabi/ Kelp.
1: Fanny Bay Oysters/ Guanciale/ Wasabi/ Kelp
Oysters from Fanny Bay, British Columbia showed off a healthy bit of salinity, and finished with a bright, briny flourish reminiscent of cucumber. They were nicely countered by the heat of the wasabi, while the guanciale served to add some savoriness to the mix. Meanwhile, I used the kelp as a sort of palate cleanser after consuming the dish.

Mixed Romaine Lettuces/ Home-Made Caesar Dressing/ Parmigiano Reggiano/ Crouton.
2: Mixed Romaine Lettuces/ Home-Made Caesar Dressing/ Parmigiano Reggiano/ Crouton.
Paladar's take on a classic Caesar salad was next. The flavors here were traditional, but the use of a crouton "bowl" was somewhat novel.

Stone Cali-Belgique IPA
With the hefe dispensed with, it was time to open the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA. I often find Stone's IPAs a bit assertive for my palate, so I definitely appreciated this Belgian-inspired effort. The beer showed off a prototypical hoppiness to be sure, but it also conveyed tempering notes of spice, citrus, and herbs that I really liked.

Sea Scallop/ English Peas/ Asparagus/ Radish/ Spring Onion Purée/ Yuzukosho.
3: Sea Scallop/ English Peas/ Asparagus/ Radish/ Spring Onion Purée/ Yuzukosho.
Scallops arrived just about perfectly cooked, showing off the delightfully rare consistency that I crave. They demonstrated a marked salinity and very apparent pepperiness (from the yuzukosho, a Japanese yuzu-pepper-salt seasoning, I imagine), but were beautifully balanced by the various vegetables at play here (with the peas being particularly enjoyable). I really appreciated the maturity displayed in the plating as well. My favorite course of the evening.

Squid Ink Noodles/ Ika Shiokara-Butter Emulsification/ Ikura.
4: Squid Ink Noodles/ Ika Shiokara-Butter Emulsification/ English Peas/ Ikura.
Quite simply, ika shiokara is a Japanese delicacy of fermented squid guts, and as you'd expect, it has a very strong, very fishy flavor. It's not something that you see every day, and in fact, I'd only had it twice before: at Aburiya Toranoko and at Hachi. As such, I was rather surprised to see it being employed at Paladar. Here, the shiokara's power was moderated by the inclusion of butter, but even then, it lent a hefty dose of brine to the otherwise mild noodles. This intensity was further heightened by the use of ikura (salmon roe), but the peas did an admirable job in balancing out the dish.

2009 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages
In preparation for our pièce de résistance, I popped open the 2009 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages that I'd brought. It was sort of the quintessential Beaujolais, a light, simple, tart-ish wine with loads of juicy fruit flavors and a slight peppery tinge. Eminently drinkable, and perfect for early summer quaffing.

The PALADAR Burger: Angus Beef/ Cheddar Cheese/ Onion Jam/ Remoulade/ Wild Arugula/ Brioche Bun.
5: The PALADAR Burger: Angus Beef/ Cheddar Cheese/ Onion Jam/ Remoulade/ Wild Arugula/ Brioche Bun. With: Yukon Gold Potatoes/ Aioli.
The Angus patty arrived at the right temperature, and was suitably tender, succulent, and imbued with a proper beefy goodness. The pairing of cheddar cheese was straightforward, but effective, and the arugula's bitterness served as a healthy counterpoint in the burger. I appreciated the tanginess of the remoulade, and I even enjoyed the onion jam, which I was afraid would be too sweet. In a way, this sort of reminded me of a more approachable version of the Father's Office burger. The accompaniment of potato with aioli was also quite delectable, reminding me a bit of the classic dish of patatas bravas.

Pound Cake/ Fresh Market Strawberries/ Creme Anglaise/ Candied Basil.
6: Pound Cake/ Fresh Market Strawberries/ Creme Anglaise/ Candied Basil.
The pairing of pound cake with strawberries wasn't exactly novel, but nevertheless enjoyable. The key here was that candied basil, which contributed some pungent, spicy overtones to the dessert that really helped tie everything together.

Alex Chang, Robert Kronfli
Alex Chang and Robert Kronfli.

I didn't quite know what to expect coming into Paladar, but the kitchen managed to turn out a rather satisfying meal. I wish I had something like this when I was an undergrad--I'd be coming here all the time! I was able to see the underpinnings of some real talent in Chef Chang, which is especially impressive given that he's had no formal training and only started cooking recently. He's stated that he'd like to pursue cooking full-time, so it'll be interesting to see where that leads him.

As for what's next for Paladar, expect a documentary (directed by Gil Freston) to be released in the near future. More importantly, given that the duo is graduating, Paladar will be moving to Bacaro LA, which is actually just a stone's throw away from the old apartment. I'm curious to see what they can do with a real space and a real kitchen. The first dinner will be Mother's Day, Sunday, May 8, so be on the lookout for that!

Paladar Interior