Monday, May 2, 2011

The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia - 04/30/2011

5921 Valencia Circle
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
(858) 756-1123

I so rarely make it down to San Diego for dinner though there have been a number of places on my list to try. The food on my last trip down consisted of Phil's BBQ and Tacos del Gordo so I was intrigued when KevinEats invited me to a dinner at The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia in Rancho Santa Fe north of San Diego. I'm always skeptical about hotel restaurants but I was somewhat reassured when I learned that Rancho Valencia is part of the Auberge Resorts whose portfolio includes a Michelin starred restaurant at Auberge du Soleil.

The resort's restaurant was quite difficult to find on the property's sprawling grounds reminding me of Meadowood in Napa Valley which oddly enough also names its restaurant just "Restaurant."  Once we arrived, I was a bit put off by the dated resort style decor and hoped that the food wouldn't be equally uninspired.  The regular menu consists of typical brasserie fare: raw bar, cheese & charcuterie, soup and salad heavy appetizers, and fairly typical mains.  Fortunately we were given a special tasting menu that was far more ambitious and avant garde.

Heading the restaurant is Eric Bauer, formerly the head chef at Anthology in San Diego.  His earlier experience includes an exec chef position at Morel's Steakhouse in The Palazzo as well as sous chef positions at two Four Seasons properties: Westlake Village and Peninsula Papagayo.  Joining him as Chef de Cuisine was Aaron Martinez formerly of Addison and Belgium's modernist Flemish restaurant, In de Wulf. We learned these two would be responsible for giving the Restaurant's menu a face lift to go along with its impending renovation.

Snack 01: kale chips
I'm not sure what they used to season the dehydrated kale leaves but the result was a unique salty/sour flavor with a light spicy undertone.

Snack 02: goat cheese sable
The goat cheese sable combined a dry crumbly cracker smoky prosciutto and a tingly herbal goat cheese.

Amuse: crudités
Traditional crudités basically amount to sliced vegetables with dip, hardly the way to start a progressive tasting menu. Instead we were presented with an impressively modern reinterpretation featuring lettuce puree and granite with pickled carrots and wildflowers. The resulting amalgam blends vegetal, tart, floral, and citrus flavors into a single refreshingly brisk morsel.

01: pickles, yellow tail, horseradish chickweed
The yellowtail turned out to be Australian Hiramasa, think Hamachi but fattier, which has become substantially more popular at restaurants almost overnight. The slick supple fish was paired with slivers of pickled cucumber and chickweed, a mild peppery herb. Again the greens provided acidity and herbaceousness to balance the weight of the fish.

02: english peas, dungeness crab, lemon balm & dill
The combination of chilled pea soup and fresh crab meat really captures the essence of spring.  The pressed crab terrine possesses a palpable salinity that intensifies the crab's natural essence.  Balanced against the crab was a delightful pea veloute, its subdued earthy sweetness attenuates the forcefulness of the shellfish.

03: pacific northwest morels, hazelnuts & pine
This was probably the most intriguing course of the night; the various elements work in perfect concert to create an edible "forest floor." the sappy sweet aroma of pine is immediately evident in the soil and taken with the morels enhances the profound earthy smokiness of the mushrooms.  The trio of greens: stinging nettles, wood sorrel, and yarrow add an herbal vivacity to the dusky weight of the fungi and soil.

04: cherries, dutch white asparagus, black truffle & nasturtium
The inky black truffle sauce was added to the plate table-side; its florid aroma drawing appreciative murmurers from the group.  The asparagus itself was tender with just a light char and clean grassy temper, perfect with the lavish bouquet of truffle jus.  Though I liked the truffle stuffed Bing cherry, the cooked preparations were far too sweet for the asparagus.

05: alaskan halibut, potato, oyster & ramps
The halibut was flaky and moist; its typically mild flavor was enhanced by the presence of oysters and a fish fumé.  The ramps and wildflowers provided graceful hints of freshness and levity.  Meanwhile the hay roasted potatoes imparted a rustic gravity to the savoriness of the fish.

06: turnips, tête pressée, lovage, spring onions
Tête pressée just sounds so much more appetizing than pressed pigs head.  Regardless of the name, the meat itself was sublime; the surface possessed a savory crunch but the majority was meltingly tender and carried a brazen porcine essence.  Along with the turnips, an earthy broth of lovage, a Chinese medicinal herb, provided a countervailing bitterness that gave the dish a surprising lightness.

07: rhubarb, radish, wild squab & mustard
The final savory of the night was a single breast of roasted squab stuffed with hay.  The meat itself was ever so slightly overdone and surprisingly mild.  The light gamy tang of the bird was not accompanied by the typical oily richness; as a result the rhubarb and radish were almost overpowering.  Though some of my companions found the accompaniments essential, I thought the bird would have been fine without them.

08: beet root, rose & yogurt
The amuse consisted of tart yogurt and ripe beet granite.  I normally abhor the blunt leaden feel and saccharine flavor of beets but the granite possessed neither of these.

09 verbena, mascarpone, crows pass strawberries & elderflower
The single dessert of the night was a blend of ripe strawberry, creamy mascarpone ice cream.  I quite enjoyed the interplay between the tart mascarpone and the playful sweetness of the strawberry soup as well as the sugary crunch of the strawberry chips.

10: mignardises
We were presented with two types of chocolate: Rancho Valencia Orange and Salted Caramel.  I much preferred the decadent salty sweetness of the latter to the more refined dark chocolate and citrus flavors of the former.  As a final surprise, small gift boxes of salted caramels were placed in each of our cars.

I was expecting this to exceed garden variety hotel fare but I certainly wasn't expecting the meal to be this good.  The courses are progressive but poised with elements of Martinez's time at In de Wulf are evident in the techniques and minimalist plating.  If I absolutely had to point out a flaw it would be the over reliance on acidic and bitter flavor profiles to add contrast to the savory dishes.  Personally I loved the complexity and depth they added, but I could see how someone else might find the flavors repetitive.  Bauer and Martinez deserve much credit for their efforts.  I suspect I will be frequenting San Diego more often in the near future, for their revamped a la carté menu if nothing else.


Charlie Fu said...

that's a hell of a discount :D.

The pea soup / crab looks pretty tasty.

Epicuryan said...

Hey Charlie,

I think the 1/8ths look deceiving they actually charged me 8 1/8ths of the tasting menu.

The pea soup & crab was quite good and the food in general was very impressive.

Kiera Williams said...

You are absolutely right, Charlie Fu. The pea soup is a good choice for an appetiser because it looks really yummy. Kudos to this good restaurant review!