Kitchen 1540 (San Diego)
Posted 01 December 2011 - 02:12 AM
Kitchen 1540 – 20 Dishes, 10 Courses – White Flag Tasting Menu
Our interest in everything about food, cooking and restaurants isn’t much of a secret to our co-workers and so it is not surprising that often discussions at work center around these topics. One question we are asked regularly is about the best restaurant and special memorable meals. It is impossible to answer about “the” best restaurant as we like a broad spectrum of restaurants ranging from small ethnic hole in the walls to high-end upscale restaurants and it really depends on the occasion and mood which ones we prefer on a given day. And so it is easier to just agree on general criteria for a good restaurant – quality of food and service paired with a fitting ambience. The more interesting question is about special memorable meals and how they are defined for us. Even though we are not fixed on one particular cuisine it became more apparent for us over the years that we truly remember and discuss for a long time those dinners in restaurants which are trying to combine unusual flavor and ingredient combinations far outside of what the majority of restaurants are serving often incorporating modern techniques. Most of the restaurants we enjoy most, like Bistro LQ, Saam or Coi are located in Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Diego has a number of restaurants we have on our heavy rotation list but for a long time none of them really belonged to the list of restaurants for one of these memorable dinners. At the same time the background and reputation of several chefs in San Diego is on par with their peers in LA and San Francisco and so we often wondered if there are hidden gems in San Diego we are missing. More recently we decided to focus on finding those unique restaurants in San Diego and were quite happy to indeed find those special places like Blanca under Gavin Schmidt and Rancho Valencia with Aaron Martinez.
Encouraged by these findings we decided recently to contact more restaurants in San Diego to discuss with several chefs if they would be interested in preparing special tasting menus without any limitations. One of the restaurants which was on the top of our list was Kitchen 1540 in the L’Auberge Hotel in Del Mar. The restaurant under Chef McCabe was our very first fine dining experience in San Diego several years ago when it was still named J. Taylor. But we still discuss today some of the dishes we had like a venison entrée or a dessert with a selection of different crème brulees. Paul McCabe, born in Arizona, started his culinary career as an apprentice under Chef Michel Blanchet at the L’Ermitage in Los Angeles. Over the next few years Chef McCabe held different positions with increasingly more responsibility at restaurants in California, Arizona and Hawaii including Sous Chef and Chef de Cuisine at the Enchantment Resort, Sous Chef at the L’Ermitage before in 2001 he finally settled in San Diego as Executive Chef at Top of the Cove. He moved in 2002 to the Star of the Sea before becoming Executive Chef at J.Taylor which after extensive renovation in 2008 reopened as Kitchen 1540.
After some email exchange with GM Bryan LaFontaine we finally settled on a 10-course White Flag Tasting Menu where we served up to ten courses but could “throw up the white flag at anytime we feel that we cannot eat anymore”.
Hibiscus Caipirinha: Leblon Cachaca, Domaine de Canton, fresh lime, house made hibiscus syrup
We started the night with an interesting twist on this classical Brazilian cocktail which got some refreshing floral notes from the hibiscus syrup balanced by the ginger liqueur.
Bread Service: Kitchen 1540 serves several different breads for the bread service. Most of the selection is decent with the highlight of the grape-fleur de sel foccacia
Course 1A: Bison tartare, smoked bacon Sabayon, brioche, chives
We had many different tartars so far covering beef, deer or venison but this was the first time with bison. The bison had a surprisingly strong and rich flavor with some subtle background notes from the mixed-in lemon oil. The bacon sabayon added a complementing smoothness to this excellent dish.
Course 1B: Hamachi crudo, shishito peppers, grapefruit supremes, shaved bottarga
We expected to get the same courses throughout the tasting menu but were surprised when our server brought us two different first courses and mentioned that chef McCabe was planning to continue so for the entire menu so that we had a chance to taste more different dishes – a nice and welcome surprise. Here we had some beautiful pieces of hamachi with a firm but yet melting, tender consistency which were paired in a classical fashion for crudo with a sour-salty-peppery mix consistent of grapefruit, bottarga and shishito peppers. A very good example of McCabe’s approach to show his own interpretation of well known dishes by adding unexpected but yet fitting components.
Course 2A: Organic beets, Valdeon blue, pistachio brittle, caramelized yogurt
Beets can be a difficult ingredient to work with as it easily can overshadow a dish with its earthy sometimes even muddy flavor. And so we like beets as part of a dish but are often wary about it as the main ingredient. Here we have a prime example how it can take the center stage but its flavors are impressively incorporated into the whole dish – tender beets perfectly cooked so that they also show their subdued natural sweetness are nicely balanced with the sharpness and saltiness of the strong cow and goat’s milk cheese whereas the pistachio brittle not only gives a textural contrast but also some appreciated sweetness.
Course 2B: Farm house salad - organic vegetables, sundried tomato puree, pistou gelee, orange blossom vinaigrette
It’s interesting to see that some of the fine dining restaurants, like Blanca and Rancho Valencia, had on their recent tasting menus some interpretations of salads showcasing the abundance of outstanding local produce covering it from very different angles. Whereas Blanca’s approach focused on the flavors of the produce itself with very minimal distraction from anything else, e.g. vinaigrette, Kitchen 1540 incorporated the produce in a much more complex dish with many different flavor components including some dehydrated goat cheese, sundried tomato puree, orange blossom vinaigrette and olive powder. Both variations were very different but highlights of their tasting menus and for us a kind of “signature dish” for San Diego.
Course 3A: Bacon & egg - house made pancetta, 62°C egg, brioche, smoked ketchup
There are dishes where you immediately known that they are a success when they are brought to the table even before you taste them. What can go wrong if you combine pancetta, a runny egg and some brioche and perfected by some tangy ketchup and arugula to cut through the richness. A dish you want to have for breakfast every day.
Course 3B: Diver scallop, popcorn puree, candied almonds, salted caramel, nasturtium
The combination of tender diver scallop and popcorn puree with its intensified corn flavor worked surprisingly well. The candied almonds gave some additional sweetness and textural contrast to the dish and so the salted caramel played a key role as it provide some much need saltiness to counter the sweetness of the other ingredients.
Course 4A: Pan roasted sweetbreads, smoked almond milk, blis maple, apple celery salad
Too often sweetbreads are covered in a thick crust of breading so that it is hard to discern their natural flavor. Here we had a perfectly roasted sweetbread without any distracting coating just with a crisp outer layer and a creamy core. The apple celery salad gave a refreshing touch to the dish whereas the smoked almond milk acted as overarching component pairing nicely with the sweetbreads and the apple celery salad independently.
Course 4B: Stone seared foie gras, tangerine pop rocks, tangerine reduction, black pepper financier
Very interesting preparation and presentation of a flawless piece of foie gras seared by the hot stone. The thyme under the hot stone added an enticing aroma component to the dish. The tangerine reduction proved to be sweet enough to cut through the richness of the foie gras but not to be overly sweet to dominate the dish. The tangerine pop rocks were a nice gimmick adding some acidity whereas the black pepper financier had some noticeable spiciness from the pepper.
Course 5A: Pan seared Barramundi, clams, Yukon potato, pancetta, celery, Tabasco
This dish was a play on a deconstructed clam chowder centered around the moist barramundi with its crispy skin. The clams brought some of their characteristic brininess which was enhanced by the saltiness of the pancetta. The potato and the celery acted as the base of the dish with earthiness and tied the components of this successful “clam chowder” together.
Course 5B: Pan seared Black Cod, cipollini onions, fingerlings potatoes, chorizo-mussel broth
Conceptionally a similar approach but with a different flavor profile as the other fish dish – centered around the very flaky black cod, a good combination of brininess and saltiness from the chorizo and mussel broth and again potatoes, this time accompanied by cipollini onions, as the base of the dish. Both dishes showed that the strength of Kitchen 1540 of working with fish.
Course 6A: Organic chicken – sous vide breast, crispy thigh, chicken-fennel sausage, lobster mushroom, scrambled cauliflower, jalapeno-apple gastrique
Chicken is often dreaded in tasting menus as too boring and flavorless but here we had an impressive take on different parts of the chicken – chicken breast which was cooked by sous-vide to ensure a very tender and moist piece, crispy, flavorful thigh and housemade chicken sausage. The jalapeno-apple sauce was a key part of the dish as it added a complex sweet-sour-spicy mix which lightened up the preparation.
Course 6B: Braised Kurobuta pork shoulder, herb gnocchi, braised cabbage, bacon, pickled onion
The most rustic dish of the tasting menu was appropriately served in small Staub cocotte. The braised pork shoulder and cabbage was quite close to dishes we have made at home but what elevated this dish for us were the herb gnocchi – light and fluffy yet with distinct flavor supporting the braised ingredients and at the time they transformed the dish to a surprisingly light course.
Course 7A: Natural beef tenderloin, kim chi fried farro, fried egg
Farro is one of the grains you don’t see too often on menus which is a shame as it has a wonderful nutty flavor which works nicely with many different dishes. Here is was quite uniquely combined with kimchi to give the dish a subtle sour character which paired well with the tender, sous vide cooked, beef tenderloin and the fried egg. The dish appeared to be a strange combination of components which didn’t really fit at first but really grow on us after a few bites.
Course 7B: Pork belly, smoked potato croquettes, lobster mushrooms, tomato-cabernet reduction
Pork belly might be one of our favorite cuts of meat and it didn’t disappoint here - very tender with a crisp skin it clearly showed all the strong points one expects. Even though the pork belly took the center stage in this dish it was fittingly accompanied by potato croquettes which could have a stronger smoked flavor and the tomato-cabernet reduction which added some acidity to cut through the richness of the pork belly.
Course 8A + 8B: Cheeses with accompaniments
The cheese plates presented a surprisingly large array of cheeses covering different flavors and textures mainly focusing on cow milk cheese with Schlosskrans, Vintage Gouda, Morbier, Valdeon Blue and Roaring Forties Blue and one goat cheese with Boucheron. Definitely one of the better cheese plates we had in San Diego.
Course 9A: Chocolate caramel tart, orange marshmellow, carbonated orange
A rather classical chocolate caramel tart which came alive by the inclusion of orange. The fruitiness balanced out the sweetness and richness of the chocolate to lighten the dessert. We also liked the addition of marshmellow as it provided an interesting textural contrast to the tart.
Course 9B: Frozen key lime pie, coconut streusel, fried cashews, dehydrated mering
Overall for us the more successful dessert with a very good combination of different textures, temperatures and well balanced flavors. The frozen key lime pie showed the right amount of sweetness and tartness to be refreshing without being too rich. The coconut and cashew flavors helped to tame the sweet- and tartness of the pie even more and added a welcomed complexity to the dish.
Course 10A + B: N2-Ice cream Sunday
At this time of the tasting menu we were one of the last guests in the restaurant and once the server brought out a large metal bowl, ladle and dewar vessel to the table next us a number of servers and cooks gathered around our table to watch the preparation of our last course.
Sous chef Jonathan Bautista came and started to do his work with an iSi creamer and liquid nitrogen…
…to form a sphere of frozen vanilla cream. Together with an array of condiments, like chocolate and caramel sauce, nuts, whipped cream and macerated raspberries, we could than build our own ice cream sunday. The liquid nitrogen gave the frozen vanilla cream a range of different consistencies. The outer layers were frozen very hard whereas the inner layers became softer and softer - a perfect ending to an outstanding tasting menu.
We came with high expectations after our good experience with J. Taylor and Kitchen 1540 easily met and exceeded them. It was refreshing to see that after Blanca and Rancho Valenica there is another restaurant and chef in San Diego who doesn’t only try to satisfy the mainstream by playing it safe but trying to create a unique restaurant with its own identity. The dishes at Kitchen 1540 covered a wide range of ingredients, flavors and inspirations but it always felt as Chef McCabe was trying to create his own vision and not just mimicking other well known restaurants. It was also nice to have a chance to talk to the chef a few times throughout the night and hearing about different topics including the sourcing of his ingredients but also his whole grilled pig which he prepared for a Chef Confab dinner some time ago.
The excellent impression of Kitchen 1540 didn’t stop at the kitchen but was equally spotless with the service – very knowledgable and we never felt rushed so that the food was perfectly paced which was especially welcomed as the dishes were considerable larger than at regular tasting menus and we could understand why it was called white flag tasting menu.
It seems that it is indeed possible to get excellent and creative food in San Diego even though it might take a little bit more efforts than in other cities as it is often necessary to contact many chefs directly to give them the creative freedom they need to create memorable tasting menus. And so we were pleased when shortly after our visit Kitchen 1540 made the white flag tasting menu a regular menu option without any necessary prior notice. Unfortunately very recently Chef McCabe surprisingly decided to leave Kitchen 1540 to become partner at the Delicias restaurant. Even though he mentioned in interviews that the culinary direction at Delicias won’t be as ambitious as at Kitchen 1540 we hope there will be some kind of creative outlet at the restaurant for him to continue to present such outstanding food. It will be also very interesting to see who will follow him as Executive Chef at Kitchen 1540 and if the management at L’Auberge Del Mar is willing to continue to support such an ambitious restaurant concept or if it will convert it to a more “conventional” hotel restaurant. It would be disappointing to lose another important restaurant for San Diego after the closing of Blanca and the changes at Rancho Valenica.
Posted 22 April 2014 - 10:34 PM
One last tasting menu with Chef Jonathan Bautista
Full review and photos: http://bit.ly/1jyK0vo
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 !
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