Let me clarify that. I think when we die we get front row seats to a review of our entire lives… we firsthand relive the proud moments of achievements completed and we watch, eyes fixated to the screen, the disasters of our lives feeling every bit of emotions we did the first time. We cannot hide from ourselves. You never can.
In 30 years of cooking I have never eaten where I worked. It is near impossible to separate myself from being so intimately connected to simply being a guest. It was voyeuristic to watch firsthand how people react to your soul being laid out on a plate naked for the world to gawk at, criticize, compliment. It is one thing to get a good/bad review on the internet where people hide behind computer screens and critic your efforts anonymously and it is completely another thing sitting next to them, hearing their comments live, unfiltered. I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to do so.
Last night my wife and I went on a date to Figue in La Quinta, California where I am Executive Chef. We walked in the massive front door and were promptly greeted by one of our hostesses. We settled on a few drinks and a charcuterie plate at the bar before going to our table. We ordered two different bubbly cocktails. I had the Poinsettia and Lisa tried the Fraises Embrouille. I really enjoyed mine, it had the perfect balance of flavors, sweetness and tartness. Lisa fraises embrouille lacked flavor and needed some amping up. Celeste, our sommelier, had our drinks remade and it was much better the second time.
Our Italian American charcuterie plate was amazing. On the plate was slices of charcuterie from various salumi producers in America who make Italian charcuterie, olive and mostarda. The absolute best was the lardo made from Spanish Bellota pigs by la Quercia in Iowa. Lardo is completely decadent and rich and amazing. We enjoyed the perfect bit with the richness playing off the saltiness of our house made focaccia. The varzi salumi with it’s distinct cloves and nutmeg flavors from Creminelli in Utah was the perfect foil for the sweet, mustardy mostarda. Javier, our waiter, brought the complimentary bread service which tonight was Turkish flatbread served with Labne, a house made yogurt cheese dusted with Aleppo pepper. Mistakenly he called the bread Syrian mountain bread but I wasn’t here to correct while eating. The bread was doughy and undercooked and felt like a dagger being stuck into my heart. I live and breathe my food and it hurts to see it served incorrectly. I pushed it aside and continued with the amazing focaccia.
The hostess returned and took us to our table. On the table are beautiful, hand made pottery diamond shaped plates made by the Wheel in San Diego that we use as share plates. They are incredible plates.
Normally when I eat out I scan the menu for dishes I really am excited to try. Any belly, pork belly, hamachi belly, usually gets my vote. Tonight I picked dishes I normally would never pick. I love scallops but I never order them. Part of the problem is they usually suck. It is more normal to get water added, or wet scallops, than it is to get diver picked dry scallops. We also ordered the charred tuna crudo with Moroccan Charmoula. The whole tuna served raw thing is so over played now that it is easy for me to look past that on any menu. Tonight I ordered both and was reminded of how gorgeous and delicious they can be.
The thin slices of charred tuna marinated in Moroccan spices served with orange segments and deep fried garlic chips sang in my mouth. Every bite was an explosion of exotic flavors. The scallops were perfectly seared by my sous chef Alejandro Hernandez and served with a pile of zucchini spaghetti and a carrot juice and saffron emulsion. Like a bad infection, the underdone flatbread reappeared at our table. I returned it, hoping never to see it again. Celeste our unbelievable sommelier picked a Pic Poul that went spot on with both dishes.
We moved onto two newer dishes, a Piquillo Pepper roasted and stuffed with Cypress Grove Sgt. Pepper’s Goat Cheese served over a Mache Salad dressed in a shallot vinaigrette that to me was jaw dropping in it’s flavors, richness and creaminess. We also had the Spring Sweet Pea and Mascarpone Ravioli in a Lemon Vegetable Brodo with Truffled Pesto. It was outstanding. I had eaten my fair share of these raviolis in the kitchen but to get them table-side was orgasmic. We decided to let Celeste go and surprise us with wine choices. She knows my palate well enough. She picked a Cinsault Rose that sang to the gods.
We moved onto probably my favorite dish on the current menu, a whole Daurade Royale served with Artichoke and Fennel Barigoule with Olive Tapenado. Celeste served two wines, a Domaine Coulerette Chablis that sang and an effervescent Getariako. Both were great in their own way. One thing I always wonder is why more guests coming to a restaurant do not leave the experience in the hands of the Chef and sommelier. It is a far more interesting way to eat and you will probably try things you are unfamiliar with. Part of the problem is we fear letting go of control. We think we are open minded and ready for spontaneous things. When in reality we want to be firmly in control fearing the unexplored and the new and different.
While eating the Daurade the table next to us returned the Porchetta, a spit roasted acorn fed pig slow cooked over a wood fire on our custom made Italian rotisserie. I ordered some to try it myself. Another dish I love in the kitchen but would never order. The customer felt it was too fatty. I felt it was perfectly cooked and would not change a thing. Sometimes dear friends the customer is NOT right. The Pigue Newton, a fig and bacon compote we serve with it went extremely well. Celeste had picked a Burgundy to match the pork. Another great choice.
While eating I noticed a gentleman I had spoken with a few days before sitting at the table next to me. The attempt of dining incognito ended. I bought two desserts for the porchetta table and introduced myself when they received it. I said hello and talked with the gentlemen I met before and started a great conversation with the folks next to me who happened to be from my hometown of Chicago. I also met the owner of a few area restaurants and discussed our concept with him. Celeste is pictured above with the doctor who owns three area restaurants.
We finished the night off with a dessert me and former pastry Chef Sarah Smith had come up with while working at Copper Beech Inn in Connecticut a few years back. It has been re purposed and modified with current pastry chef Carla Rojas. It is a Strawberry Soup with a Vacherin of Mara de Bois Strawberries and Frozen Lavender Yogurt.
All in all it was a great night and everyone made me proud. I am so happy with my sous chef Alex and my entire kitchen staff. Javier and the front of the house did really really well minus a few mistakes on menu knowledge. Micheal my charcuterie bar Chef did an amazing job with the cold food. I forgot to mention he served us a delectable parmesan shortbread with tomato confit and Bulgarian feta… I slept very easily knowing we are on the straight and narrow road. I may eat here again before thirty years pass… If you come to visit ask for me!