About the duck confit -- do I dare voice a doubt without offending the entire French nation? Confit consists of salted and herb-rubbed cut-up poultry (usually duck or goose) cooked and stored in its own melted fat, then re-cooked in the fat to crisp the exterior. Laurel's is quite the classic version -- a large leg-thigh piece with the typical hard-crusted exterior and dryish, shreddy meat, bedded atop small green French de Puy lentils, which are spiked with chewy, smoky bacon bites, and wisps of wilted spinach. I've tasted moister confit (just once, from a French chef at Ernie's in San Francisco), but this dish is another that's slated to change next week: The confit will play a supporting role in a cassoulet (French white bean stew), which to my palate is the best possible use for it. (All the seafood dishes are changing to winter species, too, so I won't bother talking about our selections, now off-menu.)
We gobbled through most of the desserts, enjoying them all. The smash hit was part of a "Citrus X 4" taster assortment. A buttermilk panna cotta topped with a subtle orange gelée, resembling haute-cuisine Jell-O, tasted like a Creamsicle, according to the Lynnester. We revisited it until the last scrap was gone. The other citrus offerings included a fluffy warm lemon pudding (so light it was barely there), a grapefruit sorbet, and a compote of mixed citrus, heavy on the grapefruit.
Samurai Jim picked a "chocolate tasting" that included a demitasse of old-fashioned hot chocolate topped by a mini marshmallow (his top pick), a square of molten chocolate cake, and a scoop of white chocolate ice cream (which melted away neglected). A butterscotch pot de crème consisted of white chocolate pudding flavored all through with butterscotch, rich and distinctive. You really have to be a butterscotch fan, but it grew on us. (Literally -- I'm sure it added an inch to my hips.) Goat-cheese cheesecake with tart pomegranate seeds and lemon thyme was ethereal and not the least goaty, a square of fluff with tangy garnishes. Another plus for the dessert course is the choice of five different French-press coffees, each grown in a different area, including a good decaf mocha java. But if you still have some wine left, you can pretend you're in Burgundy and consider the cheese sampler before or instead of the sweets.
Good food, good wine, good people -- this a good place to show off San Diego to those outlander in-laws. And after they're gone, I'll be back at Laurel.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Wine Sellar & Brasserie owner Gary Parker inherited Laurel when chef Douglas Organ, his business partner in both restaurants, pulled up stakes and left for Boston. Too busy with the Brasserie and fed up by the near-endless high-rise construction mess on Fifth Avenue, Parker put Laurel up for sale last spring. Restaurateur Tracy Borkum, owner of Chive, Kensington Grill, and Urban Kitchen Catering, reputedly paid a million for it, and plenty more to renovate it. Now the construction is gone, renovations are done, and Laurel looks like -- a million bucks.
Under the overall aegis of Urban Kitchen's Provence-born executive chef Fabrice Poigin (previously at Bertrand at Mr. A's), chef Amy DiBiase heads Laurel's kitchen.
"I've always worked in restaurants," she says. "I grew up in an Italian family, so food was always around. My grandfather owned a little clam shack in Maine, and on my mom's side, my mom and my aunts were all general managers at restaurants. So I was a little restaurant rat, growing up. I was in the back of the kitchen hanging out with my mom, I'd get stuck doing little jobs, like, I'd be over with the guys portioning meats or bagging things for them, or doing silverware, or helping my mom with her paperwork. I remember counting [cash register] drawers with my mom when I was 15 years old. It was a really good background in the reality of restaurant work.... A lot of people come out of culinary school, never working in a restaurant, and they're just -- sometimes they've spent all that money on school, and when they start working, they just can't handle it.
"Right out of high school I went to Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Rhode Island. Jason Schaefer [Laurel's former executive chef] came from there, too. Right after I graduated I was researching San Diego. (My parents have been living in North County for about 12 years now.) I was going to go to the Hyatt in La Jolla, but I read about this restaurant and about Douglas Organ's reputation, and I came out here to try and get a job at Laurel. And I got here a month after Doug left. It's funny, I moved here from Providence when he moved to Boston. Jason had just gotten promoted, and he hired me.
"I've been at Laurel for four years. I worked my way up, starting as a line cook. I worked under Jason and then under Mary Jo Testa. When she left, I was given the opportunity to be chef de cuisine. I was running the kitchen for a little over a year by myself.
"The way Fabrice and I work together is, he'll have his ideas and I'll have my ideas, and then we'll have meetings together and try to integrate both our ideas, coming up with the dishes together. Most of the dishes, it's both of us."
I asked who made the desserts. "We don't have a pastry chef. I've got two girls here, 19 and 20, right out of school. One of them, it's her first job out of culinary school, the other was a pastry chef in Vegas. They work with Fabrice -- he hands them the ideas, and they try to work through it."
"We're working to get the menu as solid as possible.... We're going to bring back the tapas sampler; we're working on that now. For the winter fish, we're going to have Arctic char and Atlantic cod from Bar Harbor, Maine. We're putting in a cassoulet, a venison chop instead of the lamb, and a new presentation for the beef fillet. I just hope that the local people understand and like what we're trying to do."