Perhaps you've read about "foams" in your cooking magazines or the New York Times, and wondered: what's a foam, and why? It's an airy emulsion, a tickle of a flavor, an overtone, like a seasoning captured in champagne bubbles. The technique was pioneered at a famous Spanish restaurant called El Bulli and is now rife in restaurants in the "foodie" cities of the U.S. Well, the trout came with almond foam, a pouf of bittersweet almond essence, decorated with a few slices of the nut. It wasn't put there merely to show off the chef's skill -- it was right for the dish. Maybe Manhattanites can take foams and flawless flavor matchups for granted. In San Diego, we're not yet so privileged.
Maine diver scallops were big, juicy, and clean-flavored, skillet-marked but pearly-pink inside, dressed in brown-butter vinaigrette. They had a bittersweet surface glaze and marked their passage with a hint of white pepper's scorchy aftertaste. They came with tiny chanterelles and flat "pole beans" (resembling Romano beans) that were so fresh and sweet they fooled my mouth into taking them for sugar snap peas. Chino Farms corn rode alongside in a turmeric-flavored coulis (rough purée).
The sole dish that didn't knock us out was our fault, and the steer's -- not the chef's. A dry-aged pedigreed New York strip steak resembled ahi tuna or filet mignon, soft, tender, but too mild in flavor. We should have gone for the flatiron steak -- with garlic custard! -- instead. Our meat could have used a sprinkle more salt, but we loved the accompaniments of a red-wine reduction, buttery Yukon Gold potato purée (tasting as sweet as butternut squash) and grilled vegetables. "I hate okra," said Dave, spearing another piece of it, "but this okra is okay."
We skipped a cheese course to head straight for Fisher's bold desserts, ordering four of them for four of us, compared to our usual grudging two-for-four. Sweet corn cake resembled an oversized grainy, southern-style corn muffin with honey undertones, served warm with candied peaches, blueberry sauce, and Chino Farms corn ice cream. Corn ice cream? Lordy, yes! My gang agreed that the combination was brilliant.
Fig Napoleon is risky fun, a great dish if your taste (like mine) runs to barely sweet desserts. Layers of house-made orange-flavored ricotta were separated by crisp, cracker-like pastry layers that reminded me of Indian pappadam. A scoop of rosemary-buttermilk sherbet sat atop a thicker cracker-cookie. The rosemary was elusive, a tiny lash of herbal bitterness under the sweetness.
A square of crème fraîche panna cotta, a bit on the firm (flan-like) side, was islanded in a lagoon of light melon soup. The innocent sensuality of the combination reminded me of Lolita (in the book, not the movie), an angel-faced 13-year old snapping her gum, with no clue that she's a little hottie. We also enjoyed a peach tarte tatin, with pine nut brittle and mascarpone gelato. Nothing too revolutionary there, just plenty of charm.
Our waitress knew the waiting game (although in her real life she's headed for med school). She proved the opposite of the "dumb blonde" who'd served us so ineptly last winter. Chelsea, from Mandeville, Louisiana, had obviously tasted her way through the menu and sipped from the wine list. Better yet, she read our table right by our choice of dishes and our pleasure in eating them. She offered us a sample of the new-to-the-list Castelnaux du Chateau Suiduiraut dessert wine ($13 a glass), knowing that we'd appreciate it. Seduced by the sip, we ordered a glass to share around. Sauternes wines are so sweetly intense, it doesn't take much to enjoy their quality -- they're liquid gold. This one capped off a superb meal with a final taste of paradise.
ABOUT THE CHEFS
Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and raised in Southern California, Jason Knibb got his training on the job. "I got into cooking by accident. My first job was bussing tables at a restaurant in Playa Del Rey. I was into surfing and didn't show up one day. I got fired. My neighbor was the executive chef, and he talked me into coming back and working in the kitchen, something I might like -- it's more fast-paced. I went back there and...it was fun. I was inspired by the guys in the kitchen -- they were having fun. From there, it just took off. I had another neighbor who was an expediter for Wolfgang Puck at Eureka Restaurant in L.A. He told me, 'If you're really serious about cooking, you should try and get a job there.' I took him up on it...and I got a job making pizzas and salads. It was a big eye-opener, the amount of creativity, the passion you saw in Wolfgang. It was overwhelming, in a positive way."
He subsequently worked for Roy Yamaguchi at Roy's Kahana Bar & Grill in Maui, for Hans Rockenwagner at Rockenwagner's in Santa Monica, and Rox restaurant in Beverly Hills. After stints at restaurants in San Francisco, Warsaw, Poland, and Venice, California, he moved to Sundance, Utah, to work under La Jolla's own Trey Foshee at the famed Sundance Resort. He took over as the resort's executive chef when Foshee departed. "I was there for about five years. But I had a newborn son, and I wanted to get back to the coast, because Utah was at a standstill in cuisine. I wanted to get back into the game." Trey taught him much about what should go on the plates: "You let the products speak for themselves. That was something I picked up from working with him."
I asked him how he got away with doing original, creative cooking in San Diego, when so many chefs here feel that patrons won't let them take chances. "I've heard that, too," he said. "I think it's a matter of being who you are and doing what you want. You just have to do it. Over time, they start to trust you and trust your food. You have to do the simple things well for them to understand what you're doing. The whole menu can't be crazy. You can do a few dishes that are really different, but also some simple things so there are things out there for everybody. You just do it, and they'll follow suit. Plus, starting with Michael, we have a reputation for good food, using good products. As much as possible, we use smaller local farms, natural meats, wild fish. So you get more 'food types' coming in here, compared to, say, a Sheraton or a Marriott."