A wilder harmony arises from a quartet of hot bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Parmesan. A thick, crisp slice of applewood-smoked premium bacon is a delicious foil to each fruit, and the cheese inside is melted to a rich, nutty-flavored goo. I took a couple of these home to gently nuke the next morning, and they were a breakfast of champions -- or at least a champion breakfast.
Asian flavors are represented in several seafood dishes. Black mussels in Thai red coconut curry make a full entrée for one (or even two, if you've been noshing through the menu). The mussels were pristine, every single one clean-smelling, open, and tender. The curry is light, thinned with sake and sweetened with a simple syrup infused with Kaffir lime leaves. The dish is decorated with spinach leaves, deep-fried to crisp, translucent green lace (a technique Walsh borrowed from Nobu -- the famous New York Nobu, that is). Alongside are crostini to dip in the sauce; ask the waiter for more if you need them.
Vietnamese braised jumbo sea scallops -- another substantial portion -- were instantly recognizable as a piscine spin on Vietnamese shaking beef -- very specifically, the shaking beef cooked by Charles Pham at San Francisco's famed Slanted Door, where both Walsh and I have enjoyed the dish. The tender scallops are robed in a sauce of caramelized sugar, ground star anise, and plentiful black pepper, with additional spice from Thai basil and togarashi ("seven spices"), a Japanese powdered blend that includes hot Asian chilies, orange zest, ginger, and nori seaweed. The dish has plenty of kick, and the star anise and citrus peel keep drawing you into it with their seductive fragrances. Alongside is a mound of spice-sprinkled jasmine rice and a slice of starfruit (carambola). Crisp and tart, the fruit is good for nibbling between bites to "cool" the sugar and heat.
Less successful, we thought, was a miso-glazed salmon medallion with palm sugar vinaigrette and fried pea-shoot leaves. Nothing seriously wrong there (although the fish may have been cooked a few seconds too long), but it was less jazzy than our other dishes. There's also a plate of jumbo shrimp tempura with garlic fries and chipotle aioli. We didn't try it, but as a familiar-sounding dish among the exotica, it was a clear favorite of the hard-drinking young crowd at the designer pocketbook show.
The same crowd went for the Mexican-influenced dishes, I noticed. Trying some ourselves, we loved the mini-quesadillas of folded-over small corn tortillas (themselves remarkably full-flavored) filled with squash blossoms, huitlacoche, and queso fresco. The secret is: split them open and insert some of the savory roasted tomato salsa served alongside, which completes the chord. But I found a rock shrimp tostada dish rather ordinary, dominated by the bean component.
Still hungry? A good choice to cap off a grazing dinner is the beef tenderloin skewer, featuring superb rare meat with a double-dip: a gorgonzola fondue made with a fine grade of cheese and a rich dark red port wine reduction. The two invariably flow together. You can even play fancy chef and paint psychedelic squiggle patterns with the sauces on your plate.
"Sliders" is the final menu section, consisting of four hot mini-burgers, plus a grilled baguette with Fontina cheese, turkey, et al. The sliders come in choices of Indian spiced lamb, Angus beef, or duck confit, all served with garlic fries. We tried the duck, its bun garnished with a sweet honey-rum glaze. Given a limited appetite, I prefer to spend mine on the more original and venturesome dishes here, but the sliders are mainstays of the cocktail crowd. The garlic fries proved quite garlicky, but otherwise, they're McDonald's-style, slim and pale with pulpy interiors. At a restaurant as good as Confidential, I'd have expected double-fried frites with melting interiors, or crisp, skinny straw-fried potatoes -- in short, something more spectacular. Odds are, the club kids prefer them as is.
Finding beverages to go with such a range of dishes and flavors was a labor of love and laughter. The house cocktails I tried mainly ran sweet for my tastes (with the exception of the stately $14 Millionaire Margarita, made with anejo tequila and fresh-squeezed lime). I usually match fruity white wines with spicy ethnic foods, and a selection of non-Chard, non-Sauv vintages, labeled something like "Good to Know," held suitable choices, including a Riesling, a Gewürtz, a Viognier, and especially a lyrical Marsanne-Viognier blend. Headwaiter Sam (he's the tattooed guy) displays excellent taste in both the foods and wines here and dispenses reliable advice; the second evening I followed his suggestion of a glass of Chalk Hill Chardonnay. It truly had the "right stuff," a blend of butter and oak with a strong enough backbone to stand up to every storm of seasonings.
Desserts seem aimed at the younger crowd, with choices like vanilla bean crème brûlée and white chocolate brownies (with an option for gooey sauces). I tried the one grown-up possibility, crustless Meyer lemon cheese tart with fruit confit. Not bad, but I think Walsh's pronounced sweet tooth is better expressed when he uses fruits and syrups as grace notes for savory and spicy dishes -- a skill he's mastered. Since he changes the menu with the seasons, I can hardly wait to come back and see what he'll invent next.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I started learning to cook at a very young age," says chef Chris Walsh. "My mother was a good cook and had been a restaurateur before I was born, and she looked back on it with a certain remembered glamour. I was just naturally curious about cooking. I never intended to become a chef, yet my first job was in a restaurant when I was 16 -- washing dishes. I enjoyed it, oddly enough! They let me start cooking three months into the job. Because I cooked at home, I already knew how to use a knife and to cook simple stuff. By the time I was 17, I was actually the sous chef of a small Italian restaurant, Ristorante Gallileo, in Poway, my hometown. I studied for a year at Mesa College's Culinary Food Service Program, but I found I was learning more from actually working in restaurants.