9550 Waples Street #115, Sorrento Valley
The WineSellar and Brasserie is a longtime local favorite "splurge" restaurant, oddly located in a soulless industrial park, one of many such parks that dominate an area that looks as if designed en masse by a single life-hating architect or committee: You pass blocks of arid rectangular boxes, gray-tan or tan-gray, a smoggy neutral color that, when employed with such uniformity, seems designed to transform individuals into robots that serve an unknown entity's bidding. (It's Fritz Lang's industrial nightmare Metropolis translated to the Information Age.) But here in the bleached barrens of Efficiency-Land is a serious wine shop, devoted to one form of sensuality, and upstairs, an attractive white-tablecloth restaurant serving those wines to accompany craftsmanly cuisine -- more pleasure, indulgence, ease. The WineSellar is a hidden oasis, a haven of human vitality in the corporate desert.
I went there with my most frequent posse -- the Lynnester, Jim (the chocoholic samurai), Sam, and his friend Mark, visiting from Colorado. As we debated what starter to order, Mark noticed the yellowfin tartare -- it hasn't invaded Boulder yet. The rest of us gently vetoed it as a local cliché, but I think our attentive waiter must have overheard. After we ordered, and before our starters arrived, we were treated to amuses bouches of that very item -- puffs of minced raw tuna over squares of brioche toast, with lemons, capers, fresh herbs, and a crown of crème fraîche. The crème fraîche put it over the top, making it special after all.
The appetizer-of-appetizers was a thick square of duck foie gras, set over a near-as-thick layer of mango coulis, spread on ethereal croutons of toasted brioche. The top of the foie was painted with a sweet Port wine glaze and scattered with caramel pistachios. Admittedly, every fine foie gras becomes my favorite until the next one comes along, but this one might just become a permanent delight. The liver was cooked to exceptional tenderness, just barely to the right side of done, and the sweet-sassy mango seemed an ideal fruit, its quantity some ideal Pythagorean ratio. I'm surprised they allow this dish in an industrial park. It subverts every value implied by the gray boxes.
Honey-soy--cured hamachi (yellowtail) had flavors from the opposite side of the globe. ("It's odd to find this at the same table with the foie gras," said Mark.) It was our universal second favorite. The sweet slices, thicker than standard sashimi, allowed for juicy, tender chews, mirrored by softer avocado slices. Shaved English cucumber and daikon sprouts lightened up the textures, while sesame creme added a nuttiness to balance the honey.
Silky slices of cold-smoked New Zealand king salmon were arranged in a pile next to a blini (what's the proper singular of blini -- blinus? blintz?) heaped with braised leek circles, diced Yukon potato, and capers, all robed in horseradish creme. (None of us spotted even a speck of the American black sturgeon caviar the menu promised.) Alas, the blini was thick, pale, and doughy -- Icarus as a pudgy, pasty-faced nerd, plummeting earthward with lox on his head.
We ventured into the salads with a grilled lamb composition, slices of rare, mild Colorado lamb over spinach with a Pommery mustard dressing and crumbled feta. It was pleasant with its zesty dressing, as was a puréed fresh pea soup that was less sweet than hoped for, dotted with wild mushrooms, topped with "truffle chantilly cream" in which we couldn't really discern the truffle component.
We'd all hoarded a bit of our first-course white wine to drink with our seafood entrée, pan-seared Maine Diver scallops, cooked à point, bathed in a light ragout of tomato punctuated by diced Maine lobster and organic corn kernels. The scallops were marvelous and perfectly done to opalescent, but the corn wasn't sweet enough to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. The overall effect was of tasty Italianate cooking by a good home cook, falling just short of its riveting possibilities. Sweet corn is hard to find off-season, but several other local chefs somehow manage it (heaven knows how), so it's not impossible.
When I saw pan-roasted pheasant on the menu, I knew I had to have it -- not because I'm so taken with that snooty fowl, but because cooking it is so perilous that I love to let other people do it. When you get it right, the white meat has a lovely piney undertone -- but the breast is so lean it can dry out to cardboard in a New York minute. And in wild pheasants, the lower half is so stringy, it's only fit for braising or gravy. The only solution I ever found was to forget the dumb "roast pheasant under glass" mystique and divide the critter to cook the parts separately. So I was very pleased when a half-bird arrived in two pieces. The crisp-skinned thigh-leg was simply pan roasted, a piece plump and tender enough to indicate a farm-raised bird, not a shot-ridden fowl from the woods. The breast was skinned, boned, and pounded, then rolled around a moist stuffing anchored by foie gras, sweetened by onion and stone fruits (probably peach), with more bits of foie gras on the side. A foie gras stuffing proves perfect for pheasant -- not for show but for moisture. It was a fine dish. The bird came with mild cooked dandelion greens and an assortment of baby root vegetables.
The original chef of the Brasserie was Douglas Organ (who moved to Boston a few years ago), but some of his dishes live on. One such is a classic French combination of grilled duck breast and confit of duck leg (legs and thighs braised tender, then reheated in their own rendered fat to crisp the surface). What divides an ordinary confit from a sublime one (e.g., Jeff Jackson's at A.R. Valentien and Alain Rondelli's at legendary, long-gone Ernie's in San Francisco) is a thin coating of bread crumbs or the like, to take on the task of crunching and crackling that unalloyed braised bird-skin rarely manages on its own. (If you try blasting it to crispness, the meat's liable to dry out or the skin to tear.) Here, the confit meat was tender but the skin was limp -- tasty, but once again closer to top-notch, home-style cuisine bourgeoise than to haute cuisine. Most of the breast slices were tender, but among them were three or four riddled with gristle, impossible to chew and swallow. The accompaniments offered bright, sweet flavors -- balsamic and orange sauce, sweet potato purée, and homely baby root vegetables that, soaking up the sweet sauce, turned alluring. ("Without your glasses, Miss Turnip, you're...beautiful!")