The simpler desserts (pot au crème, cobbler, etc.) are made in-house, while more complex ones come from the larger kitchen at Laurel, often made to the chef's specifications. Samurai Jim has been dreaming for several years of a bread pudding to match that of A.R. Valentien. The house-made banana bread pudding here comes very close. The texture is light, and the sugar syrup drizzled on the surface isn't icky-sweet, merely sweet enough.
But the dessert that left my socks way down the block was our waitress's recommendation of a white-chocolate strawberry shortcake. After a big meal, as I've often said, what I want is "sweetened air," and this was exactly that -- a cylinder of fluff, fruit flavor, and gentle sweetness, anchored only by gravity to the planet's surface. It was more than good.
Ever since my superb meal from chef Patrick Ponsaty at Bernard O's (a "neighborhood restaurant" that sets a fabulously high standard, en français) -- compared to an earlier, dreadfully disappointing dinner at Addison -- I've quietly revised my rating system to give more weight to sheer deliciousness -- because the food of some highly accomplished "big name" chefs can be awesome but doesn't necessarily taste delightful. With a neighborhood restaurant like Kensington Grill, the taste factor really counts the most. Hanis Cavin's food is not likely to scare the horses, but it's definitely a free-stepping pace away from the ordinary -- and at the same time, reliably mouth watering. If you've been scrambling to get a reservation at new and trendy Bleu Boheme nearby (to be reviewed next week), you might think again about revisiting an old favorite instead. Good old Kensington Grill is now good old four-star Kensington Grill. I still adore the Moroccan food at Kous-Kous in Hillcrest and the Georgian food at Pomegranate in University Heights, but if you're craving something less exotic and more comfortable in a neighborhood restaurant, this must be the top American-food rendition in the city. With Hanis, to paraphrase Victor Spinetti in the Beatles' movie Help!: Just give him good ingredients and he could rule your mouth.
ABOUT THE CHEF
A longtime chef at Dakota Grill, Hanis Cavin moved on to a quick, fine stint at New Leaf at the downtown Hilton, then proceeded to reinvigorate Pacific Coast Grill in Solana Beach before taking on the Kensington Grill eight months ago. He's a big, low-key guy (but with high culinary standards) -- an alpha griller.
"I moved to Kensington drawn by the chance to have pretty much my own say on the food. The direction Tracy [Borkum, the owner] wanted to go in was to keep the neighborhood happy. We're really geared to being local and fresh and not so much of a specific [culinary] niche. I loved PCG with its 'Pacific coast theme,' but here I have some Asian, some American -- I can use all the ingredients that are available to us. And that's fun for a chef. Tracy's rarely here -- I mean, it's fun when she's here -- but when you can feel comfortable about running the restaurant on a daily basis, that makes every thing a little bit better. An owner's ability to have confidence in her staff makes a job really great. She's a terrific boss -- she wants to have great food, consistent food, and she relies on us to be her eyes and her ears.
"And the service staff have all been here years. That's really exciting, to work with a staff that's seasoned, that appreciates the food, and that appreciates it when you change the food. They give me great feedback, they really speak to me. They say, 'People aren't really eating this,' and I say, 'Let's change it.' We have the ability to make a change mid-shift if we need to. We can print a menu at 7:00, and if something isn't working, we can change it right there, that night. There's no need to keep serving something that people aren't enjoying. I think it helps the comfort level of everybody here.
"We're gearing the food to be seasonal and as local as possible. We get our produce from Specialty Produce, a local company that's now going around and buying from local farms, because they have enough restaurants that want to use local produce. It's hard for even chefs to know all about every farm, and Specialty Produce researches all these little companies and helps them so they do stay afloat. We do use Santa Monica for most of our fish, which isn't local, because their quality is just exceptional. It's because they have a passion -- the fish comes as cold and fresh as it was in the warehouse. We try to be responsible and use only nonendangered fish."
A couple of years ago, when I telephoned Hanis at Pacific Coast Grill, I overheard him speaking fluent "kitchen Spanish" with his staff. A far cry from some of the prima donnas coming out of cooking schools who refuse to learn another language, he encourages his line chefs to leap for excellence and enjoy perfecting their craft -- hence, no misunderstandings and none of the sly sabotage of the "no te entendí, pensé que me pedías que me orinara en la sopa" school of deliberate cluelessness. (Translation: "I didn't understand, I thought you had asked me to piss in the soup.") No problema for him. Cooking schools ought to make kitchen Spanish a required course: Hanis talks the talk as well as walks the walk, and the result is that he seems to elicit full-out performance from his staff, with mainly flawlessly executed dishes wherever he's worked.
"I'm really comfortable in a kitchen with a Latino staff," he says. "You bond a little more family-like. It's great to have somebody ambitious who wants your job someday, but it's really nice to have people who are happy to work their stations, and when you give them a new item to cook, they're excited about it. One of my right-hand men now was here when I worked here seven years ago. Whereas the one Anglo we have in our kitchen, fresh out of culinary school, is having a harder time because -- although everybody can speak English -- when things get really busy and hectic, you fall back on your first language. I like to make everybody have pride in what they do. I just got back from a couple of days in Ensenada, and I bought everybody on my crew Mexican wrestling masks. As silly as it is, it bonds the crew together. You make cooking fun, and I think it shows on the plate."