The steak on the Restaurant Week menu was a petite filet, grass-fed in Oregon. Normally, I’m unenthusiastic about filet, which is tender but wimpy-flavored, but the grass feed gave the cut more personality — a certain mineral undertone — than corn-fed cattle. It was beautifully rare, topped with herbed butter, and came with sauce béarnaise on the side, with Broccolini and potatoes. A béarnaise is always welcome. At home, I’ve often made a nonstandard, delicious but rather ugly pink version with the decanted dregs of the red dinner Bordeaux — but for a normal white-wine version, this was fine.
Inspecting the meats in the restaurant’s retail meat case, I’d fixated on a beautiful grass-fed bison rib-eye and happily found it on the menu in a huge 14-ounce portion. Sue, who grew up eating the plentiful game her dad shot, instantly “got it” — the bison proved almost as tender as cow steak but still had a touch of wildness in its flavor. (It’s also a really healthy red meat — all “good” cholesterol, like seafood, just about no bad stuff.) When I tasted it, I let out that gentle, trebly Bob Wills signature sound: “Yee-haw!” Best bison I’ve eaten since my first taste of it in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and way more tender. (Too bad they can’t grill it over a wood-fueled campfire here!)
If you’re a serious beef-eater, the most expensive choice ($43), and possibly well worth it, is a 20-ounce Meyer grass–fed strip steak that has been dry-aged 35 days. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about. Just in case you don’t because you missed last week’s review of Ruth’s Chris: Dry-aging deeply improves beef’s flavor, not just its tenderness. But because it requires a lot of space and makes the meat shrink, dry-aging has become an extreme rarity. And 35 days is two weeks longer than most aging of any kind! Since the strip is an especially flavorful cut to start with, this really could be the tastiest piece of beef in San Diego. Wish I’d tried it. Got to find me a sugar daddy to take me back so I can do so someday.
For our final entrée, we wanted guinea hen, the delicious, ill-mannered bird that never stops whoopin’ and hollerin’. (A perfect bird for a country-western music theme, no?) The kitchen was all out that night — perhaps they hadn’t ordered much for Restaurant Week, since quail was on the discount menu. We substituted rosemary-grilled lamb loin in Syrah sauce with celeriac purée. The purée was oversalted, the lamb a bit tough, but the sauce was mopworthy. (What else is bread for?) If I had to do it again, I’d probably order the braised rabbit leg, so unusual on local menus. Farm-raised rabbit doesn’t taste gamy or wild, by the way. It actually tastes like chicken but is even leaner. That’s why I didn’t order it.
The wine list is mainly Californian. Everything I really wanted was pretty steep, but in the under-$40 class, the Beringer Cab was good enough. Our waiter, Jason, gave it full honors, decanting it to let it open up. (At first taste from the bottle, it was quite clenched.) Jason wasn’t just waiter-smart: Hints of smart-smart kept leaking out in his comments during the meal — until, wise-guy that I am, I finally asked, “So what’s your grad-school major?” Economics, he said.
Both Restaurant Week dessert choices were excellent. (The restaurant has a full-time pastry chef, Stephanie Tesnow.) Cowboy chocolate cake was an update of Chocolate Decadence with berries on the side and a mini-pouf of cardamom ice cream on top. I’d have liked lots more of the latter — cardamom has been my favorite flavor ever since I ran away to India and achieved enlightenment about ice cream. The other choice (unfortunately going off-menu soon, as the fruit’s season is nearly over) was a fabulous Meyer lemon pot au crème, the rich but light custard punctuated by paper-thin slices of candied lemon. Just got to say it again: “Yee-haw!” And double that, because you don’t have to be an MBA on a corporate tab or a lawyer in a pinstriped suit to feel at home while you dig into your beautiful meat. Cowboy Star’s for all the carnivores who just wanna have fun.
ABOUT THE CHEF
“I grew up watching my grandmother cook,” says Victor Jimenez. “We come from Mexican farmworkers, so the women in my family always had to cook for a lot of people. My grandmother started everything from scratch — roasting the coffee beans, grinding the corn. She had a wood-burning oven. It always mesmerized me when she was in the kitchen preparing food with the other ladies. I always tried to stay around the kitchen — my appreciation of good food started there.
“I started working under the supervision of Jim Hill [later the chef at Humphrey’s], who passed away a few years ago. He was one of my first mentors at a little place in La Jolla, in 1985, ’86. I was still attending high school, and I started as a pot-washer, working Friday and Saturday night after school. When summertime came I started to pick up more shifts. Being bilingual, the line cooks started to teach me, and I started to learn all the products, all the different meats and fish, and I became a chef tournant for them, their helper bringing everything to the line. Chef Hill really tried to take me under his wing and help me to develop more passion for the industry.
“Right after that, I had the opportunity to work for chef Bernard Guillas when he was at the Grant Grill. Chef Bernard has been the great mentor in my career, my great inspiration.”
Despite these awesome on-the-job teachers, Victor did eventually go to cooking school — but first came regular school. “Being from a Hispanic family, I had to finish my college education, so I graduated from San Diego State with a degree in economics. I was already involved in the restaurant industry, but this was more to fulfill that academic degree for my family than personally for me.