Wine prices in all restaurants seem to be escalating alarmingly, and the list here certainly reflects that trend — it’s easier to spend $250 than $35, with no hope of a bottle for $25. There are some great choices for $200 and up, if you’ve got that sort of pocket change, and almost nothing under $40. (The chef tells me that the sommelier is now focusing on searching out more interesting, undervalued bottles — Loires, Rhones, minor Burgundies, etc. — which will sell in the $30s. Many customers, of course, prefer familiar California names at any price. Another way around this, if you have a passable cellar, is to bring your own good bottle; corkage isn’t too steep and may be waived.) A crisp Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc ($38) from Marlborough, New Zealand, took reasonably good (not ideal) care of our seafood appetizers. For our entrées, which included two red-meat dishes and a game bird, a Robert Sinsky sustainably grown Merlot ($48) proved mellow and tasty, with just enough tannin to avoid playing the total pussycat in the face of the meats. (It did purr loudly at the short ribs.)
Mano de león (“lion’s paw”) scallops are sustainably farm-raised off the Baja coast, mainly between Ensenada and the famous “Blowhole.” Raised in warmer waters, they’re distinctly different from Maine scallops, typically larger and a bit coarser in texture. Sweet, sunny, and straightforward, they lack that dirty-flirty sexy undertone of the George’s Bank products. They’re also ultrafresh, coming from our next-door neighbor instead of the other side of the continent — which means you never get that wan, jet-lagged flavor of Atlantic scallops that have suffered a flight delay. Here, they’re lightly dusted in black pepper and seared to a velvet texture, married to fresh corn kernels, wild leek shreds, whole glazed small cipollini onions, and (ta-da!) revisionist hush puppies. Most hush puppies, mainly based on cornmeal, are prone to be coarse and dense. Graves has cut the cornmeal and upped the wheat-flour and the leavening to turn them into light, airy fritters fit for gourmands, not just mutts. Only the most beer-and-tradition-drenched Bubba could possibly object.
The evening’s special (a strong candidate to join the regular menu) featured roulades of guinea hen breast, an African game bird. They’re rarely found in America, because few poultry ranchers can stand their company. It’s not so much that they’re hard to raise as that they’re impossibly obnoxious to have around. The dumbest, loudest bar-blondes of the bird world, their call is loud and hysterical — BRRR-RHEE-HEE- HOO-HYEEE — and they never shut up for a minute. A whole flock must sound like a girls’-night-out party at Pacifica Del Mar. But, ooh, they do taste good when treated right. Like nearly all game birds, their flesh is lean. Graves flashed brilliant in his treatment, with breast roulades rolled around sautéed, chopped, wild-tasting mushrooms and cipollini onions, their exteriors bound with two thin layers of addictively fine, sweet bacon that is cured (salt, brown sugar, maple syrup) and smoked in-house. The bacon comes mainly from small Duroc hogs purchased whole from the great, organic Van De Rose piggery back East. (Graves also gets organic Berkshire or Duroc hogs from Niman Ranch.) The bacon is a visual pun, looking like crisp poultry skin but tasting, mmm, like bacon. In between the roulades on the plate were thick-cut batons of the same substance to savor on its own and King Trumpet mushrooms (which look and taste like a black variant of chanterelles). Then, as if that were not enough: hazelnut potato purée — not another boring garlic or goat cheese or buttermilk mash, but that rich, seductive nut flavor sneaking up on your mouth. And then the hen was finished with a light cherry glaze and garnished with thin strips of bitter radicchio wound along its surface, to “take the bitter with the sweet,” as my friends and I do when we ask for our coffee with our desserts. Yes, that dish really is awesome.
In a much quieter way, what also awed me was the audacity of pairing Dungeness crab fondue with Brandt Farms beef short ribs. (We were thoroughly glad we decided to order this dubious-sounding dish.) The ribs, set on a pedestal of potato galette, are braised in tomatoes and white wine until fall-apart fork-tender, and they’re coated with a smooth, creamy, subtle fondue of crab that flatters the hell out of them. Who knew? They’re in love, and they violate all the old culinary miscegenation laws — creamed shellfish with braised beef? That’s one exotic surf and turf! The garnishes contributing to this audacious make-out session include a cherry tomato vinaigrette jam for tang, caramelized whole shallots, and sweet, funky, roasted garlic cloves to squish out from their peels. But if Christian is burning, so was one of his line chefs that night — literally. Some hasty heathen in the kitchen turned the heavenly potato galette under the meat into black leather. If the ribs needed no knife, not even a sharp steak knife could penetrate the petrified potatoes. (Graves takes responsibility, but, in fact, that evening he was busy working on a dinner party for 30 in another dining room.)
A Brandt Farms rib-eye steak (grass-fed in Imperial Valley, then finished off on corn in small, uncrowded lots) came rare as ordered, with a relish of deep-flavored, crinkly Oregon morels (among the world’s greatest mushrooms, they can give black truffles a run for their money) and spring onions, with yummy steak fries and a sensual aioli based on puréed porcini mushrooms. One of the steak garnishes was a salad that included a large, raw, fresh porcini mushroom dressed in lemon juice and truffle oil — a chance to discover what this precious fungus tastes like “au naturel.” This lesson in comparative mycology taught me that, in the end, I like porcini better cooked, but I did welcome the educational opportunity.
Desserts are collaborations between Graves and his pastry sous-chef, John Larson. We chose thin squares of panna cotta (a good, tender version) alternating with small, local strawberries, all strewn with fetal microgreens and basil shreds and served next to a golden reduction of orange juice and peel. The greens and herbs were a smart touch — they were there to be tasted, not an arbitrary garnish, a flash of sharpness against the sweetness. We also enjoyed a Valrhona semifreddo (a soft ice cream-like confection) set atop a chocolate nut cake, a good choice for chocoholics to share — not over-heavy, but with full-out flavor.