Our least favorite starter offered pot stickers filled with dry, lean chicken breast. “Would pork be better?” Sam asked. “Absolutely,” I said. “We’re missing the fat — eating virtue instead of flavor.” I’ve sampled some great minced-chicken dim sum in Chinese restaurants, especially in Hong Kong — but there the chefs usually substitute good “velveting” goo (e.g., silky, starchy slurries of cornstarch, taro flour or rice flour) for the missing pig fat.
There’s no let-down on the entrées. They are as full of life and creativity as the appetizers — not always perfect, but generally enjoyable.
Pan-seared sea scallops come with green lentils dotted with lardons of bacon, along with red squash, baby spinach leaves, and a maple-braised pearl onion and chanterelle compote. The delicate chanterelles are quite lost in this busy array, their flavor overpowered by even a touch of maple syrup. (They’d be better cooked simply and served on the side — and may be, by the time you read this.) The big three flavors are the perfect scallops, the smoky bacon, and the extraordinary caramelized pearl onions, so soft, sweet, and juicy, I mistook them for plumped-up dried fruit. All the rest plays backup, and the mélange is pleasing if a little incoherent. Don’t ask its country of origin — Morocco meets Maine?
Goan shrimp curry only goes Goan in its use of fresh tomatoes. As with the aloo tikki and the dal, the Indian flavors are mere glimpses — but this is a simple, tasty dish of shrimp and tomatoes, with fragrant coconut basmati rice and a topping of crisp fried shallots. It, too, is easy eating compared to its inspirations.
Pomegranate-glazed duck breast is tender and tangy. (I preferred it to Jade Theater’s too-sweet, too-tough rendering of the same idea.) It comes with glorious garnishes: kabocha squash purée, spinach for dark-green contrast, sautéed red onion, and looking for all the world like quartered potatoes, wedges of roasted Anjou pear. Although there are four types of sweetness assembled here, they’re all distinct from each other, and none is excessive or arbitrary.
Asian-cured short ribs were rather disappointing. They’re cured before cooking by a two-day dry marinade of coriander, Vietnamese cinnamon, star anise, orange, brown sugar, and salt, then braised in water and coated in a sweet soy glaze. They come with ginger-parsnip purée and thin wafers of crisped plantains. Thumbs up for everything except the meat, which was tender but lacking the great “meaty” flavor (umami) of this cut at its best, slapped around a little too harshly with salt and earthiness.
A friend with a superb palate who scouted this restaurant earlier went all swoony for the Alaskan halibut entrée. My group didn’t order it (I can’t imagine swooning for halibut), but if you like mild fish, keep it in mind. (She recommended against the appetizer “crispy” calamari, reporting that it’s not crispy.) The chef’s special favorite is salmon with Asian noodles in a Thai-inspired coconut broth. When I was there, the menu said it was Atlantic salmon, so I didn’t really consider ordering it. (Atlantic farmed salmon is so mushy, it feels untrustworthy — as if it’s looking forward to decaying.) The fish the chef is currently using is from Sitka, Alaska, pen-raised offshore in Washington State. That’s about the only Pacific salmon anyone’s likely to get this year; at least the cold waters up there should keep the flesh firm.
The new chef doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I find his desserts highly appealing. Parallel 33’s most famous dessert (stemming from Amiko’s reign) is a plate of date madeleines — dainty cakelets, dense but not oversweet (and much improved over the leaden version I tasted eight years ago). Even better is the spectacular date b’stilla, a far-fetched improvisation on the great Moroccan appetizer pie of filo with a minced squab filling. Here, instead, is the mouthfeel of a rich Middle-Eastern pastry — minus the Moorish overload of honey or sugar syrup. The dense, moist cake of fruits and nuts (dates, pears, pecans) secretly seasoned with turmeric and paprika, is mainly sweetened with the natural sugar of the dates, plus powdered sugar on the filo crust. The chef told me, “You can’t really call it low-cal or low-carb,” but I suspect these are “good carbs.”
Often weary of the parade of ambitious new restaurants where the food may be interesting but only rarely quite right, I felt surprisingly grateful to relax into a tasty, imaginative dinner and the modest, unfailing good service that we experienced at Parallel 33. It probably was never as revolutionary as it might once have seemed, but a new chef makes it fresh again. Bring on that faux-Indian lentil soup, and I’ll dive back into it and soak my cares away.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Coronado-born Benjamin Moore was Amiko Gubbins’s handpicked successor to fill her tiny (and huge) shoes at Parallel 33. “I’d worked with her pretty intensely for about two years as her apprentice, about four years ago,” he says. “I moved up to Los Angeles to work in different places there and spread myself out, to learn as many facets of the restaurant industry as I could. I was able to work in a lot of different restaurants doing a lot of different things, from purchasing to sous-chef to butchering.
“I went to culinary school for a year at Cordon Bleu while I was still working in Los Angeles. It was a great experience, but I’d tell any young cook to get some restaurant experience before they go to culinary school. You get so much more out of it when you already have experience and know what you’re doing. You’ve got to make the best of the time, and at that level of money — $40,000 for tuition — you need to know what you’re getting into, the daily grind of working in a restaurant. The smallest and most fun part of my job is when I get to create something. The rest of the time, I have so much else on my mind.