I was the sole fan of the intense salad of organic beets (and other veggies) with Valdeón blue cheese, plated over thick, concentrated “caramelized yogurt.” My tablemates found the cheese — or maybe the yogurt — too overwhelming, overmastering the beets. (It certainly wasn’t yet another boring beet–goat cheese salad.) A crudo (lightly cured raw fish) of a rich-fleshed species named Hiramasa — an Australian kingfish, similar to hamachi — was served with compressed fennel, duck cracklings, and steelhead roe. We all found it unfocused, with random-seeming good ingredients at loose ends.
Between courses, we got to know each other. Serendipitously, Lynne, Gail, and I had all dressed alike (“cute” tops, comfortable slacks and flats — just right for this restaurant’s new incarnation), and as we got acquainted, it turned out that Lynne had several mutual acquaintances and professional links with both Crowes, while Mark and Bruce had similar ties, and soon we were a family, eating family-style.
The wine list is loaded with painfully tempting bottles: e.g., Duckhorn Merlot, $90, or a half for $45, but I have to live within my expense strictures. There’s little under $35. We began with a southern French Viognier, Domaine Triennes ($38). A little young, it was still “closed”; good but not yet generous. We had a long wait for appetizers again, possibly because we were so obviously having a good time running our mouths. The waiter astutely steered me away from a South African Sauvignon (“You’ll hate it; it has that green pepper undertone”) toward a same-priced Frog’s Leap ($40) — clean and crisp, perfect with our appetizers. There are some bargain Italian and Spanish reds under a “Fun Reds” listing, but not knowing them, and hoping to please my new owners, I went with the tried-and-true Byron Santa Maria Pinot Noir ($47), light and food-friendly.
I’m not normally a halibut fan, but here it was my favorite entrée, its blandness turned into a virtue. Cooked opalescent-tender, it was served in a delicate, lemony broth of condensed mussel juices and preserved Meyer lemon, emulsified with butter and fresh herbs, surrounded by mussels, favas, diced tomatoes, and crisp-tender pieces of baby artichokes, with a few bits of the lemon hiding at the bottom. Every mouthful held a new treat.
A whole roasted branzino (bass) fared less well: it was cooked too dry to our tastes. Mark thought it tasted like trout, Lynne found it “too fishy.” But everyone delighted in the garnish of crisp, tempuraed “sea beans” (a salty edible succulent plant, shaped like green beans, found on many California beaches).
Colorado lamb loin and braised leg had only a little moist, shreddy, deep-flavored leg meat and a lot of beautiful rosy grilled loin. (At most restaurants, they’d give you more leg, less of the pricey loin.) The meats were plated over farro, the low-yielding emmer wheat eaten in the Middle East since ancient Egypt but now cultivated mainly in Italy (popularized here by Mario Battali). It tastes like bulgur (made of a modern wheat variety) but is firmer, denser, intensely “wheaty” in flavor. Here it’s touched with cinnamon and spiced up with a pepper jam. The array of seasonal veggies included pea shoots and that brief springtime miracle, fiddlehead ferns, edible for only a few days while coiled, before unfolding into ornamental greenery. They taste something like okra, minus the slime.
Natural beef tenderloin, rare as ordered and utterly tender, came with more divine morels (sautéed, this time), spring onions, a tomato-Cabernet reduction sauce, and upscale Tater Tots — smoked potato croquettes (though not smoky enough; I’d hoped for the more intense level of smoke Trey Foshee does with mash at George’s). Kurobuta pork short-ribs were meaty and full-flavored over a sensuous potato–goat cheese purée, with multicolor baby carrots and whole braised ramps. I really like this side of McCabe’s cuisine — cooking up all these potentially delicious weeds that gardeners pull up and trash. Chef’s got a good head on his shoulders, and a good palate, too.
The sole flop was a burger! The meat was a marvel — grass-fed, locally raised organic Palomar Mountain beef (see review of November 5, 2008, “Live Butchers, Live”). The meat’s deeply beefy and flavorful but “too lean for good burgers,” said Lynne, a burger-and-fries freak. It came topped with an aged artisan Cheddar so dense it didn’t melt, merely turned sludgy. A milder, lighter, more melty unpedigreed cheese would be better — you want it gooey to buy off the leanness. (I’d love to try this muscular-tasting meat in a tartare or in Texas beanless chili or mixed with fruits and veggies and stuffed into a poblano for chiles en nogada. Or Tibetan momos, Ethiopian Kitfo, or any dish that normally involves minced water buffalo — but I’m not sure about a burger.)
For dessert, our sextet split three sweets. My favorite was strawberry shortcake. It was simple and fresh, accompanied with a killer crème fraîche ice cream of amazingly rich texture. Lavender crème brûlée was subtly flavored with the floral herb (I prefer a stronger hit). We loved the tiny, intense lemon cookies alongside. A root-beer trilogy is a gala production number — a root-beer float, a brittle, and white and brown mousses, cuddled together, yin-yang. “Is there really enough root-beer flavor in the white mousse?” asked Mark. This was debated at length but never resolved. The espresso was competent — not much crema but decent coffee flavor.
This is by no means a “bargain restaurant,” but it’s not exorbitant — it’s about right for a splurge dinner, unless it’s your final splurge before declaring Chapter 11. Our meal came to about $45 per person for food, $20 each for lower-end wines, plus tip and tax. It’s a fair price for what you get. And, for me, the dinner also brought new friends — there’s nothing like passing plates around “family style” to create a new family. This is probably not the last you’ll hear of Bruce and Gail.
A BRIEF DISSERTATION UPON FATTED GOOSE