The house-made breads were French baguette and focaccio. The butter came served atop a cold black metal ingot — tart unsalted European butter, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and minced fresh chives. Ravishing.
And now, those brussels sprouts. The crisp roasting brought out a touch of natural sweetness, while the rich-flavored sous-vide slow-poached duck egg (which you stir into the broth) turned the dashi velvety. With so strong a primary flavor as sprouts, the crisp garlic and lovage were quiet grace notes. It was all in balance, worth attention — not an easy deliciousness, more of an intellectual conversation, offering the sort of pleasure you might enjoy at a lively book-club discussion. No, the dish didn’t make me love brussels sprouts, but it made me respect a bold chef. Note: definitely red wine with this.
Inspired by a recipe by top Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda, ocean trout tartare was original, too, a change from the endless local ahi and hamachi tartares. The rich, fatty flesh of this Tasmanian fish (which Neroni finds both more consistently available and consistent in quality than Alaskan king salmon) is dark pink, and fishier than ahi. It’s finely chopped and mixed with pine nuts, pickled mustard seeds, and spicy Spanish pimentón red pepper, plus minced chives and microgreens. Like an old-time beef tartare, it’s united by a raw quail egg. A subtle sweetness, resembling sweetened sushi vinegar, provided a backdrop. The dish is perhaps more rigorous than instantly lovable, but we all went nuts for the nuts in it.
At one point the chef did a brief stage at the legendary El Bulli in Barcelona, originator of “molecular gastronomy.” He’ll use those techniques occasionally, sparingly, he says, but not in a showy fashion. What he gained was an appreciation for Spanish ingredients. In a white-bean soup with garlic confit, for instance, the surprise element was bacalao, salt cod — not shredded as usual (into croquets, fritters, salad), but in small whole pieces. (The menu listing for a pimentón-dusted monkfish entrée, which we didn’t get to try, boasts of “Catalan flavors.”)
Our ebullient waiter had already given us a rave résumé of the chef’s background. As he poured wine, we asked about local reactions to the cooking. We feared the worst, and our fears were justified. “The problem,” he said, “is that most people really don’t know much about food. Yesterday, somebody asked me if she could have the trout tartare heated up! All they want is the same dishes they eat everywhere else — the seared ahi, the Caesar, the fried calamari, lobster bisque…” We chimed in: “Crab cakes, beet salad…” “You know,” he continued, “that couple sitting right there [a table away] a few minutes ago? They asked, ‘Don’t you have any salads?’ So I pointed out the Chino farms salad. A few minutes later they closed their menus and walked out. They just didn’t see anything they wanted to eat.”
Given that week’s starters, I could understand the problem: In this season-bound menu, the appetizers were wintry and innovative, none offering light SoCal pleasures. (Even the Chino salad includes anchovies, which people think they hate if they’ve only encountered them as fish-sawdust on pizza.) The website menu from a few weeks earlier offered a sexy chestnut soup, at least. Thing is, the beachy breed doesn’t really believe in winter, no matter the icy downpours! So, to win the palates of famously food-fearing San Diegans, this uncompromising chef may need to lighten up a bit at the start of the meal, to gently seduce the populace until they’ve learned to trust his palate.
The easy pleasures began with the next course, and kept on coming. A pair of house-made pastas are listed each evening as a “Middle Course,” hinting that they should be shared family-style, as Italians do. The “agnolotti nero” were shiny black small rectangles visually resembling licorice candies, colored by squid ink, surrounded by a generous scattering of peekytoe crab, cauliflower, tomato comfit, and fennel pollen. It’s an excellent use of rare peekytoe, showcasing its delicate flavor and texture. The subtle, creamy filling oozes out from the al dente pasta, easy to love and hard to identify (is it crab, cauliflower, cream, or all three?). The other choice that night was a carbonara involving guanciale (pig-jowl “bacon”), Parmesan, and poached egg. I have no doubt we’d love that, too.
Neroni made his name partly at Porchetta, a restaurant dedicated to the pig, and his “suckling pig confit” here speaks to those passions: Tender, pale baby pork-meat, brined and slow-cooked in duck fat, is pressed overnight and then seared, resulting in crispy-crackly pork skin. To die for. (Did you know that pork fat is actually better for you than margarine?) Alongside are apples shaped into little round marbles, with black figs, red cabbage, and horseradish cream. Decorating the pork’s surface is “vodavon glaze” — an Indian spice mixture that Neroni learned while working for renowned chef Floyd Cardoz at Manhattan’s Tabla.
Hanger steak was another knockout. “That’s what I’d call perfect medium-rare,” said Ben, making me laugh because the color was dark red, extra-rare. (I hadn’t even bothered specifying. It didn’t matter — it wasn’t grilled, it was slow-cooked sous-vide.) The hanger steak is a rare cut itself, only one per animal, hanging inside the carcass — a favorite of butchers because it ages naturally in there. It was wonderfully rich and came with a lightened version of sauce perigourdine (a truffled French meat gravy that takes about five days to cook in Julia Child’s weighty haute cuisine version of 50 years ago). It came with a separate ramekin of astonishing smoked potato purée that started out heavy and then took wing, silky (from Plugrá ultra-rich butter) and mysterious and addictive. The menu claims there are short ribs with this — a thin layer of boneless braised meat topped with chives serving as a pillow on which the steak slices recline. But Neroni was actually on vacation that week, so maybe the kitchen guys just, uh, didn’t bother with it? Or else one of my best friends Hoovered it up behind my back before I got my turn at this plate! Didn’t see any, didn’t really need any, would sure have liked to try it.