Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
Mac' & Cheese — Hold the Mac
I'll be one of the first to admit...OK, RANT...that certain dishes seem to be on every menu in town for no good reason. Short ribs, flatbreads, pork belly, ahi tuna, etc.; as a guy who eats a lot and sees lots of menus, I admit to being downright disappointed at such blatant instances of culinary copy-catism...EXCEPT, when dishes are done right. That's the antidote — a chef putting a spin on a dish that keeps it from being boring or a replica of something some other chef is already offering somewhere else.
Macaroni and cheese has been on well over 50% of the menus out there for the past few years. It was the perfect addition in the midst of a tanked economy where diners' dollars were suddenly scarce and their tastes were veering toward the comfortable, familiar staples of better, simpler times. Now, the economy's coming back, but the mac 'n' cheese is still everywhere. Typically, the only punch-up chefs provide is an interesting blend of cheeses or the addition of a protein like lobster, chicken, or pork in one of its many decadent forms.
Tony Miller, the newly-arrived chef at the San Diego Marriott Del Mar's Arterra, adds plump chunks of lobster (and a whole honkin' intact hunk of claw) but goes far beyond the other aforementioned pedestrian improvements, getting rid of the macaroni altogether and subbing in orzo. He also loses typical fromage such as Cheddar, jack and Gruyere, instead opting for creamy mascarpone, which makes for the smoothest texture of any cheesy mac I've come across in years. A second cheese, Parmegiano-Reggiano, is served as a crisped frico garnish, making for a textural add-on that provides a nice crunchy counterpoint to this risotto-like offering. A drizzle of white truffle oil adds earthiness, luxury, and a lovely scent. Hats off to Arterra's toque.
Arterra's lobster and orzo version of macaroni and cheese. (Don't worry, this is a tasting menu-sized portion.)