Jeff Smith 12:15 p.m., April 24
A Safe Supping Gamble at Sycuan
Last summer, I reported Augie Saucedo’s departure from The Shores Restaurant to become executive chef at Sycuan Golf & Tennis Resort. Saucedo had spent the past eight years—an eternity for a chef in this day and age—working at the gourmet eatery of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club’s sister property. While there, he inter-mingled his own favorite ingredients and techniques with those of LJBTC executive chef Bernard Guillas (best known for his globally inspired cuisine at the Marine Room). Knowing menus at The Shores were collaboratively composed, I was always interested to see what Saucedo would put out on his own, and over the past few months, I’ve traveled out to Sycuan to find out. I’ve been happy with both his initial offerings and his attitude toward putting forth quality food.
When Saucedo arrived at Sycuan, he was shocked to find a mostly Sysco-supplied kitchen replete with microwaves, prepared canned and boxed sides and sauces. The first thing he did was toss it all in the trash (except for one box of ready-to-go Hollandaise sauce he keeps around as a source of culinary comic relief) and start calling up local farms, protein purveyors and suppliers of artisanal products running the gamut from gourmet cheeses to coffee. The result is a restaurant that’s graduated from obligatory, dime-a-dozen casino/resort eatery to arguably the best dining room in the East County.
His menu is extensive, featuring 11 apps, soups and salads and 13 entrées split in sections titled “The Land” and “The Sea.” Some standouts from the starter section included a stone crab cake coated in Fallbrook macadamia nuts over perfectly cooked pepper-basil pappardelle pasta surrounded by a tangy preserved tomato stew, as well as a butternut squash bisque that gets extra layers of flavor from pumpkin vanilla oil, a cooling fromage blanc and oven-dried blueberries. That last unexpected ingredient makes it unlike any other version of this ubiquitous soup I’ve had.
A most delicious surprise is Saucedo’s recently introduced duck rillette with grape marmalade. The texture on the rillette is spot-on, perfect for spreading on toasted ciabatta planks. The marmalade makes for a deliciously sweet accoutrement, but the rillette is so tasty, gussying up is a recreational nod to added decadence versus the necessity it can so often be with subpar pâtés and the like. A pecan-crusted goat cheese fritter cut with Julian cider vinaigrette also gets high marks for logical composition and successfully sophisticated comfort.
Main dishes are similar to the ones he put out while at The Shores—approachable proteins such as steaks, pork, poultry, fresh fish and shellfish, given new life and exotic treatment via spice crusts, herbal infusions, vibrant saucing and classically prepared sides. The sticky syrah glaze and port wine reduction that accompany his Angus flatiron and filet mignon are divine, an avocado butter plays well with his salmon’s pistachio crust, and the truffle cheese sacrilegiously making a cameo in his rock shrimp risotto would make any Italian grandma at least consider breaking the no-formaggio-with-seafood mandate.
Currently, Saucedo is cooking in obscurity. Many are familiar with Sycuan’s casino and the eateries operating out of it, but few know of the resort and its restaurant, located on the site of the former Singing Hills Country Club. In the days of canned gravy and Folgers crystals, such anonymity was appropriate, but Saucedo’s new SOP and menu provide delicious reasons for discovery. The most economical opportunities for that are on Thursdays, from 5 to 9 p.m. when a three-course price-fixed menu is offered for $25; or February 11 and 14, which will feature a special three-course Valentine’s menu featuring dishes like sugar cane-skewered Santa Barbara prawns with avocado panna cotta and pickled beets as well as roasted quail with stone fruit and lemon-thyme jus. Sycuan Golf and Tennis Resort is located at 3007 Dehesa Road in El Cajon.