Ken Harrison 8:30 a.m., Sept. 29
Fashion Week: Burlap
Not long after Chad White was picked up by Enlightened Hospitality Group, Brian Malarkey again lit up Twitter with the announcement he’d signed on another young and adventurous toque, Anthony Sinsay. Over the past year-plus, Sinsay had made a name for himself in foodie circles despite being buried in the back of his own house at Harney Sushi’s Old Town location.
The main obstacle thwarting his efforts at notoriety—he doesn’t make sushi. Sinsay was in charge of non-sushi preparations, including a number of ultra-contemporary dishes utilizing cutting edge gastronomic techniques and ingredients most commonly associated with molecular gastronomy (a term Sinsay despises and refuses to have associated with his food).
Sinsay picked up his new wave knowledge and chops working under acclaimed modernist chef José Andrés in Washington, D.C., and put them to good use at Harney Sushi. His food featured interesting textures, temperatures, flavors, and taste combinations. This, despite the fact his kitchen equipment was limited to a four-burner range, a fryer, tiny grill, a microwave, and a camp stove he trucked in for special occasions. Still, his name made it onto the radar for folks who know the scene and appreciate talented chefs.
That’s no small feat. And it’s no wonder Malarkey tabbed him to take over the reins at his “Asian cowboy”-themed Del Mar Highlands restaurant Burlap (12995 El Camino Real, #21), where there was plenty of glitz in the form of red and gold Chinese New Year-ish interior components, but not nearly as much to offer in the way of culinary consistency.
Under the old regime, Burlap was about big hunks of meat getting primal treatment, most notably via rotisseries that were given prime real estate at the front of the kitchen. Who wouldn’t want to see whole birds and hunks of four-legged beasts slowly sweating off their fat and juices onto a floor of flame? What an appetizing sight to behold.
Unfortunately, that love at first sight rarely translated to the first bite. The kitchen struggled for months trying to find their groove with the spits and fire. Not surprisingly, they were the first casualty of Sinsay when he came in to revamp the joint. In place of those old school meat cookers are two tables; a dual pass where the chef can focus on giving proper QC to the new array of dishes he’s developed.
I recently tried out a dozen or so, and was happy to see what Sinsay is capable of when afforded more than a Panasonic nuke box to work with. The best thing, first off, is the fact he didn’t make the fatal mistake of acting like a man dying of starvation put in front of a buffet. Instead of gorging himself to his own detriment and trying to hit everything at once, he’s keeping things simple while tastefully putting his stamp on the menu in limited doses.
In many cases, he’s letting the good product his new employers’ financial resources and industry connections provide him speak for themselves. His only contributions to a raw vegetable tasting plate are house-made, lemongrass-infused ricotta cheese, a shiso pesto, and well-honed knife skills that allow even the most mundane of veggies to come across as consumable art.
A tartare of 1855 Angus beef is left to sing on its own or be doctored with a raw quail egg yolk and a Chinese mustard made in-house with shao hsing rice wine, and fresh slices of hamachi flourish based on their own merit with minimal amplification from a slice of jalapeño and petite pearls of “caviar” made from onion-infused ponzu sauce.
When Sinsay does cook, his bag of tricks comes in handy. Simple fish and chips have great crunch and spud appeal thanks to his involved multi-step approach to frying. The fries are triple-cooked, meaning they’re steamed in a combo oven, dehydrated in a regular oven, frozen, then fried to addictive perfection. The batter for the fish, which is available on Burlap’s lunch menu, has a vodka and Stone Pale Ale base and is carbonated with CO2 to lighten things up much as soda water does tempura batter.
Sinsay employs his Filipino grandmother’s adobo recipe for the earthy, spicy broth that graces his mussels. It’s delicious. Not enough crusty bread in the world to sop up all that goodness. Duck in plum sauce is revamped, dubbed “Happy” Duck, and served with a trio of black accoutrements—bitter black kale, sweet black plums, and black radishes. The result are familiar flavors, but the key to the dish is the spot-on cooking of the fowl, which is crispy outside, but still juicy inside.
Chicken is treated just as well served roasted and perfectly seasoned on a platter sporting salted heirloom tomatoes, artichokes and a sunny-side-up egg ready to be mixed into a yolky confluence of tastiness. Equally as decadent is the testosterone-geared steak with bacon and a trio of mushrooms (maitake, hon shimeji, shiitake) in a Scotch whiskey demi-glace. Meaty, salty, and rich; it's bad for the heart, but good for the soul.
Of course, not everything is perfection. The aforementioned vegetable tasting could use a bit more dressing up via more of the banyuls vinegar and, simplest of all, more salt. Patty pan squash, broccoli and beets need a bit of help even when they’re perfectly in season lest they taste too much like a dry mouthful of soil.
A salad of beets served with a brie ice cream, pistachio-Thai basil puree, and sherry vinaigrette was too much of a mind/palate bender, and just didn’t taste very good. The iciness of the cream (which probably should have been goat cheese based considering it’s a more natural go-with for beets) also worked against the veg.
Despite those missteps, Sinsay’s menu is a good one with plenty of options that far surpass what was on the bill of fare before. This restaurant is still mostly for those who want to see and be seen, but those who aren’t interested in being in the public eye can now enjoy much better food when hunkering in a corner and laughing at social posturing in all its hilarious forms.