Jeff Smith 9:05 a.m., Jan. 24
Evolve: Modernist Cuisine, No Letdown
When I reported that chef Daniel Barron was teaming up with fellow gastronomes Flor Franco, Jeff Bonilla and Mike Yen to start pop-up restaurant operation, Evolve, I had concerns. Chief among them was the fact that the crux of their operation and its uniqueness was modernist cuisine.
Now a defined, accepted, and readily recognized culinary subclass, diners are accustomed to chefs' use of powders, gels, and new fangled machinery to introduce interesting shapes, textures, and temperatures. Likewise, foodies are familiar with how often great modernist recipe dreams fail to translate into quality real-life dishes. Sadly, I’ve been let down numerous times by Mister Wizard chef types.
Even having enjoyed some delicious and promising fare from Barron, whose ambitious, envelope-expanding ideas have always merited my appreciation, some of the dishes he served up during his previous stint heading Blue Point Coastal Cuisine registered as sub-par on my palate. Those offerings were created in a big restaurant with substantial resources, so the thought of him executing his cuisine in makeshift facilities with limited space, product, and time seemed a treacherous proposition.
As evidenced by the stunning food put out at Evolve’s coming out event, the "Origins Dinner" at Mission Hills’ The Wellington on March 6, all of my concern was for naught. On the outlying fringe of the dining scene, calling the shots in tandem with his talented colleagues is right where Barron belongs. The quartet cooked together for five days, created up over 120 individual recipes, and put out a truly exceptional eight-course tour de feast.
The night, like molecular gastronomy, was essentially about familiar flavors delivered in reimagined ways. Chicken and waffles came delivered as juicy, tender cubes of Frankenstein-like poultry meat pulled from several fowl, then fused back together, breaded up and served with sage-infused caramel, marshmallows made using Stone IPA, and thin half-moons of waffle cone featuring baked-in sweetness and Szechuan spice.
A dish titled "Fish and Chips" centered around a crispy battered black cod terrine. Who needs fries when you have a rich purée of celeriac?
All of the flavor of a bowl of mussels came via bite-sized orbs—cured mussels encapsulated in gelatinous coconut-infused shellfish broth—served atop grilled brioche with a dusting of red curry butter powder that added a movie theater popcorn richness to the otherwise traditional mix of flavors.
A dish of foie gras roulade with a puffy "apple structure" and duck liver candy started the night off.
Items like foie gras were (rightfully so) given standard treatment. The fatted duck liver was made into a creamy, sumptuous roulade, while its fat was transformed into rock candy with the addition of sugar and Isomil. Supplementary textural components were added via an apple and sambal gelée and “restructured apple Styrofoam” that resembled a thin steam bun.
Cooking a lamb shank for three days yielded tender meat and clean cut flavors.
Perhaps the finest use of new wave cooking techniques was afforded lamb fore-shanks, which were sous vide (packed airtight and submerged underwater in an immersion circulator) at 55 degrees Celsius for three days, allowing all of the shanks’ connective tissue to slowly melt and distribute. The result was the most tender lamb shank I’ve ever encountered. It also exhibited crystal clear lamb flavor—subtly sweet, juicy meat with vegetal nuances from the sheep’s diet. The lamb meat pulled apart like perfectly roasted pork shoulder, which made it perfect for placing atop a bittersweet cocoa tortilla along with a crispy morsel of fried lamb’s tongue, and enjoying tostada-style.
Evolve mixologist Mike Yen's ingenius flower pot Jell-O shot take on a mojito.
Not to be forgotten, were the cocktail and sweets courses. Yen, whose made a name for himself at Bankers Hill’s AVE 5 and L’Auberge Del Mar’s KITCHEN 1540 (what is it with this guy and capitalized alphanumeric venues?), made booze-based Jell-O shots shaped like jiggly terracotta-colored flower pots, topped them with frozen-shaved blueberry “soil”, then topped them with minty greens and an edible flower. Bursting with mind-blowingly bright, minty, citrus flavor, this take on a Mojito was a whimsical bite of mixology genius.
Evolve pastry chef Jeff Bonilla presented one of the most unique and interesting desserts I've had in some time.
Then there was dessert, which with its abstract art presentation was as much a treat for the eyes as the stomach. Scoops of mascarpone cheese cremeux, jalapeño nigori sorbet, sweet and bubbly basil air, torn bits of sourdough bread, and the smallest yet most potent daub of super-reduced kiwi-accented bone marrow made for a mix-and-match closer that was delectably sweet and spicy, innovative, and just plain fun.
Most people couldn't fix a decent Sunday supper, much less eight courses of praise-worthy new wave cuisine, with this as their work space.
Before the meal started, Barron waved me behind the scenes to show me the space he was working out of. Consisting of one roughly five-by-three-foot table, a table one-third the size of that and a meager stainless steel cart, his allotted workspace between The Wellington and The Red Door had, at best, a third the capacity of my home kitchen. Again I felt worried, but again it was wasted energy. Barron and company rocked out incredible food and I’m excited to watch the evolution of their company.
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