Monday, May 28, 2018

As Good As It Gets


Just had to get that out of my system. Since Friday night I'm pretty sure I had one of the meals of my life. While on any given night The Bear and Star is providing what it aptly bills "refined ranch cuisine," Chef John Cox and his team (and team is important here, you'll see) want to get to show off too, to spend some more time on the refined end of the spectrum. Hence the kick-off of Friday Night Chef's Tasting Menus, served for no more than 12 folks in the Chef's Room, the one that looks right into the kitchen and is a cross between a library and a mad scientist's lair--what's more fun than that?

Maybe the soft-shell crab up there in photo one. I fell in love with soft shell crab back in my Baltimore days, but generally it was yummy barfood, something surprisingly delightful in a sandwich. This presentation, however, was something else, starting with its texture, where it seemed just the coating was the crunch, not even a hint of shell. Its crabiness played off the silky sweet corn puree it sat on, and then there's chorizo aoioli--no, not pork-laced but all the spices they use to make their chorizo instead. The greens, billed a pea shoot salad, was the ultimate spring slaw.
(Oh, there was a new prototype oyster from Morro Bay to kick off, but my photo didn't happen. It's delight did, though.)

Here's a dish called Spring Strawberries, not that all the courses didn't sing of spring. Atop the rich goat cheese smear sat the berries, and an intense berry compote spiked with jalapeno, and some pickled green strawberries, and then some strawberry "glass." So much flavor and texture. Adding to the spice was the fiercely peppery wild watercress. Oh, and cacao nibs, little bitter crunches hiding. This dish was the brainchild of one of the younger members of the kitchen, trying to build his muscles so he can be a sous chef soon. Based on this dish, he's well on his way.

Ah, and the wine pairings. I've already, for no good reason beyond hoping to keep this paean under 1000 words, left out the greeting wine, the Fesstivity Brut Rose (a fine oyster match) and the 2015 Tatomer Riesling (Graham just rocks it), but for the strawberries they found a truly odd wine, 2017 Harrington Mission, Somers Vineyard. Lodi isn't just for box wines anymore, you know, and this dusty red, partially fermented carbonically, made the berries even berrier, somehow Inspired.
This was called, simply, Baby Fava Beans, but while the youngest ones they served whole, there are more mature favas pureed (one of those "essence of" kind of purees), and then some of the young fava greens, too (why have chefs been holding out on how good fava greens can be?). Some shaved managlista gunciale didn't hurt if you were a meat eater, and Chef Cox wistfully remarked, "It's not from the farm...yet." The quail eggs were, though, although I'm pretty sure they don't come out gilded. (A gorgeous touch that made something so straightforward slyly decadent.) As for the wine pairing, it was the light on its toes 2012 Domaine Rolet Arbois from the Jura, just your usual 40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau, 30% Pinot Noir blend.
While this dish is billed Morel Mushrooms, I want to rename it best grilled cheese with fancy stuff on the side. Because, despite morels having "more" in them because that's what you say when you eat them, what engaged me most in this bowl was the Midnight Moon fondue someone dreamed up that you got to scoop up with some brioche perfectly tan and toasted and seeming to have just come off a butter IV drip. The greens were vivid garlic scapes and Vidalia onion scapes and flowering asparagus, again, so much spring. This time the wine pairing went to Spain for a 2015 Pardas Sus Scrofa, a bit rustic like the boar on its label, but full of mushroomy umami, so a pairing win for the Sumoll (that's the grape, it's almost extinct, I didn't know it either).
While I guess there has to be a meat course, everything up to now hit so many great notes there didn't have to be one. (And they even switched out a pescatarian dish on the fly for Chryss in the course of the evening, so mad service props, too. Somehow they managed to make what could be a very formal event really welcoming, with lots of informative chat about the food and wine and just the proper kinds of formality--like plating the table of 12 at once for each course.)

Meanwhile as to that Parker Ranch lamb--one of the 20 ingredients that came from the ranch, btw--Chef Cox talked about how he liked how beefy it was, and he was right, even to the chew. They also came up with a brilliant caramelized buttermilk "crumble" to coat the loin with, a winning texture-flavor combo for the hearty meat. That's a smoked sunchoke puree holding in the little reservoir of jacked up lamb jus, and some salvia marinated cherries (spring spring spring). The pair was a 2015 Villa Creek Avenger, kindly decanted as their tannic and hearty wines tend to need air or age. As the evening's somm Allison put it, "It just gives you a hug."
And then dessert as art project, Whipped Cheesecake. Smart move, as the whipping makes it much lighter than a typical cheesecake, of course, especially with some anise hyssop meringue providing yet more lift. There was a pistachio crumb for those really hankering for hints of crust, and then rhubarb in silky curls, raspberries in jellied dots. The pairing again delighted, a 2006 Domaine des Baumard, Quarts de Chaume, kind of the Loire Valley's answer to Sauterne (it's made from, not surprisingly, Chenin Blanc). Its apricots and floral notes liked the "cake" as much as I did.

So, if you're looking for something special, look Los Olivos way. Chef Cox and his team are calling.


  1. Can't wait to go next weekend, the food and atmosphere are epic and they will be at the wine and food festival!! Oysters await me.