Relate at Bistro St Germains

>> Sunday, February 13, 2011

Date of Dining: 2/10/2011
Price: $55 for 5 course tasting menu
Location: Bistro St. Germain's, 1010 S. Coast Highway 101 #103, Encinitas, CA

The Quick Bit:
+ Well-cooked proteins and veg
+ Very friendly wait staff
+ The Chef's parents helped
+ Not overly heavy or rich
+ Dessert fit well with the progression
Δ Pacing of the courses needs work
Δ A lot of toast was consumed
Δ Indoor/outdoor dynamic of the restaurant space needs to be figured out
Δ Dishes could be explained when brought out
Δ The Chef was quoted paraphrased in a newspaper article of targeting "an older demographic"

While my party did order items from the a la carte menu, I later (after leaving) determined that we were not charged for them. I'm not sure if this was an oversight by the restaurant or because I informed the chef that I had been speaking with him online. Nothing was mentioned of this when the bill arrived.
UPDATE - Chef Moody contacted me to say this was in fact a mistake, but that I should not worry about mistakes made by the wait staff.

Because restaurants require a sizable investment to start and operate, chefs in the culinary industry have been driven to develop new ways for starting their own business. This need has resulted in two growing movements that we are seeing in the culinary industry: gourmet food trucks and pop-up restaurants. While gourmet food trucks tend to focus on volume by bringing the food to the customers, pop-up restaurants tend to offer set tasting menus to the customers. Pop-up restaurants are an economical method for a chef who is try and make a name for him/herself. Usually a pop-up restaurant is hosted at a location that does not serve dinner. This allows the pop-up chef to legally serve food and alcohol in an existing space without a large investment, and it provides extra revenue to the restaurant that is otherwise not operating during dinner hours. While this arrangement sounds symbiotic, it only works for the pop-up chef for a temporary time. The temporary nature of the restaurant generates buzz and a sense of urgency, so people are more likely to visit. If the pop-up is around for too long, it "wears out its welcome" so it is only in the interest of the restaurant to remain for a short time.

Chef Dan Moody, the self-prescribed "RelationChef" is a native to San Diego. When I first heard the "RelationChef" moniker and read the description on his website, I literally rolled my eyes and moved on. However, other local foodies were more optimistic about the pop-up restaurant and started talking with Chef Moody. Ultimately, Chef Moody jumped through the hoops to register himself on our local foodie forum and alleviated my initial fears. Additionally, he further clarified that his philosophy on food is more about bringing people together to eat rather than the "relationship" aspect. Because I feel about the food the same way, I can respect that philosophy very well.

Prior to visiting the restaurant, I called ahead to confirm the reservations. The hostess was extremely friendly and helpful, but warned that I would likely be dining outdoors. Now San Diego has great weather, but evening outdoor dining in February with "fine dining" set off a kernel panic in my mind. I was thinking that it would require Bill Gates to actually end up looking cooler than Steve Jobs in an Apple commercial. Luckily, my co-worker (that lives in Encinitas) explained to me that Bistro St. Germain's is primarily an outdoor restaurant; In a properly seated restaurant about 2/3 of the seats are actually outdoors. However, I think this fact is one of the problems with Relate. Like my initial fears, most of the diners that come to the restaurant will expect to be seated indoors. At the same time, Relate is forced to try and turn the tables and get two seatings per evening to make sure the investment is profitable.

When my party arrived at Relate, the scenario that the hostess warned about over the phone played out exactly as she warned. We were given the choice to sit outdoors or wait 30 minutes for a table indoors (despite having reservations and arriving on time). Since I had properly warned everyone about the possibility of dining outdoors and we didn't want to wait 30 minutes, we chose to sit outdoors. That turned out to be a great choice as it was much quieter and I assume we turned out to be a fairly "needy" group.

As Relate's wine list only featured wines from Mount Palomar winery, we elected to bring our own wine and were only charged a nominal $5 corkage fee per bottle. The 2008 Foxen Pinot Noir Julia's Vineyard was opened first and easily the best pinot I've ever had. There was a very bold and fruity up-front flavor of strawberries and blackberries that finished with a hint of figs. As the wine opened, the taste almost started to feel syrupy. The wine was a great compliment to most of the earlier courses. We also opened the 1995 Chateau Bertinat Lartigue (to let it open). This wine was perhaps a few years over as most of the fruit had left the wine. Even after two hours, I feel as if the the wine never truly opened up fully. However, after being open for over an hour, the wine did pair well with the beef. As expected from a 1995 Bordeaux, the wine was very smooth. My party did not end up finishing the entire bottle, so we probably sent the last 2 glasses to the chef (in the decanter). As we were leaving, the Chef's mother was wondering whether they served that wine to any table as she discovered there was a lot of sediment at the bottom of the decanter.

I'd probably say the menu is something like trying to overclock your CPU and learning that it doesn't overclock well. There's nothing wrong persay in this scenario, but you are disappointed that you don't get any additional value for your money. The menu was very "safe" with perhaps the most adventurous ingredient being chicken liver. While I can't really fault Chef Moody for being safe to the San Diego demographic, as an avid foodie I was hoping to eek out a few more megahertz.

Prior to starting the meal, Chef Moody came out to greet our party. He explained the restaurant and hoped we would enjoy the meal. We asked him about the challenges of the restaurant so far, and he indicated that service has been a complaint (but didn't elaborate any further).
Amouse Bouche: French Onion Soup
As a generalization, nobody ever said anything about the courses when they were served. Moreover, the waitress waited for us to eat the amouse and then explained that she never explains what it is since most people think it is going to be a chicken nugget. Upon biting into the amouse, it was very clear that it was the French Onion Soup. The soup is in the middle of the nugget, which is wrapped in grilled onions and then breaded and deep fried. We thought that we detected an extra hit of sweetness within the soup as well, which made for a good amouse.
1st Course: Foie Gras & Chicken Liver Mousse, Sauteed Apples, Onion Jam, Baby Lettuce, Golden Beet Vinaigrette
While foie gras and chicken liver are both livers of different birds, they were blended here into a mousse. The toast that the mousse was served on was toasted golden brown and hard throughout. I found that the apple really tied the toast together. My initial bite didn't contain any apple and tasted out of balance. However, the following bites containing apple really utilized the sweetness to balance the offal element of the liver. As for the salad, I thought it was a little lonely with only two small pieces of lettuce. It was really a shame as the Golden Beet Vinaigrette was amazing. I don't really understand how the salad integrates with the liver mousse, but it was a tasty salad.
2nd Course: Seared Local Redrock, White Bean Puree, Wilted Kale, Garam Masala Buerre Blanc
This was my favorite dish of the night. I'm not really a fan of beans or kale, but the garam masala buerre blanc really tied all the elements together very well. It helped that the fish was cooked very well. The fish skin is somewhat of a dichotomy. Usually, I prefer the skin to be cooked to be crispy so it maximizes that unami flavor, but I really appreciate the natural red skin visual of the fish as it is presented here. Additionally, while it was not overly salty, the kale did seem a bit saltier than the other elements. This threw the balance of the dish off slightly.
A la carte #1: Crispy Escargots on Toast with Garlic Creme Anglaise
The quality of these escargots was very good. Usually when I order escargot in the US, I suspect it's something out of a can, and it doesn't really contain any flavor of note. These escargots were packed full of flavor. My problem with the escargots was that the garlic wasn't strong enough. While I do appreciate being able to taste the escargot, it's not entirely appealing on its own without the butter and garlic. Furthermore I did not really understand the progression of having the escargot at this juncture.
A la carte #2: Truffle Foie Gras Terrine served with toast, fennel jam, and lemon confit
I was extremely worried about this dish arriving at this point of the progression. I was fearing that the truffle and foie would blow out my palette and ruin the rest of the meal. Luckily, the terrine was about as light as possible for a foie and truffle terrine. It was also the first foie terrine that I can say I genuinely appreciated as I usually prefer the seared foie. As a slight criticism, I thought the serving size of this was a bit overzealous. We ordered of these for the entire table and we also didn't finish it as we were worried about the richness of the foie.
3rd Course: Sauteed Scallop, Miso Lentils, Baby Bok Choi
The scallop and the bok choy were cooked to perfection; the scallop had a nice sear on the outside and wasn't overdone in the middle while the bok choy stems were soft enough to eat easily while still retaining some of the natural crunch. Where this dish fell was the lentils. First, none of the advertised miso taste was available and second, there was a whole lot of lentils in the bottom of the bowl. Because this dish is only about eating a single scallop and some bok choy, the amount of lentils seemed out of proportion to the rest of the dish, and the problem was compounded as they weren't very good. I believe that have a savory element carrying the miso flavor would ultimately make this dish work, but the natural flavor of the lentils seems to overwhelm the miso, so the lentils should be replaced.
4th Course: Spiced Beef, Spinach Avocado Puree, Crispy Porcini spaetzle, Green Flash Double Stout Gastrique
When this dish was brought out, I believe it was mentioned that this was the chef's signature dish. When we talked to him after the meal, he also mentioned that this dish was unlikely to be removed from the menu for this incarnation of relate. Overall, this dish was very good, but it lacked a certain wow factor element. The beef is cooked sous-vide so that it is tender and the right temperature, and then it is seared off with a spice mix prior to service. The spice tasted something like a hit of allspice that gives you a hit of spice and then quickly wears off. This was a great surprise in the first bite, but I'm personally not convinced that it was needed with all of the beef. Was the spaetzle was supposed to be crispy, I found a lot of mine to be doughy, which simply made it taste like raw flour. I understand that spaetzle is supposed to taste like that, but I just thought it didn't work with the dish. The green flash gastrique and the spinach avocado puree were very well executed and they brought an element of balance to the dish to tie it together. If anything, I thought a little more gastrique could have been present to counter the spice on the beef.
5th Course: Mascarpone Mousse Napoleon, Lemon, Dragon Fruit, Orange
Aside from the dragon fruit, this dessert was a huge success. The citrus and mascarpone napoleon worked very well with the progression of the meal. As usual for dragon fruit found in the US, it was pretty much tasteless. If there was one complaint about dessert, it was that it was rushed out after the main. Not 5 minutes after finishing the entree, dessert appeared immediately as if to say "please finish and leave." This was enough of a problem that one of my companions decided to sit for 5 extra minutes to let his stomach settle before eating.

Overall, I was very happy with Relate; I just wasn't blown away. In terms of value, Relate is a great value for fine dining. When you compare what is served  with what you get for during Restaurant Week, I'd pay the extra money any day. We didn't experience any of the service issues that people complained about, but I would have liked the waiter or waitress to explain the dishes as they were being served. The technical execution of the food was on par with the better more expensive fine dining options in San Diego such as Addison and Blanca, but the price was lower. I would have liked the menu to be a little more adventurous, but I feel that will come with time as the community comes to accept Chef Moody. I will be returning with the other local foodie buddies for closing night, so stay tuned for another review.


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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
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