Rancho Valencia - Blogger Tasting Event

>> Monday, May 16, 2011

Date of Dining: 5/15/2011
Price: $110 for 10 course tasting
Location: 5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067

The Quick Bit:
+ Upgrade from previous menu
+ Good creativity in the dishes
+ Great plating of dishes
Δ Dishes could have been more refined
Δ Should have been more "wow" to the dishes
Δ Progression of courses seemed theoretical rather than based on experience

Update/Blogger's Note: The food from this event was actually all Chef de Cuisine Aaron Martinez's food. Furthermore Chef Martinez recently accept the Head Chef position at 1500 Ocean, so it probably will not be possible to get this type of food from Rancho Valencia in the future.

Disclaimer: I was invited to this event via SDGourmand, who was asked by one of chefs to organize a San Diego blogger tasting. Tasting menus are not available for walk in diners, but apparently can be arranged with the kitchen by contacting them prior to the visit.

Rancho Valencia is a luxury resort situated in Rancho Santa Fe; part of the resort is the restaurant, which up until recently screamed of dated 80's country club food. Recently the resort was purchase by a new owner, and as part of the renovations, Chef Eric Bauer was brought in to revitalize the menu. Chef Bauer assembled a crew of up-and-coming San Diego talent including Chef de Cuisine Aaron Martinez and Sous Chef David Volk.

Chef Bauer was most recently the Executive Chef at Anthology and previous worked with the Four Seasons Hotels and the Ritz Carlton. He also worked at Morel's Steakhouse & Brasserie at The Palazzo in Las Vegas prior to his stint at Anthology. Chef Martinez has worked as Sous Chef at Addison and was most recently working at In de Wulf in Belgium. Chef David Volk previously worked at Blanca before moving to Rancho Valencia.

As mentioned above, this event was in the planning for over a month. Combined with the previous blogger tasting event for the Los Angeles Bloggers that seemed to go over rather well, this created a large sense of anticipation for me. Combined with the fact that I had been having a tough week at work prior to this event, the dinner became the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel to get me through the week.

The first sign of trouble was that my tough week of work resulted me in waking up the morning of the dinner with a sore throat, cough, and a lot of nasal congestion. Using a variety of home remedies, I was able to clear up almost all the congestion, but I can't be sure just how much my palette was affected. From the conversation I had with the other bloggers, I probably didn't enjoy it as much as they did, but the general feeling of the meal seemed relatively consistent across the board.

Menu - one of the courses was unintentionally left off
The theme of the meal was to be heavily vegetable focused and feature the vegetables to a large extent. In one way, this is a very dangerous approach because it can be difficult to please many blogger omnivores with a mostly vegetable menu. On the other hand this approach could also potentially be safer since it may not showcase as many risky techniques in the preparation of the food.

In the end, I would liken my experience at Rancho Valencia to the Star Wars movies - the prequels. When the prequel Star Wars movies were released, one of my friends actually organized the "line party" for the movie. We camped out a week in advance of the movie and had trivia contests, cosplay, and many other events to promote the event. However, even though the line party was a success, those movies fell short of the excellent standard set by the movies that preceded them. In the same way, I felt this farm-to-table vegetable-focused menu ultimately fell short of some other restaurants that focused on the same themes. In honor of this distinction, I'm going to nickname each course with a Star Wars Prequel Character.

The Shaak Ti course
Cheese and Crackers
These were crackers that were made out of goat cheese with some nice toppings. This course gets the Shaak Ti because it was a minor character in the overall progression, but a female Togruta jedi is both eye-catching and whimsical.

The Mace Windu course
Chicken skin, fava bean, herbs
These chicken skins were fried very well and delectable crispy. This course gets the Mace Windu distinction because the chicken skin is flashy like the purple lightsaber and piece of chicken skin I got was slightly burnt and that burnt bitterness overwhelmed what otherwise should have been a very successful dish.

Amuse: The Bail Organa course
This dish was introduced as an Amuse, and while I still think of an Amuse as one bite, it seems like a trend in San Diego to expand on that to a few bites. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this dish, except that it did have a good balance of acidity and flavors to serve as an Amuse. The peas were not bursting with sweet pea flavor, and I feel that that was the downfall of the dish to push it over the top.
This course gets the Bail Organa designation because it was mainly forgettable, but still sets hope for the future of the meal.

Droid Army Bread
Assortment of Bread
Jango Fett Butter
Back: Ramp Butter, Close: Horseradish Butter
We asked for bread the moment we sat down, but had to wait an hour before it finally came out. The bread was mostly forgettable hotel bread (especially the uninspired squaw bread), but the butter was very well-made. I thought I would like the horseradish butter, but the ramp butter completely overshadowed it. The flavor of the ramp was infused in the light butter and had a great balance of garlic taste with buttery finish.

The bread is the droid army because it seemed like run of the mill hotel bread with little to no thought involved while the butter get the Jango Fett designation because it deserves to be cloned again and again.

First Course: The Obi-Wan Kenobi course
cucumber, mackerel, verbena, borage
The borage is the purple flower, and was described as tasting similar to oysters. This dish was one of the most successful dishes of the night. The mackerel had a rich oiliness that really highlighted the mackerel flavor, and all of the other elements contributed to the enjoyment of the mackerel. The pickles were a highlight as they complimented the flavors of the mackerel really well. There was also a dab of meyer lemon that really brought this dish alive with the acidity.

This dish gets the Obi-wan designation because Obi-wan was one of the returning characters that didn't suck in all of the movies. He also wasn't forced to have a lot of cheesy dialog.

Second Course: The C3P0 course
carrots & radish, flowers, herb infusion
This dish had some cream made out of ham, which was very salty, and a broth under the foam which was made from smoky ham hock that was also salty. The salty on smoky salty overwhelmed the dish and covered up the flavors of the vegetables, which were supposed to be the highlight.
This course gets the C3P0 designation because the foam seemed unnecessary and slightly annoying.

Third Course: The Padme Amidala Course
coriander, rv escargot, seaweed, zucchini
The coriander in this dish is the coriander flowers, and the seaweed was the green dust. The escargot had a smoky flavor to them that covered up a lot of the natural escargot flavor (that is usually covered with garlic). While this seemed to be a hit with most of the table, I enjoy the flavor of the escargot and didn't appreciate that it was covered up. The other problem I had with this dish was that the coriander flowers completely overwhelmed my palette each time I ate them. Each coriander flower I ate had a wasabi sinus clearing effect on me except that it was coriander rather than wasabi that shot through my sinus.
This course gets the Padme Amidala distinction because it should have been a success, but the coriander flowers resemble the cheesy over-the top dialog that ruined the character as well as the dish.

Fourth Course: The Jar Jar Binks course
potato, lovage, peas, marrow
Aside from the crispy potatoes, this dish was a disaster. The marrow seemed to be missing something, and the small micro-potatoes that were cooked with the lovage seemed to be really heavy and weighed down. It felt like instead of eating that small potato, I was eating entire large Idaho baked potato with each bite.
No need to explain why this dish is Jar Jar

Fifth Course: The Bana Breemu Course
halibut, salsify, shallots, smoke mussel jus
This halibut course was left off the menu. My piece of halibut was cooked perfectly, but other diners at the table complained of having half the fish perfect and the other half overcooked. The smoked mussel jus was overly reduced as there wasn't enough of the sauce and it was a little too salty. There were also additional touches of the Meyer lemon in this dish that didn't work out as well. Because the flavor of the halibut is both one-dimensional and delicate, the Meyer lemon actually overpowered the halibut flavors. The salsify added a nice textural contrast, but really wasn't integrated enough to contribute any flavors.
This dish gets the Bana Breemu designation because actress Bai Ling was advertised to be in Episode III, but was ultimately cut from the movie. Similarly, this dish somehow was missing from our menu.

Sixth Course: The Darth Maul Course
veal tongue, asparagus, rocket, mustard
This dish was another of the most popular dishes of the night. The veal tongue was prepared to perfection and the mustard seeds provided an excellent burst of flavor to contrast the tongue and asparagus. As a slight nitpick, I felt that the white asparagus were overcooked, but many of the other diners felt that the "limpness" didn't bother them because the flavor carried through really well. Perhaps I was spoiled from my previous experience with asparagus, but I felt these asparagus were missing some elements of umami that would have tied this dish very well together. Additionally, overcooked asparagus killed what otherwise should have been a good textural contrast in the dish, so the dish felt a little mushy.
This dish gets the Darth Maul designation because it was one of the best dishes of the night and when I think of Darth Maul, one of the scenes I remember is the closeup of his face where he sticks out his tongue.

Seventh Course: The Yoda Course
foie gras, red onion, beet, eel mousse, sorrel
This nicely seared piece of foie finally satisfied some of my carnivorous cravings which had been missing in the meal. In addition to being nicely seared, this dish made me realize how much I had been missing the savoriness of meat throughout the meal. The sweetness of the beat provided a nice sweet contrast to the fatty savoriness of the foie. I didn't really understand the eel mousse as the eel flavor was very delicate. I don't know that I would have been able to say it was eel if I hadn't been told it was eel.
This course gets the Yoda nickname because it's not Star Wars without Yoda, and the fine dining meal isn't complete without foie.

Eighth Course: The Chewbacca course
morels, ramps, lamb, barley
The lamb was a cut from a braised lamb neck, which had very nice glaze and was very tender. After being denied red meat for so long, I really took to liking this dish because it started to satisfy the meaty savoriness I had been missing for the entire meal. However, this dish lacked some refinement in the way the ramps were used. The ramps still had the roots on them, and it didn't seem to be cooked enough. I tried to cut the ramp to go with the lamb, but I still felt that they were too raw and strongly flavored compared to the lamb. The individual elements of the mushroom and barley ramp risotto were good, but I didn't feel like they really contributed well to the plate as a whole.
This course is nicknamed after Chewbacca because both lack refinement.

Intermezzo: The Count Dooku Intermezzo
apple foam, celery
The intermezzo was actually one of the major highlights of the night. The apple and celery had a great play on sweet and savory to transition from the savory courses to the dessert. The foam was actually used well in this dish and was necessary to the overall composition.
This intermezzo gets nicknamed after Count Dooku because Dooku was the catalyst for Anakin to turn into Vader while the intermezzo was is the transition to the desserts.

Ninth Course: The Anakin Skywalker Darth Vader course
fennel meringues, chocolate, licorice
This course was a big gamble because licorice is one of those flavors that is very polarizing and you either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, most of our table didn't like licorice, so this dish fell flat. This dish was also served with a stout that complimented the course nicely.
This course gets the Anakin because the color imagery conveys the battle of the light and dark sides of the force, and the polarizing quality of the licorice is also illustrated in Anakin; most girls love him while most guys hate him.

Tenth Course: The R2D2 course
goat cheese, rhubarb, rose geranium
This course was also served with a nice dessert wine, which was really important because it was really needed to compliment and finish off the dessert. The goat cheese was a little too savory as a dessert and needed the sweetness from the sorbet and dessert wine to contrast it. However, when these elements were eaten together in balance, the resulting harmony was a nice way to cap off the meal.
This course is nicknamed after R2D2 because R2 was the comic relief in the movie and this dish reminds me of how R2 would balance out scenes in the movies to make them somewhat enjoyable.

Mignardises: The Clone Trooper course
pistachio macaroons
These are nicknamed for the clone troopers because they are an upgrade over the droid army, but were otherwise the standard mignardise.

Overall I was disappointed in the meal at Rancho Valencia. Due to circumstances, either the cold or the previous experience I had to this meal, this meal fell a little short of my expectations. On the other hand, I felt like the dishes were all plated very well and had some good ideas that just needed more refinement. I also felt that while the tasting menu was supposed to be heavily vegetable focused, many of the dishes had things that covered up the flavor of the vegetables. To some extent I feel like to be able to fully highlight the vegetables, you need to put more on the plate so that the flavors can come through more.

Additionally, I really didn't like the fact that I enjoyed the lamb so much only because I had the feeling of missing savory meat in the progression of dishes. Looking at the menu, I can see where the chefs think the progression looks good on paper, but actually going through the meal, the progression of the dishes failed to satisfy me.

I feel that Rancho Valencia is definitely worth another visit in the future, but they need to put together a regular tasting menu where they can refine the dishes and make sure that the tasting menu is an experience that every diner will enjoy. If the chefs aspire to a large tasting menu, perhaps they can do something like have a 4-5 course tasting that is more accessible to regular customers and then an expanded 8-10 course menu for the foodies. 


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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.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
If any special treatment is provided to the blogger, full disclosure is presented at the beginning of the post.

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