Burger Shootout #2: (Boutique?) Fast Food Burgers

>> Sunday, August 28, 2011

When I previously revealed that I would be doing a series of burger shootouts, I was touched by all the responses of friends and fellow bloggers that expressed concern over my health. In that vein, I enlisted a bunch of my friends to go out and eat fast food burgers with me for the second part of the ongoing series.
I was initially concerned when I outlined my idea of fast food burgers because I didn't really feel like eating food from McDonalds, Jack in the Box, etc, so I limited the selection of fast food restaurants to be more "boutique" fast food. What this basically means is that while I'm still covering fast food, I filtered out the places that I thought would have 0 shot of winning.
Finally, prior to setting off on this journey, I was reassured by a professional:
"An entire day eating bad burgers is still a REALLY good day." - Gavin Schmidt
Scoring Criteria:
In the previous shootout, I feel that my scoring system was partially flawed. There was slightly too much emphasis placed on the other categories and not enough places on taste alone. I've decided to try and revise the overall scoring mechanism by first normalizing scores within each category and then weighing the categories.
The three categories I've settled on are taste, value, and miscellaneous (within restaurant burgers there will also be a category for creativity). Within each fast food burger shootout, the category weights will shift based on the category where the burger lies. The taste category covers aspects concerning taste including overall taste, taste of each individual component, and cooking temperature. The value category is simply the amount of food received for the money (including sides). Finally, the miscellaneous category covers the items that are inherent to the category of the challenge.

Taste: Worth 50% of the overall score
  • Overall Taste - worth half of the taste category
  • Patty
  • Bun
  • Other fillings
  • Cooking Temperature
Value: Worth 20% of the overall score
Miscellaneous: Worth 30% of the overall score
  • Ease of consumption
  • Sides
  • Ticket Time
Finally, I decided that for the fast food restaurants, I would order the equivalent of a double cheeseburger from each restaurant along with the craziest fry that is sold at each place.

The Contenders:
Five Guys Burgers: website
Five Guys Burgers is originally an East Coast burger chain that first opened in Arlington, VA in 1986. The chain received the name because the founder and wife had 4 sons at the time of opening, who became the "five guys" involved with the burger store. Their standard menu contains a large list of items that can be added to the burger in order to customize the burger the way you want it. They also offer a complimentary side of peanuts located in boxes around the restaurant, which can be enjoyed with the burger. For their meat, the restaurant claims that the meat is never frozen, which should theoretically enhance the flavor. They use only peanut oil to fry the french fries.

Hodad's: website
Hodad's is a classic San Diego restaurant opened originally in 1969.The beat of the restaurant is mostly catered towards the regular beach crowd since the Ocean Beach pier is about a block away. Hodad's has won many awards such as being named the best Fast Food Burger by San Diego Magazine and named one of the nation's five best burger joints by CNN. It was also featured by Guy Fieri on Food Network's Diners Drive Ins and Dives. Hodad's receives its name from the word Hodad's, which (defined on the menu) means "a non-surfer who spends time at beaches masquerading as a surfer - see poser"

In-N-Out Burger: website
In-N-Out was founded in Baldwin Park (Los Angeles) in 1948. The chain's focus is "give customers the freshest highest quality food you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment." Unlike most fast food restaurants, In-N-Out remains privately owned by the original founding family and is only slowly expand eastwards (most recently in Texas). While In-N-Out isn't as critically acclaimed as the other two restaurants, it seems to have won many customer satisfaction surveys such as Zagat. Additionally, it has received praise from many chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali.

Elevation Burger: website
Elevation Burger was founded in 2002 with a focus on making a truly great burger with fresh and sustainable products. The franchise was first started in Arlington, Virginia by a Californian ex-pat. The Carlsbad location of Elevation Burger is the chain's first foray into Southern California and the first of about twenty planned restaurants. The beef in the burgers is from grass-fed beef, ground on premises, and the fries are fried in olive oil. The cattle is raised secretly but a cooperative group of thirty families in a secret location.

The Shootout:
Five Guys:
My first impression of the five guys meal is that it's really more about the fries since the order of fries dwarfs the burger.
The burger I ordered from Five Guys contained lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, and grilled mushrooms. I found that the condiments were slightly lacking for all the fanfare surrounding them. When I bit into the burger, I felt that the burger lacked flavor; it was almost as if I was biting into a previously frozen patty (despite the claim of never frozen beef). Now I'm not claiming that the patty was frozen, just that it lacked flavor and displayed characteristics similar to previously frozen patties.
I felt that for the size of the double burger, the bun was a little thin. Once the oil from the grilled onions and grilled mushrooms seeped in, the bun felt paper thin. Surprisingly, when I tasted the meat alone, it was seasoned rather well. While there were some grilled onions and mushrooms, the quantity of them within the burger was minor. The ratio of the tomato to lettuce was also off as bites resulted in much larger tomato flavor than probably should have been.
On the doneness scale, the meat was cooked very well done. This definitely killed some of the flavor that should have been in the burger.
The fries from Five Guys were the "Cajun Spiced" fries as I did not see any other special fries on the menu. The cajun spices were way too strong on the fries, and the fries tasted "raw" in the sense that they weren't fried twice and they weren't very crispy. Even my friends that had a regular order of "well done" fries had what I would consider "raw" fries.
Additionally, Five Guys offers complimentary peanuts. The peanuts were roasted well with an abundance of flavor, but there was simply too much salt in them. After consuming 5 peanuts, I felt that they were too salty to continue eating.
The total for fries and a burger at Five Guys came out to around $9.50, which is on the expensive side for fast food. Furthermore, we waited about 10 minutes for the food to be prepared, which also seemed a bit slow.

Taste: 26.25
  • Overall: 25
  • Patty: 75
  • Bun: 25
  • Other: 10
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 10
At $9.50, this was really expensive. They did give free peanuts and a lot of fries though
Miscellaneous: 26
  • Ease: 25 - the burger is wrapped in double aluminum foil which would be hard to unwrap in a car. The fries were all over the place and the peanuts couldn't be eaten in a car for sure
  • Sides: 20 - The fries were horrible but the salty yet tasty peanuts give some points here
  • Ticket Time : 33 - At 10 minutes the ticket time is pretty long for a fast food place
Overall Score: 22.385

It may not be obvious from the photo, but my first impression of the Hodad's burger was "Damn that's big." 
While the Hodad's burger was physically large, it lacked largely in flavor. The beef from Hodad's was definitely frozen and it lost the nice flavor of the beef somewhere in the process. Furthermore, the Hodad's burger lacked seasoning; a dash of salt prior to cooking the patty would have done wonders in taste. The grilled onions, while present, lacked flavor as they were probably yellow onions originally.
While the Hodad's bun looks nice in the photo, it was actually even thinner than the Five Guys bun. This was a shock to me since Hodads is known for really packing the ingredients into the burger (so a thicker bun should be only natural). As stated before, the patty alone was flavorless as it lacked salt and seemed to be previously frozen. The extras were piled on   generously and were pretty good (although the grilled onions did lack some punch).
Like Five Guys, the beef was completely cooked through (You can also see how thin the bun was here).
The fries from Hodad's were the potato wedges that came with the combo (as again they lacked a crazy fry option). Although many of us were not normally fans of wedge type fries, we found these fries to be crispy and seasoned well. There was some speculation that the oil in their deep fat fryer needed to be changed as we also ordered some onion rings that had that undercurrent of bad oil flavor to them.
For the order of the burger and fries in a combo, the total was about $10.50 - again way too expensive for fast food. Additionally, there was a ridiculous line for the restaurant. It probably would have taken over 1 hour to sit down in the restaurant so we ordered to go, which took another 20 minutes for the food to be cooked.

Taste: 21.875
  • Overall: 20
  • Patty: 10
  • Bun: 10
  • Other: 75
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 20 - While this was the most expensive burger of this shootout, it was a very large burger so the quantity makes up a little for the price
Miscellaneous: 30
  • Ease: 65 - The burger was nicely wrapped and ready to eat. It was however huge so it was hard to manage.
  • Sides: 25 - The wedge cut fries were surprisingly good, but there was an undercurrent of spoiled frying oil in the flavor that ruined it.
  • Ticket Time: 0
Overall Score: 23.4375
Note: It did come to my attention that Hodad's won the awards for their bacon cheeseburger as the bacon is practically formed into a bacon patty itself. This could warrant some further investigation (but it went against trying to order the same item from east place)
At In-N-Out the order was for the double-double with grilled onions and a well-done animal style fry (technically the fry wasn't on the menu but since I knew about it I knew to order it).
The In-N-Out burger was very flavorful overall, although the flavor was not necessarily from the patty itself. What enhanced In-N-Out to some degree over the other restaurants was simply that they toasted the bun so it was both warm and had a nice crunch.
When I tasted the patty of the In-N-Out alone it was bland, but it did have a small bit of beef flavor to it. The patty did not seem to have ever been frozen and it was well seasoned. This surprised me since the overall taste of the burger was very enjoyable. However, the other elements seemed to add a lot of flavor. As previously mentioned, the toasted bun was a nice touch, and the grilled onions lettuce and tomato all added nice contrasting notes. The burger was well-seasoned, but not overly salty.
Unfortunately, In-N-Out also destroyed the meat in cooking it too long.
As a side the animal style fries come with melted cheese, grilled onions, and spread (thousand island+pickle). I ordered these well done because these extra elements make the fries soggy when not ordering well-done. I've often joked that all french fries have an X-minute rule where X is the number of minutes you have to consume the fry before it tastes horrible. Unfortunately, regular In-N-Out fries place at about 5 minutes on my scale, so not getting animal style fries means that I pretty much don't eat any fries (The well done animal style makes it about 15 minutes (which is roughly standard)).
The combo of the double double and well-done animal style fries came out to about $6.75 (the fries actually cost more than the burger). We waited a shade over 5 minutes for the food to be cooked.

Taste: 61.25
  • Overall: 75
  • Patty: 50
  • Bun: 50
  • Other: 90
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 75 - While you do receive less food at In-N-Out the base price of the burger is very cheap. You can also add additional patties up to 4x4, which would still be cheaper than the other places.
Miscellaneous: 66.67
  • Ease: 75 - The burger was wrapped up nicely and ready to eat
  • Sides: 50 - I don't really like the fries alone that much and having to pay more to get animal style is a downer
  • Ticket Time: 75 - The food was cooked fast, but the animal style fries definitely slowed down the order
Overall: 66.0425

Elevation Burger
I ordered the Elevation Burger (which is a double cheeseburger) with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and elevation sauce. There were additional toppings like at Five Guys, but I chose to try and keep a consistent burger to the other burgers.
 The elevation burger extremely flavorful. The basis of the flavor was the grass-fed patty which was actually contained a lot of flavor in and of itself.
The cheddar cheese used was extremely oily however, so the entire burger did taste a bit oily. As a tradeoff, the cheddar was extremely flavorful. The onions were nicely caramelized and added a noticeable and enjoyable element of flavor. The bun was lightly toasted, but I would have preferred it a bit more. What I did find a bit strange was that the bun had an added element of sweetness. It might be similar to a Hawaiian roll, but the sweetness didn't seem to go that far. I found the additional sugar from the bun a bit distracting as that is so atypical of a burger.
While it was expected, the meat was cooked through completely in the patty.
The fries at Elevation Burger are fried in olive oil. This actually made the fries very crispy on the outside and enjoyable. They were also relatively light on the oil compared to other restaurants as a result. The order of fries was extremely large; two people sharing the fries still barely made a dent in the entire order.
The burger cost $5.99 on the burger and an additional $2.99 for the fries.

Taste - 68.75

  • Overall: 85
  • Patty: 80
  • Bun: 40
  • Other: 90
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 80 - While the fries were really expensive, I thought $5.99 for a double patty of grass fed beef was an extremely good deal, especially for the taste.
Miscellaneous: 76.67
  • Ease: 75 - Burger was wrapped much the same as In-N-Out and completely ready to eat
  • Sides: 85 - I found the fries at Elevation Burger extremely enjoyable
  • Ticket Time: 70 - Our food was prepared in about 5 minutes
Overall: 73.54

For me, In-N-Out won this competition running away. There was more flavor in the In-N-Out burger, and it even scored higher in the value category as well.
For me, two of the fast food restaurants created enjoyable burgers. In-N-Out burger really gets the flavor out of all its burgers and has several stores that make it easily accessible. However, Elevation Burger seemed to follow on In-N-Out's example and apply even higher quality ingredients such as grass fed beef to get an even greater taste. Elevation Burger truly does have a burger that is Elevated over the rest of the competition.
Hodad's came in a distance second place and was in a tough race with Five Guys. These two places were somewhat strange to me in the way they competed against each other. Hodad's gives you that big American Dream burger and has a great location near the beach, which definitely attracts people. It also serves beer, so it is more like what I would categorize as "casual dining," but I ultimately placed it in the Fast Food category because they don't cook the temperature of the meat to order (it would also be embarrassing when comparing them to the other casual dining places). Five Guys has a pretty tasty burger and a nice option to get peanuts, but I don't think I would ever order their fries again. In the X minute rule I think I'd give their fries 0 since they don't ever seem to be good at any point of the process.
While I was disappointed with some of the burgers, I definitely agree with the assessment that an entire day eating bad burgers is still a really good day.
Next Time, I will cover the casual dining burgers (Burger Lounge, Smashburger, and The Counter).


Slow Cal BBQ Truck - Preview

>> Monday, August 22, 2011

Note: I've been really tied up at work the last week, so not a lot of time to update, but I still wanted to get a short post in today at the normal time. I'll follow this post up with the Fast Food Burger Shootout later this week.

Usually as a critic, you don't get to review a place until after it has opened. There are various reasons for this, but mostly because restaurants need to obtain the required permits from the city and pass safety inspections before serving food to the general public. In this rare instance, I had the opportunity to get a preview of the food that will be hitting the streets in September.

The Slow Cal BBQ Truck is owned by Chef Melvin "Boots" Johnson. Chef Johnson is mostly self-taught but attended the Art Institute in Atlanta for Culinary Arts, and has worked in the culinary industry since 1999. He worked his way up from a job at the Cheesecake Factory to being the kitchen manager at Dave and Buster's. In 2008, he was hired as the head chef of Lil Piggy's Bar BQ in Coronado, where they still use some of his BBQ recipes today. Chef Johnson is joined on the truck by Stephen Reese who specializes in baking and learned all the family recipes by helping out his mother. Reese is a veteran of the Navy, where he honorably served our country.

While Chef Johnson might not have the culinary pedigree of a Michelin Starred chef, he makes up for it in years of experience and an unwavering passion for BBQ. In a brief conversation with Chef Johnson, he quickly identified that he had tried all the best BBQ places in both Southern California and the South. He has two of his own smokers to cook the BBQ low and slow, and he also has a variety of his own BBQ sauce recipes. Furthermore, I don't don't know of any BBQ chefs that have some amazing culinary pedigree, so most of the great BBQ is built up on passion, which is just oozing from Chef Johnson.

Chef Johnson was one of several caterers that provided food at an event I attended. I learned that he planned to open his own food truck after conversing with him and complimenting his BBQ. He told me that some of the dishes I tasted would not ultimately make the truck, but it was a decent preview of what is to come.

Pulled Pork Sandwich, house made slaw
The pulled pork sandwich was money. The pork had a great balance of juiciness and bite, and was finished with a large helping of mesquite savory smoke. The slaw provided a nice textural contrast and a small kick in heat (as there were red pepper flakes). The sauce was tangy and complimented the smokiness of the pork.
House Made Slaw
The house made slaw didn't contain any mayonnaise, which I appreciated. It was prepared fresh and had a nice crisp crunch to it. It also contained some red pepper flakes, which elevated the heat and was a nice surprise to have in a coleslaw.
BBQ Chicken wings
The chicken wings were well cooked and contained some nice smokiness, but they weren't particularly special; they were more of a vessel to carry some (admittedly good) bbq sauce and smoke. 
BBQ Rib Tips
The rib tips were very uneven for me. I had a nice tender piece where the meat fell off the bone and was very enjoyable, and then another piece that was totally tough and almost unchewable. I talked to Chef Johnson about this and he explained that he would have proper St Louis or Baby Back ribs on the truck. The rib tips were just something they threw together specifically for this event.

Overall, I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Slow Cal BBQ Truck. Chef Johnson seems to know his BBQ well and for a city that even lacks a great BBQ restaurant itself (Phil's is grilled meat not BBQ), having a good BBQ Food Truck will be a huge blessing. Chef Johnson let slip that the trucks signature dish is likely to be a BBQ-Polish Boy of sorts (a brat topped with some slaw, bbq sauce, and a generous helping of pulled pork). Additionally, the truck will be having BBQ ribs and more of the pulled pork which I really enjoyed. Chef Johnson also mentioned that they would be teaming up with some of the other existing trucks to get started and scout locations, so look for the truck to hit the streets sometime in September!


Robata-ya Oton

>> Monday, August 15, 2011

Date of Dining: 7/29/2011
Price: $5-10 for each tapas dish
Location: 5447 Kearny Villa Rd #D, San Diego, CA 92123

The Quick Bit:
+ Good traditional Japanese ambiance with authentic seating
+ Wide variety of authentic Japanese dishes
+ Great friendly service even though you are isolated in a booth
+ Good selection on seasonal menu of specials
Δ Amount of reservations taken seems high
Δ Could be expensive to get full

In contrast to last week, this week I look at one of the ethnic cuisines that San Diego does well - Japanese. From fresh sushi to ramen to bento boxes, San Diego has some good to decent selections for all of these choices.

Robata-ya Oton is an Izakaya that specializes in some grilled dishes. The Robataya in the name is derived from the japanese word robatayaki which means that fresh food is grilled and served in front of you. However, I would say the experience at Robataya Oton is more just an Izakaya. There is a bar where you can see the fresh ingredients on display, but the main focus of the restaurant seems to be the 4-6 booths situated along the wall where once removes their shoes and goes to sit inside the booths. There is even a curtain to eat booth to provide privacy. We showed up right as the restaurant opened for dinner service at 5:30, and I was surprised that they had already had reservations for all the booths booked out. Luckily after speaking with the manager, I assured him that we would finish before the 7:00 reservation on one of the booths and we were quickly ushered into a booth.

Digression: I purposefully bought a tiny point and shoot camera for for casual dining where I want to try to hide that I am taking photos of the food, but at 5:30 the service was almost too attentive at the restaurant. There was no way I would have been able to take photos of the seating and bar without being noticed, so I unfortunately don't have any photos. However, if you do a quick google search on one of the San Diego blogs I have linked, the photos cover the inside of the restaurant rather well.

Additionally, Robata-ya Oton is owned by the same group that owns Wa Dining Okan. If I had to differentiate between the two, I would say that Robata-ya Oton is slightly higher end and has a large focus on grilled dishes while Wa Dining Okan focuses a little more on home-style cooking. I would still say each is more of an Izakaya, but each is just focused slightly differently.
Tamago with Umeboshi and Shiso
This dish was actually listed as "Japanese Style Egg Omelet" and I would probably never order this myself, but the person I was with absolutely loves tamago. The tamago here was good, but not spectacular; it was cooked well but the flavor of it was boring (I guess they used a cheap mirin?). The less than wow factor of the tamago was mitigated by the umeboshi dipping sauce and the shiso, which added some extra flavors. I felt that there could have been more umeboshi because it paired really well with the tamago. However, as a starter, this dish worked well as it left me hungry for more.
Karage - deep fried chicken
This was supposed to be fried chicken skin crackers, but the order was messed up and we received karage. Even though we said it was the wrong order, the restaurant gave us the dish for free since they had already cooked it. The chicken was fried and seasoned well the Japanese style karage. The fact that the chicken was free range chicken didn't really come through in the flavor though.
Shio Ankimo - Steamed Monkfish Liver (salt style)
This dish was offered as a shio or ponzu style and I chose the shio as I figured it wouldn't allow anything to be hidden. This monkfish liver was a little on the fishy side, but it was still enjoyable for the rich flavor that makes it known as the foie gras of the sea. However, had I known that it would be so fishy, I would have gone with the ponzu preparation. I wouldn't say that the ankimo was bad, but it definitely needed to be steamed to serve and it was probably close to being over.
Amaebi Sashimi
As spot prawns are in season, when I saw the Amaebi on the menu I knew I had to order it. This amaebi was at the peak of freshness and the flesh of the prawn was sweet, succulent, and had a nice texture. To top it off, my dining companion allowed me to have the head of the prawn. Thank you!
Chilled Tofu with Uni
This dish was another hit. The uni was extremely fresh and flavorful, and the tofu provided a medium to extend the flavor of the uni longer. I'm not sure what the sauce was, but it also assisted in keeping the flavor of the uni extended.
Braised Kurobuta Pork
This was another great dish. The kurobuta pork belly was cooked so that it was soft and tender, and the braising liquid was extremely flavorful. When eaten all together in one bite, the broth complimented the flavor of the pork. The mustard was a nice touch to add some variety, but it was not strictly necessary to enjoy the dish. I really enjoyed the mustard because it still retained some of the texture of the seeds of the mustard. It was also more concentrated in flavor to be more similar to wasabi.
Grilled Beef Tongue
Beef tongue is one of those well kept secret cuts of beef that is awesome when prepared well. The Japanese have nailed down that preparation of beef tongue when it is cooked over a yakitori grill, which it appeared that these were. I really enjoyed these skewers and almost felt the need to order more.
Deep Fried Chicken Skin Crackers
Since the order was messed up, this dish came out last. Unfortunately if I had known this was what the dish would be ahead of time, I never would have ordered it (I can see why the waitress brought out karage instead). The make matters worse, it appeared that this was a rush job in preparation of the dish, so not all of the chicken skin was fried properly and some of the middle pieces were still un-fried. This was easily the worst dish of the night.
Rum Raisin Ice Cream
This was just your standard ice cream (even though it was an unfamiliar flavor), but it was still a great way to finish off the meal.

Overall, the experience at Oton was very good (aside from the chicken skin). Looking at the menu now, I still see a wide variety of different dishes that I would order next time. Furthermore, even though we ordered a lot of food, the bill came out lower than I expected. The food at Oton was an authentic Japanese experience, a great variety, and a healthy dose of umami to satiate my umami craving.

Despite the miss of the chicken skin, my experience at Oton was enough to award it the bit award! The great service and the string of four great dishes made up for the one bad dish. If you visit, I would suggest ordering more dishes from the seasonal specials and the grilled dishes since those seemed to be the best.


Bawarchi - Searching for Good Indian Food in SD Part 1

>> Monday, August 8, 2011

Date of Dining: 3/4/2011
Price: $20-35 per person
Location: 9520 Black Mountain Rd Ste. A, San Diego, CA 92126

The Quick Bit:
+ The garlic naan was good
+ Food was not overly buttery
Δ Servers could have been more attentive
Δ Non-vegetarian Biryanis could be cooked with meat
Δ Spices in Biryani could have been milder
Δ "breading" of the Indo-Chino dishes could have been less disgusting in texture

I'm a big fan of Indian food - from the rich complex flavors of curry to the succulent tenderness of the tandoori grilled meats to actually being able to eat vegetarian and enjoying a good meal, good Indian food is something I would love to have. Unfortunately, I have still yet to enjoy a properly amazing Indian meal, so I can only imagine how good Indian food should be.

As I work with many Indians (who are regular readers of this blog no less), I have asked them to help me find a good Indian restaurant in San Diego. For the first stop of this journey, we decided to pick somewhere in the Indian "hub" of San Diego - Black Mountain Road complex. Now you may ask why they picked Bawarchi vs Surati Farsan Mart, but I was informed that they don't consider Surati Farsan Mart to be a proper place to get a meal - "It's just a snack place." Since I'm no expert on Indian Cuisine, I'll simply defer on that argument and say that while Surati Farsan Mart may be reviewed in the future, it would be part of the Searching for Indian Food series.

I ended up with four others at Bawarchi, so we went ahead and ordered a lot of things:
The pakora were completely over-fried to the point that the original vegetables had no flavor at all. This was quite a shame since the dipping sauces were pretty good. Our table didn't finish this dish.
Gobi Manchurian (cauliflower)
The first of the Indo-Chino dishes; Gobi Manchurian appears to be a take on sweet and sour pork except with cauliflower instead of pork. The breading used to fry the cauliflower seemed to be too wet. It's almost like the cauliflower was dipped in some wet mixture and then not finished off with flour/breadcrumbs, so all that adhered to the vegetable was some runny mess of flower and egg. Furthermore, the cauliflower seemed to not be respected as an ingredient as it was overcooked and the aggressive saucing of the dish completely overwhelmed any taste of cauliflower.
Chicken 65
Chicken 65 seems to be an Indo-Chino take on Szechwan cooking. The chicken was deep fried (notice a trend?) and then slathered with some spicy sauce that resembled Sambal. It was also finished with an Indian spice mix to add some depth. Perhaps I'm slightly biased, but I prefer some of the subtleties of good Szechwan cooking over the Indo-Chino version. While there is definitely heat in the Szechwan food, there is also added depth with the inclusion of fermented soy beans and there is also a nice numbing quality from the Szechwan peppercorns. However, this dish tried to pair a Chinese spice with and Indian spice and they seemed to work against each other rather in with each other in harmony.
Garlic Naan
Easily the best dish of the night. The naan was nicely crispy in the center and the outer portions were appropriately doughy.
Matar Paneer
The paneer was uninspired at best. Many Indian restaurants seem to take the shortcut of making one sauce and then adapting that sauce into all the different curries rather than making each sauce separately. I feel that Bawarchi was certainly guilty of this.
Vegetable Dum Biryani
Bawarchi Special Chicken Dum Biryani
I actually tried to order the Hyderabadi Chicken Dum Biryani, but was informed they were out. Since this dish was more expensive, one would figure that it should be more impressive. Instead, I was extremely disappointed in the results. The Vegetable Biryani was the exact same rice base as the Chicken Biryani, which speaks of total laziness in the preparation. One would expect that a meat Biryani is cooked in the juices of the meat in order to impart an additional layer of savory flavor. Bawarchi decided that they would not do that. Additionally, it may just be a cultural thing but I completely missed why there was a pairing of a hard boiled egg.
I found this dish to be average and at least somewhat enjoyable after the rest of the meal didn't go particularly well. However, I was informed that this dish was in fact terrible. I did end up eating this, but the rest of the people looked at me strangely that I would actually enjoy it.
Gulab Jamun
This Gulab Jamun was simply way too sweet. The sweetness overwhelmed everything else. I would be surprised if the entire ball was not filled completely with pure sugar.

So the first stop of the search for Indian food failed to produce a result to my liking. However, I did find the experience educational, especially on how Biryanis are supposed to be prepared.

Additionally, in the five months since I visited Bawarchi, apparently the food has taken a turn for the worse. This claim is complete here-say, but the coworkers that I visited the restaurant with have all informed me that they refuse to go the restaurant any longer. Perhaps even my beloved Garlic Naan is no longer any good there?


Blanca - Summer 2011 Tasting Menu

>> Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chef Gavin Schmidt (left) and Pastry Chef Jasana Singer (right)
Date of Dining: 8/30/2011 
Price: $100 for "12 course" tasting menu, $60 wine pairing
Location: 437 S Highway 101 #301, Solana Beach, CA 92705

The Quick Bit:
+ The progression of the meal was heavily factored
+ Many courses had an additional olfactory stimulus
+ Great use of seasonal ingredients
+ Plating was inspired
Δ The "palette cleanser" course could have had an additional utensil

I've previously written about Blanca several times, and when Bobby @Gourmand's Review asked me to attend a special extended tasting menu event with kevineatsEpicuryan, and Rodzilla, I found out a way to clear my schedule to join them.

Being asked to attend such an event was completely epic for me; it reminded me of the days in my youth where I lined up three days prior to the release to watch The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Once I was reminded of this memory, I began formulating a connection between Chef Gavin Schmidt and a certain race in that world; hobbits.

According to the Lord of the Rings Wiki, a hobbit's lifestyle is summarized as:
Hobbits are fond of an unadventurous bucolic life of farming, eating, and socializing. They enjoy seven meals a day, when they can get them - breakfast (seven a.m.), second breakfast (nine a.m.), elevenses (eleven a.m.), luncheon (one p.m.), afternoon tea (four p.m.), dinner (six p.m.), and, later in the evening, supper (eight p.m.). They like simple food such as bread, meat, potatoes, and cheese, and also like to drink ale, often in inns... Hobbits also enjoy an ancient variety of tobacco, which they referred to as "pipe-weed", something that can be attributed mostly to their love of gardening and herb-lore. Another interesting fact is that hobbits have an inordinate liking of mushrooms, prizing them above many other foods. A common pursuit for younger hobbits is mushroom-hunting, and Frodo Baggins said he had stolen Farmer Maggot's mushrooms on at least one occasion.
Now I've never seen Chef Schmidt's feet, but I do wonder if they are furry and he secretly hides the truth from us. Chef Schmidt is definitely a fan of eating and socializing; I'm not sure if he actually farms, but he does go out and forage for many of the ingredients that he uses in his cooking. I'm also not privy to information about his eating habits, but one would imagine that as a chef, he is constantly tasting the food that he is sending to his diners. While I do know of a mushroom foraging club in the Greater San Diego area, I don't know if Chef Schmidt is a member. He certainly does forage for many ingredients on his own such as local nasturtium and seaweed. I'm sure that if truffles did grow in this area, he would own and raise a pig trained to sniff them out.

Since The Hobbit is going to be released soon, I couldn't help but feel that Chef Schmidt was playing the part of Bilbo and our dining group was the party of thirteen eight dwarves visiting Bag End Blanca prior to setting off on an epic adventure.

Perhaps in my next visit, I will convince Chef Schmidt to remove his shoes and socks so I can see if there is fur on his feet. In the meantime, I can only speculate...

Surprise Course: Amuse (Hobbit's breakfast)
Thanks to Epicuryan for allowing me to use his photo for the amuse as all mine photos were blurry
Bacon Flavored Donut - maple-whisky sabayon
As I mentioned, I was struggling with my camera and was scolded by the others for taking too long. I definitely missed the "sweet spot" in the thermal temperature of the donut, but I still did enjoy the dish. The savory saltiness of the bacon, the breading of the donut, and the maple flavor of the sabayon contributed to reminding me of some superior refined version of pigs in a blanket. I was definitely ready for more as this course started.

First Course: (Hobbit's Second Breakfast)
Tasting of House Made Charcuterie
Wine pairing: NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
The progression was right to left from the photo above:
Duck Liver Mousse with Balsamic - Completely blew me away, I started to smile after I ate this and I don't think I stopped smiling for at least two hours. The mousse had a decadent and rich texture and the balsamic provided just enough acidic contrast to keep the offal flavors from being overwhelming
Pâté de Campagne with Fig Mostarda - While this wasn't bad, it got lost on the plate when compared to the other dishes. The boldness of the fig jam harmonized with the bold flavors of the pate.
Chicharrón with Honey and Espelette - Chef Schmidt's Chicharrones are very memorable, but this particular instance was elevated by the local honey.
Coppa & Soppressata with Pickled Carrot - This is probably more of what was expected when I heard charcuterie plate. The soppressata had a nice kick to it and was very well made.
Lamb Speck with Lamb Powder and Strawberry - This portion was a serenade to lamb. The speck already conveyed the great flavor of lamb, but it was elevated by the concentrated lamb powder under the speck. The powder seemed to have a hint of powdered sugar that added a bit of sweetness and really smoothed out the texture of the lamb powder.
Foie Gras Torchon with Artichoke, Licorice, and Cherry - I'm usually not a fan of licorice, but this preparation made be a believer. I usually prefer seared foie to the torchon, but this one may have convinced me to become a fan of well-prepared torchons.

Second Course: (continuing Second Breakfast)
Vegetable Composition - castelvetrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, yogurt chamomile spheres
Wine pairing: NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose

What was interesting about this dish is that I've seen it change through the seasons. This dish really highlights Chef Schmidt's use of seasonal ingredients as the main components of the dish remain the same, but the flavor profile altered with the inclusion of new ingredients. While the previous rendition seemed to focus more on bittersweet flavors such as grapefruit, fennel, and beets, this version focused more purely on the sweet flavors of the season. Even the ingredients that were re-used had a sweeter flavor as summer has come into full bloom. (The small "micro-watermelon" is actually a cucumber.)

Third Course: (Hobbit's Elevenses)
Still Life of Local Waters - spot prawn, uni, oyster, seaweed, dashi, smoked avocado
Wine pairing: 2009 Perolla, vermentino

Last time I had the vegetarian version of this dish, one of the people I dined with asserted that the vegetarian version was superior to the meat version. It may have been a seasonal thing earlier, but with the beautiful spot prawn, this version was superior to my experience with the vegetarian. This rendition focused more on highlighting the flavors of the seafood with the undertones of the smoky avocado puree and the umami of the dashi and seaweed. The spoonful of uni melted in my mouth where all the flavors worked together to give one of those wow moments. The only thing that possibly compared was the spot prawn; at the peak of freshness, the natural sweetness and pleasing texture combined with the smoky avocado and dashi to give a wonderful mouthfeel as well as flavor. This was definitely among my favorites for the evening.

Fourth Course: (continuing Elevenses)
Cherry Tomato Salad - bay scallops, tomato sorbet, almond, gazpacho
Wine Pairing: 2009 Hans Wirsching, Silvaner

Earlier in the week, Chef Schmidt posted a photo of this dish as his latest addition to the menu. This dish was completely surprising to me on many levels. The most surprising thing to me was the great aroma to the dish when it was brought out. The smell was very inviting and added a nice extra-sensory experience to the dish. The other surprise was the inclusion of the tomato sorbet. At the heart, this dish is a gazpacho, but gazpacho was cooked and somewhat warm, so the tomato sorbet brought the refreshing coolness of the traditional gazpacho, but in a surprising manner. The melon provided some extra sweetness to the contrast, the almonds a nice textural contrast, and the scallops a nice body to the dish.

Fifth Course: (Hobbit's Luncheon)
Grilled Asparagus - burratta, lemon, fried hen egg, chocolate mint
Wine pairing: 2008 Domaine Saint-Francoise, Bourgogne

This was another dish that I had enjoyed previously, but that altered with the season. With the passing of the Meyer lemon season, regular lemon foam was used instead, which had a much more sour and acidic impact. As a result, the asparagus that had previously been infused with extra umami were now very smoky in flavor to contrast the bolder lemon. While this dish was still enjoyable, I thought the previous version was far superior. In the spring, the flavors were much more about harmony whereas the summer rendition seemed more about having two bold flavors trying to balance out. One benefit to the smoky asparagus though was that this dish now had that great smoky aroma to it, which continued the series of courses with that added olfactory sense.

Sixth Course: (continuing Luncheon)
Charred Yellowtail - abalone, young zucchini, ginger, kimchi, basil
Wine Pairing: 2009 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc

This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The vadouvan made a re-appearance from the previous visit, and paired with the extra charred yellowtail belly was a delight. The kimchi provided a nice spicy bite, but was not overwhelming. The fried squash blossom was also pleasing as it provided a good counterpoint in plating, but also the counterpoint in texture to the zucchini.

Seventh Course: (Hobbit's Afternoon Tea)
Grilled Octopus - brown rice, artichoke, plum, cinnamon
Wine Pairing: 2007 Robert Weil, Reisling Kabinett

This dish was my least favorite dish of the night. There seemed to be a lot of acid in this dish seemingly from some lemon that was squeezed over. This element really overpowered the other flavors of the dish for me. I feel like this course was supposed to be more about subtle flavors, but the smoke and lemon from the previous course carried through here and covered up some of the story Chef Schmidt was trying to tell.

Eighth Course: (continuing Afternoon Tea)
Olive Oil Poached Baja Halibut - corn, shiitake mushrooms, toasted wheat, tomato uni sauce
Wine Pairing: 2009 Chateau Musar, Musar Jeaune

This course was another course that came with a great halibut aroma. I'm normally not a fan of halibut, but the tomato uni sauce provided enough flavor for the fish, and the oil poached cooking style preserved the great texture of the halibut. The corn provided a nice contrasting sweetness while the toasted wheat gave a slight textural contrast.

Ninth Course: (Hobbit's Dinner)
A Day on the Farm - soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
Wine Pairing: 2008 Carr Vineyards Cabernet Franc

Apparently my day on the farm didn't include very much soil which was disappointing because I liked the soil component a lot. Even without that, this dish was very enjoyable and against showcased the sweeter flavors of summer.

Tenth Course: (continuing Dinner)
Grilled Grass Fed Beef Brisket - corn puree, grilled apricot, roasted padron peppers
Wine Pairing: 2007 Terra Valentine Cabernet Sauvignon

This was one of my favorite courses for the evening. The brisket was first smoked, then cooked sous-vide for 72 hours, and finally finished by grilling. All the care and attention to the beef really came through as the flavors and textures came together in an extremely enjoyable bite. The padron pepper provided a nice mild spice element to the dish that worked well also (although Epicuryan's pepper was hotter than a jalepeno and perhaps altered his experience of the dish). The corn puree provided a light sweet contrast to the rich  and heavy savoriness of the brisket.

Eleventh Course: (Hobbit's Supper)
Lamb Roasted in Hay - roasted eggplant, potatoes, and wheatgrass emulsion
Although I'm sure this had nothing to do with anything, I feel like Chef Schmidt was trying to play games with me a bit. When we visited Rancho Valencia, the hay-smoked potatoes were my least favorite dish while the lamb was one of my favorites. Here, I got my favorite and least favorite element from the other meal on the same plate. Luckily for me, Chef Schmidt prepared these potatoes much better as they were fluffy and airy. While the lamb may look a little raw in the photo, I felt that it was cooked perfectly for me. I especially appreciated that the skin was left on the lamb chop and the skin was crisped to give a great charred flavor as well as a textural contrast. While I really appreciated this lamb, my only worry is that other San Diego diners may think this preparation a little too avant-garde for them.

Twelfth Course: (continuing Supper)
Goat Cheese Semifreddo - melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melons
Wine Pairing: NV, Valdo Prosecco

As with the previous visit, the chilled block made a return. Adding some symmetry, only a spoon was provided to eat off the block. This was a challenge since it was hard to pick up the melons and granite with just a spoon. The inclusion of a second eating implement to help position food on the spoon would have helped. Other than that, this dish was the perfect palette cleanser/cheese course/pre-dessert. The goat cheese was at the forefront of the dish, but was nicely complimented by the sweetness of the melon granite and the slight acidity from the fizzy melons.

Thirteenth Course: (Continuing Supper)
Blueberries and Corn - polenta chiffon, corn panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, caramel corn
Alchohol Pairing: NV, Dog fishhead, midas touch, ancient ale

Dessert was courtesy of new Pastry Chef Jasana Singer (pictured above). This dessert was not particularly sweet, but that only made me enjoy it more as the flavors were able to come through. I enjoyed the slight sweetness of the panna cotta contrasted against the sweet tartness of the blueberry. The caramel corn and polenta chiffon cake provided nice textural contrast. Overall, a great start for Chef Singer. Adding to the conspiracy theory that Chef Schmidt might actually be a hobbit is the fact that he snuck in an Ale with the alcohol pairings....

Maldon white chocolates with kaffir and lemongrass, Dark chocolates with peach liquer and sea salt
The chocolates were a nice way to finish out the meal

Additionally it was Stephanie's (of Gourmand's Review) birthday. She decided to treat us by making her own macaroons that were delectable. I think if those are included in the market they are planning to open, they would be a smashing success.

Overall, the dinner vastly exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I'm jaded from San Diego, but when I get a tasting menu, I kind of expect a few bad courses, mostly average courses, and maybe one or two great to "wow" courses. During this particular dinner, I felt almost half the courses were in the great to "wow" category and only one dish was in the below average category. This is certainly worthy of accolades as I said the entire experience reminded me of The Return of the King (winning all the Oscars).

While some of the dishes may be too adventurous for the standard San Diego diner, I feel that what Chef Schmidt is doing at Blanca is exactly what San Diego needs. In a previous interview, he expressed that he wanted to be one of the torchbearers for defining San Diego cuisine, and I personally feel that he his leading the charge in a very positive direction.

Finally, I hope that by some miracle, San Diego naturally begins to produce truffles so Chef Schmidt will not have to relocate to satisfy his natural hobbit desires.


About This Blog

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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