Solace & the Moonlight Lounge - Matt Gordon Tasting

>> Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Date of Dining: 1/15/2013
Price: $100 for 8 course tasting
Location: 25 East E St, Encinitas, CA

The Quick Bit

+ high quality menu packed full of bold and rich flavors
+ great creativity and use of technique to create interesting dishes
+ most dishes were very aromatic
Δ is there such thing as too much of a good thing?

As we were enjoying the previous TBL3, the brain trust of myself, Rodzilla, Yao from {insert-food}, and Foodie Flirt was hard at work in determining which restaurant to visit next. One of the candidates was Chef Matt Gordon, who was interested in creating a tasting experience. After contacting Chef Gordon, we were able to arrange such a tasting at his Encinitas Restaurant Solace & the Moonlight Lounge.
Chef Matt Gordon is the Executive Chef and part-owner of Solace & the Moonlight Lounge - the second restaurant to open after Urban Solace. Prior to moving to San Diego, Chef Gordon worked in such kitchens as Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, Scott's Seafood, and Gordon Biersch Brewing Company. 
Just prior to our visit, Chef Gordon had an interview published on Eater. Our group found this interview extremely enlightening on his approach to food. We also noticed that he was inspired by Chef Trey Foshee of George's California Modern. When Foodie Flirt invited Chef Foshee to join, I felt extremely fortunate when that invitation was accepted. Before the meal began, Chef Gordon explained that the menu was inspired by foods he liked to eat himself and hoped we would enjoy them as well.

First Course

sea and smoke - smoked oysters, duck fat, clam dip, squid ink crisps, lemon shallot chutney
I started this course my sampling a small bite of the clam dip, and I was immediately transported into unctuous decadence. The clam dip was made of cultured cream, clams, and duck fat, which amalgamated a real complexity in different fats, textures, and saltiness. When I felt that I might have been potentially overwhelmed, the chutney immediately refreshed my palate. The chutney also did a great job of lingering on the palate, which infused the successive bites with fresh acidity. Finally, the squid ink crisps were extremely tasty and enabled a fun component of dipping into the sauce.
I really felt that this dish was an impressive way to start the meal because it was extremely rich, yet balanced in flavor, acidity, texture, and restraint. It might have even been my favorite dish if not for...

Second Course

offaly interesting - confit of sweetbreads, chive crusted bone marrow, white onion gruyere puree
onion soup
This course was Chef Gordon's take on French Onion soup. If other french onion soups are this good, I will order it every time I see it for the rest of my life. The bone marrow was a great flavor burst and acted almost like the bread component. The different preparations of onions were really enjoyable in their textural contrast as well as how the flavors melded together into an even more complex flavor. Finally, the sweetbread was prepared perfectly and was immensely fulfilling. While many dishes were great, I felt that this dish was the one I enjoyed the most for the entire evening.

Third Course

is that a carrot in our pocket? - sable fish stuffed with poached and roasted carrot, watercress
sunchoke star anise sauce
The sable fish was prepared perfectly as was extremely delicate and flavorful. The carrot puree was infused with curry, which was a nice contrast to both the anise and the sweetness of the carrots. The roasted carrots were also extremely well prepared, and we even enjoyed eating the carrot tops. However, I really enjoyed the sunchoke anise sauce. I felt the anise spice really accentuated the various flavors of the dish.

Fourth Course

curds and whey - housemade ricotta roulade, green olive juice, candied kabocha squash, honey jelly,
mizuna, caramelized whey reduction
I enjoyed various elements of this dish. The ricotta was well prepared and had a great flavor. I also enjoyed that the honey jelly was "spiked" with a real kick of cayenne. Finally, the caramelized whey was very clever and inventive. 

Fifth Course

uni-laterally banned - cornmeal shrimp cake, uni gonad, seared foie gras, foie gras mousse,
uni shellstock reduction
For many at our table, this was the first time that we were able to experience uni and foie in the same bite. Overall, most of us felt that it worked because the uni was able to stand up to the foie.
The best part of this dish was the foie gras mousse ball. When the ball was cut into, the foie mousse covered the rest of the plate and mixed with the reduction to make a rich and flavorful sauce. The combination of the liquefied uni and foie against the whole uni and foie was a thrilling juxtaposition of textures and flavors as the flavors were each unique. All of this was tied together by the prawn contrasted against the shrimp corn cake. These were welcome additions to use in soaking up the rest of the uni and foie sauce.

Sixth Course

deer prudence - pine smoked sous vide venison, chanterelles, potato mille-feuilles, red wine syrup,
pickled baby red onion
 The venison was cooked perfectly and contained a very smoked flavor, which lingered on the palate. This smoke infused the mushrooms, potato, and onions with the same smoke flavor. The mille-feuille was a technical marvel as all the layers of potato were cooked well and contained a light texture.

Seventh Course

popper bonilla - cauliflower pot de creme, brown butter cake, sweet jalapeno caviar
cheddar crisp, vanilla bean whipped, bacon dust
For dessert, we were surprised as Chef Gordon invited Chef Jeff Bonilla to create desserts. You may remember that Chef Bonilla created my favorite dessert of 2012.
After eating my first dessert of 2013, it is going to be awfully difficult to surpass. The pot de creme was extremely light and airy, yet retained a rich cauliflower flavor base. The jalapeno caviar contained all the pepper flavor of the jalapeno without the heat from the capsaicin. This allowed a really fresh taste of pepper be infused along with the caviar. However, the cheddar crisp is what really tied the dish together. The crisp contained the salt needed to accentuate all the other flavors while also acting as the crunchy textural contrast, which made the dish incredibly fun to eat. 

Eighth Course

terry's milk - aerated chocolate, gran marnier gel, chocolate genoise, satsuma foam, candied orange glass
chocolate sauce
The chocolate genoise had the perfect texture of cake, which really carried this dish. I also enjoyed the orange glass, which added a nice amount of acidity and texture. The various chocolates acted as distinct and different sauces in which to dip and enjoy the cake. 


While I was initially excited about tasting Chef Gordon's food, the entire dinner exceeded my highest expectations. Chef Gordon warned me not to expect food on the level of TBL3, but I felt several of these dishes were on that level of preparation. With the great company I had for dinner, I felt the meal was a smashing success. I hope that in the future, Chef Gordon may be willing to make his tastings available to the public by arrangement, similar to how TBL3 is arranged. When that happens, I will definitely be willing to return for an encore engagement.
While I can't give Solace itself an award, I will go ahead and give Chef Gordon's tasting dishes the gigabyte award. Hopefully this tasting will be more available to the public in the future, so the award carries more meaning.


Original Sab E Lee (Rancho Penasquitos)

>> Sunday, January 13, 2013

Date of Dining: 1/3/2013
Price: $6-10 per dish
Location: 13223-2 Black Mountain Rd, San Diego, CA 92129

The Quick Bit

+ great authentic isan style thai food
+ numerous selection of dishes
Δ spice levels could be more accurate and use real chili
Δ new restaurant blues

You may be wondering why many Thai restaurants use some name in the for Sab E Lee. According to my friend and fellow food writer Yao at {insert-food}, it's because in Thai it means delicious.
When I heard that Sab E Lee was going to open in Rancho Penasquitos, I knew I had to try it out. I have been a loyal customer to both the Linda Vista and Santee locations over the years, but never remembered to bring my camera for a proper review. I felt that the opening of the new location was the perfect time to rectify my oversight.
There may be some confusion around Sab E Lee's various owners, so I'll do my best to clarify the story as much as I know. Kobe was the original owner of Sab E Lee in Linda Vista (SEL-LV). After opening to much success with Chef May Lee in the kitchen, he then moved to open Sab E Lee in Santee (SEL-S) with a new chef from Thailand. When he left, he left May Lee in charge of SEL-LV. After there was some confusion about which restaurant people referred to, SEL-LV added "Original" in front of the name. However, SEL-LV's limitation has always been its size - there are a mere 5 tables seating about 18 people. Therefore, May Lee entered into a partnership to open the new Sab E Lee in Rancho Penasquitos (SEL-RPQ). While May Lee remains at SEL-LV, SEL-RPQ is run by other members of her family, so it retained the "Original" in the name.
SEL-RPQ opened in the waning days of 2012, but I'll go ahead and call that a "soft opening" and consider it a new restaurant of 2013. As such with new restaurants, expect delays as the staff figures out how to run things effectively. We arrived along with several other tables to completely fill the restaurant, and there were long delays for the food to arrive. I was happy to wait, but I could sense some  frustration with some other tables.

tom yum soup with shrimp
I always enjoy Sab E Lee's soups, and with the recent trend to cold weather, I really enjoyed the heat from the soup. I'm not a big fan of lemongrass, but this soup had just the right blend of lemongrass to give it a sour and tangy flavor while retaining a rich and savory flavor.

spicy raw beef
There's a running joke that I have a "barbaric" palate and especially enjoy raw beef. It's probably true, but what first attracted me to Sab E Lee was this raw beef dish, and it has never disappointed. The beef is always tender and is dusted with rice powder to give it a nice crunch. The rest of the preparation resembles a larb with cilantro, lime, onions, and garlic. This dish was just as good as I expected at the new location, and I'm glad they haven't lost a beat in what I consider their signature dish.
catfish larb
If there's another signature dish of Sab E Lee, it's probably the catfish larb. Unfortunately, this dish was off from what I expected. The fish did not taste of catfish, and the lack of spice set the dish back.
drunken noodles with chicken
I really enjoy the drunken noodles because I like how the basil flavor infuses into the rest of the dish. While I really did enjoy this dish, so did the rest of the table as it was quickly devoured before my eyes. One great quality about Sab E Lee's noodle dishes are that they do not overcook the noodles. Most other Thai restaurants overcook the noodles so they become too soft and mushy. These noodles have some resistance to them, which enables them to carry a greater depth of flavor.
mango sticky rice
To finish things off, the mango sticky rice is a crowd pleaser. The sticky rice is infused with condensed milk, and the sweet mango gives a fresh feel to the sweetness.


Sab E Lee in Rancho Penasquitos definitely still has some new restaurant kinks to work out. However, if you are a fan of the other Sab E Lee restaurants, or just a fan of good Thai food, it is a great new restaurant in an otherwise cultural culinary desolace. 
Based on reputation, I give the kilobit award to all Sab E Lee restaurants in San Diego. The Rancho Penasquitos location is probably still a bit, but I have confidence that their level will rise to kilobit in the coming months.

Update (1/17/2013):
Kirbie and caninecologne also visited SEL-RPQ


Zabb Elee - Interrupt

Date of Dining: 10/4/2012
Price: $6-11 per dish
Location: 75 2nd Ave. New York, NY, 10003

The Quick Bit

+ extended tasty interpretations of Thai favorites
+ bargain prices

While visiting New York City, it is a great opportunity to try some other ethnic cuisines. As the spicy flavors of Thai cuisine are among my favorites, I knew I had to find one of the city's best Thai restaurants.
Zabb Elee opened its East Village location during the summer of 2011 and quickly became one of the city's leading restaurants. Many critics hail quality of the cuisine. When I found the Serious Eats review of the restaurant, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to try and compare with my favorite San Diego Isan style cuisine. 

som tum muazuar - papaya, shrimp, bbq pork, rice noodle, tomato, long bean
The som tum muazuar is Zabb Elee's take on papaya salads. Rather than making simple papaya salads, these are the super deluxe version, containing elements of an entire meal, while retaining the papaya and sauce as the base. By adding the savory elements of grilled meats, the already well-made papaya salad gets elevated to a greater level. I especially enjoyed the fried pork skin as they really took the dish over the top in both flavor and texture. The sauce had a tangy balance of sour, sweet, and spicy - emphasizing all the flavors within the dish.
After eating this papaya salad, my expectations for the dish have been raised to an incredible level. When I tasted this dish, I felt as if I was on some hidden camera show where the chef had been replaced by a Michelin caliber chef as the food was so amazing.

gang som - bamboo shoot, papaya, shrimp, sweet lime juice
After the som tum, any dish following would have a lot to live up to. The gang som brought my expectations back to reasonable levels. The dish was well prepared as the contrast of the earthy crunchiness of the bamboo with the sweetness of the papaya accentuated the shrimp. The sauce also acted reasonably curry-like due to the sweetness from the papaya. 

pla muk yang - grilled squid with garlic pepper lime dip
The squid was grilled to perfection and seasoned well. The squid was not overly chewy and served as a great platform for the dipping sauce, which was fantastic. The fish sauce mixed with the garlic, peppers, and lime was a great vehicle for highlighting the flavors of Thai cuisine.


Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to Zabb Elee. I wished that I had the opportunity to order more dishes. I felt that the cuisine at Zabb Elee was loyal to the authentic Thai flavors, while reaching out to establish where the cuisine can evolve in the future.
Zabb Elee gets the kilobit award for such great execution and creativity. I highly recommend that you visit while in New York and craving some Thai.


Sky Room (closed)

>> Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Date of Dining: 12/21/2012
Price: $95 for 7 course tasting menu
Location: 1132 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037

The Quick Bit

+ venturing into the culinary unknown
+ variations on the same ingredient
+ knowledgable and friendly service
+ great view
Δ dishes could be edited

Culinary trends are cyclical as time come and go; Oysters Rockerfeller turns into Oysters on the Half Shell until even that turns into Oyster Foam, before Oysters Rockerfeller returns in a deconstructed form. There are no beginnings or endings to in culinary arts - but this was an ending.
A warm breeze blows through the hills of Escondido, buffeting that late season chanterelle before passing into the Highlands of Torrey, where the nasturtium is germinating for the spring bloom, before that breeze collides with the cool onshore flow in the Cove of La Jolla. Here the hot and cold air battles as it blows by a solitary tower, a tower where the top is known as Sky Room.
Recently, it was determined that the Sky Room at La Valencia was operating as a restaurant without the proper permits. Rather than keeping the iconic restaurant, the owners elected to allow the restaurant to operate through its sunset provision and then close the restaurant. 
Fortunately, in the culinary world these endings can form into a new beginning. Chef Luke Johnson aspires for such a new beginning. With a resume that includes stints at Alinea (America's top restaurant) in Chicago and Melisse in Los Angeles, Chef Johnson pushes the envelope of modernist cuisine. His farm to table modern technique style showcases the same ingredients prepared in several ways on each dish. 
Our group, which included Rodzilla and {insert-food} decided to try Chef Johnson's food before he relocated, as we were unsure of his next destination.

First Course

oyster - kunomoto, salsify, grapefruit, chive
This was a great opening dish in both flavors and pace. The acidity and tartness of the grapefruit simultaneously cleansed the palate while causing the mouth the water. I felt the puree of grapefruit was the element that really tied the entire dish together. The three preparations of oyster were distinct and fun as well.

Second Course

lentil - onion, pig, yam
I really enjoyed the pork belly in this dish as it was cooked extremely well. The lentil soup reminded me of a time where I burnt some peas trying to create the Maillard reaction.

Third Course

lobster - turnip, orange, mushroom
I really enjoyed the preparation of the lobster as well as the lobster foam, which I found very aromatic. I liked the contrast in flavors from the lobster tail versus the lobster knuckles, and thought the mushrooms added a nice element of umami to the dish.

Fourth Course

gnocchi - beet, veal, lemon, parmesan
I thought this was the best dish of the night. The key to this dish was the candied lemon. When I ate the lemon, it lingered on my palate while I ate the other elements in the dish. Together with the beats and parmesan, the lemon flavors created a sauce for the gnocchi, which I really enjoyed. The gnocchi were cooked perfectly and were very fluffy. When I first ate the dish without the lemon, I felt it was missing something, but after enjoying the lemon, the rest of the dish really came together.

Fifth Course

venison - celery, pine nut, raisin, sage, coffee
I felt that the venison was cooked to perfection. The coffee sauce really added a lot of depth of flavor to the venison and complemented the game flavors very well. The pine nuts and sage added to the theme of the forest as well.


verjus gelee, mint
This was a nice palate cleanser to prepare for the dessert courses

Sixth Course

cheese - honeycomb, fennel, cornbread
The fromager d'affinois cheese was a great piece of cheese in both texture and flavor. Having usually skipped the cheese course, this course really educated me on how cheese works well in the progression of a meal.

Seventh Course

gourd - chocolate, spice, streusel, chestnut
This dish was one of my favorites. The butternut squash was served in juice form in the center of the plate and them it was complemented by an extremely light and airy puree. Every bite screamed out with a purity in flavor that really impressed me. I even appreciated the macarons, streusel and chestnut on this plate as they added interesting textures to highlight different variations of the squash flavor. Despite Chef Johnson not being a pastry chef, this dessert was superior to many desserts I enjoyed prepared by pastry chefs this year.


The most impressive quality to this meal was that I saw that Chef Johnson was not afraid to try new things and push the culinary envelope. While some of the dishes didn't work, Chef Johnson's work seems to be ahead of the other San Diego trends. That said, I do feel that sometimes one can be somewhat ambitious and push too far too fast. In some dishes, some of these envelopes were pushed too far and the dishes didn't work. With that said, I am still excited about Chef Johnson's food and look forward to his next venture.


2012 gastrobits awards

>> Tuesday, January 1, 2013

After some a short absence, I was compelled to make an update based on my 2012 year end awards.

Looking back at 2012, it was the year where I truly embraced food writing. I set a torrid pace to start the year and then experienced some burn out as we neared the end. Looking back at all the photos, there's so many good dishes that I had during the year. For this year's awards, I've decided to just highlight the best dishes and assign them some arbitrary awards.

Best New Restaurant - Akinori Sushi

Akinori opened just recently has and has been serving an inspired trendy style of high quality sushi. If you like your sushi in the kaiseki style (some hot dishes as well as sushi), then Akinori is the place to experience omakase done right.

Best Vegatable Dish

carrot - TBL3 @ George's California Modern
The carrot cooked from the coffee crust grill was an amazing preparation. The carrot was prepared to actually taste similar to meat in heartiness and texture. The flavors meshed together incredibly well.

Best Ethnic Thai

som tum muazuar - Zabb Elee (NYC)
This papaya salad from Zabb Elee was a masterpiece. There was a wide range of flavors and textures while delivering a rich thai flavor. Best of all, it only cost $10. Unfortunately, you'll have to fly to New York City to sample this dish.

Best Ethnic Latin

octopus - Mision 19 (Tijuana)
The octopus from Mision 19 had a variety of latin flavors with incredible technical execution. Each octopus was cooked very well and had a complex range of sauces to highlight the flavors and texture of octopus. Not only was this dish the best Latin, dish but it was one of the best dishes of the year.

Best Ethnic Chinese

famous prawn in hot wok - Lao Hunan (Chicago)
The prawns were cooked perfectly in the hot wok and had a great balance of flavors and spice to resemble Thai food to some extent. The accompanying garnish added a lot of flavor in the form of herbs and spices to add depth to the dish. 

Best Noodles

tonkotsu ramen - Tsujita (Los Angeles)
The tonkotsu ramen at Tsujita packs a might flavor punch as the broth is boiled for 60 hours prior to serving. The result is an extremely thick and luxurious essence of pork flavor.

Best Ethnic Italian

tagliolini nero - Balena (Chicago)
The squid ink pasta from Balena was sauced perfectly and contained a great amount of flavor of both sea urchin and crab. This is pasta cooked properly

Best Ethnic Japanese

matsutake mushroom soup - Akinori
The matsutake mushroom soup was full of fresh seafood cooked to perfection along with a slow cooked mushroom soup. The flavor of the mushroom transferred well into the broth and was an extremely surprising and fulfilling highlight to the omakase meal.

Best Sandwich

porchetta sandwich - Ariccia Italian Market
The porchetta at Ariccia is amazing in flavor. Recently, the pig was changed to a local acorn-fed pork, which has imparted even more flavor into the finished porchetta product.

Best "Pizza"

tuna crisp - Flavor Del Mar
With nothing comparable to Pizzeria Mozza, the best "pizza" I had was the tuna crisp at Flavor. The mix of the tuna with the umami crisp underneath was the perfect bite.

Best Raw Preparation

raw beef - Totoroku
The raw beef dishes were all amazing at Totoroku, but none were more impressive than the beef throat. The yield to serve a table of 4 requires the slaughter of 1.5 cows. The throat has an incredible balance of natural fat with a pure beef flavor. I enjoyed the raw beef throat even more than the finest toro.

Best Seafood Dish

salad of dungeness crab - A Simple Supper with Gavin Schmidt
The dungeness crab salad capture the pure essence of crab flavor to explode in my mouth. The accompanying spring vegetables really highlighted the sweetness of the crab dish. To top it off, there was some special preparation to the gelatinous wrap that could only be served in an underground dinner.

Biggest Surprise Dish
chanterelle stew - George's California Modern
I didn't eat this until there was 38 minutes left of 2012, which was the first surprise. The second surprise was the incredible unctuous texture of the dish. It was simultaneously rich, while being anchored with the earthy flavors. Each bit was also incredibly light and delightful.

Best Dessert

watermelon, prosciutto, love & break dancing - Evolve Explore Your Senses
The dessert from Jeff Bonilla was not only one of the best desserts, but also nearly the best overall dish I had all year. It combined elements of the savory prosciutto to enhance the sweetness of the watermelon. Every bite was light and packed full of flavor.

Best Overall Dish

smoked beef tongue - TBL3 @ George's California Modern
The beef tongue in this dish had a delicious smoky flavor, but it was the brandade cream that really highlighted the dish. Each bite of this dish was a party in my mouth.

Best Overall Restaurant - George's California Modern

With another awesome TBL3 and a well executed New Years Eve, George's California Modern takes home the title of best restaurant 2012. George's raised its gastrobit rating from gigabyte to terabyte and includes a great wine list worthy of the oenobyte. Last but not least, I had an incident during my New Years Eve experience that was handled masterfully by the front of house. Another food writer commented that it was a "Michelin move," and I agree.


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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