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Pop-Up at Delicias with Chefs Zach Hunter and Steven Molina

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Full review and photos: http://twofoodiesonejourney.blogspot....

In every profession people tend to grow throughout their careers and develop their own style and identity. Part of this development is often based more on a trial and error approach but another part originates through the influence of mentors/supervisors. These influences can originate by a teacher-scholar relationship but more often they form unconsciously over time by just working together and continuously observing. Cooking on a professional level is perhaps one of the occupations where such influences are often particular distinct. At the same time, since chefs early on in their careers often work or stage at a number of well-known restaurants, these influences get mixed together so that at the end each chef has his unique style but the different influences are often noticeable even throughout single dishes.

San Diego has a rather fast rotation of chefs especially on a fine dining level so that very few of them stayed for a longer time and had a significant influence on subsequent generations of chefs. Some of the notable exceptions are Trey Foshee at George’s Modern, Jeff Jackson at AR Valentien and Paul McCabe formerly at Kitchen 1540 and Delicias. The most recent, unexpected move from Chef McCabe to Arizona was quite a blow to the fine dining scene in San Diego but during his stint at Delicias he worked with Sous Chef Steve Molina who took over the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine after McCabe’s departure. Chef Molina graduated in 2008 from the San Diego Culinary Institute and started working in the industry under Chef Vignau at Savory in Encinitas. He then moved to L’Auberge Del Mar were he started as a pantry cook before rising up the ranks to become Sous Chef under McCabe at Kitchen 1540.

McCabe’s move to Delicias generated quite some buzz around the restaurant and its future plans which was throughout the years more known as a kind of neighborhood restaurant for the wealthy in Rancho Santa Fe with good but not really ambitious cuisine. The future direction of Delicias was quite uncertain after the recent changes in the kitchen but we were for some time thinking about trying to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina when we heard about a 9-course tasting menu at Delicias as a pop-up with Chefs Zach Hunter and Molina. Chef Hunter graduated in 2005 from the Arizona Culinary Institute to start at Wildfish Seafood Grille in Scottsdale where he quickly became Executive Chef. He decided afterwards to move to Mugaritz in Errenteria/Spain, one of the most respected restaurants in the world. After moving back to the US and working together with Molina under Chef McCabe at Kitchen 1540 he moved to New York to work as Sous Chef at Atera. Most recently he made the decision to move to Austin to work on an own restaurant concept in the near future but had a stopover in San Diego with this pop-up restaurant night which gave us the opportunity to experience two McCabe alumni with a hopefully daring tasting menu.

Snack 1: Albacore, pickled watermelon, pork fat, ice plant
The night began with a number of snacks to wet one’s appetite. First we had a small piece of slightly cured albacore, topped with a layer of pork fat and some pickled watermelon – light, refreshing and well balanced.

Snack 2: Chicken skin, romesco, dried corn
A play on chicharrones with puffed chicken skin - the slightly smoky romesco with peppery notes didn’t overwhelm the chicken skin too much and the dried corn not only added some additional texture but was also well integrated in the playful presentation with its chicken wire.

Snack 3: Fermented corn, dried shrimp, panko, aioli
The highlight of the four snacks – the corn was fermented for ten days and had a slightly sour taste not unlike good sauerkraut, the dried shrimp added some saltiness and panko gave texture to the dish. A wonderful combination of sour, salty and Umami, of which one was really hoping to have a whole cob of corn.

Snack 4: Chicken rillette, mole negro, peach butter
This dish presented in a small cocotte had a nice interplay of the crostini, smoked chicken rillette and mole negro but what brought this dish together was the slight fruitiness of the peach butter.

It is always interesting to see the interactions of a kitchen team during work and this night was no difference with both chefs and their team working side by side. It is still surprising why Delicias is not using this open kitchen better to bring a different dynamic and ambience to the restaurant instead of hiding it behind some high partition walls.

1st Course: Uni, crispy grains, dashi gelee, powdered yogurt
The first course as the start of the dinner reminded us on breakfast at the start of the day. Not unlike cereals with milk in the morning we had in this dish a variety of different grains and seeds with powdered yogurt but what deviated it from your standard sweet morning dish was the inclusion of some pieces of uni and dashi gelee which gave the dish a wonderful salty, maritime flavor. Interestingly this strong dish vaguely reminded us of a course we recently had at Atelier Crenn

2nd Course: Tuna tartare, smoked trout roe, lettuce, smoked chicken gelee, breadcrumbs
The presentation of this course was unexpected with a larger piece of lettuce as the centerpiece and the other ingredient coating or surrounding it. At first the combination of the crunchy lettuce with the tuna and smoked roe tartare seemed not really to work but after a few bites the dishes started to grow on us and ended up as a surprisingly balanced dish.

3rd Course: Salt roasted potatoes, dried squid, egg yolk vinaigrette
Sometimes good dishes don’t have to rely on unusual ingredients or complex preparations but live through their simplicity – here we had simple salt roasted potatoes with a matching vinaigrette – simple and homey yet somehow elegant. The dried squid chip didn’t add much to the dish and was more of a distraction.

4th Course: Lobster, shaved Chinese sausage, Meyer lemon – ginger emulsion
The presentation reminded us on some fish’n’chips we got when we lived in England and the pork-fat poached lobster with its “coating” of shaved Chinese sausage worked also along this lines. As good as the surprisingly large piece of lobster was, not unlike fish’n’chips, some kind of starch component was missing in this dish which was a bit too one-dimensional.

5th Course: Spot prawns, bone marrow, roasted summer squash, wheatgrass emulsion
This course was one of the highlights of the dinner with its perfectly cooked prawns and the roasted summer squash. The wheatgrass emulsion mixed with the liquid bone marrow gave the dish an earthy foundation.

6th Course: Fermented long beans, aged lamb, Meyer lemon emulsion, lamb fat aioli
This was one of the dishes where it is necessary to get a little bit of everything at each bite to get a balanced flavor. The fermented long beans had a surprisingly sour taste which was tamed by the lamb fat aioli whereas the aged lamb brought some gaminess and minerality.

7th Course: Venison loin, roasted tomato confit, charred onion
It was interesting and refreshing to see that throughout the night both chefs used some unusual successions and presentations of the dishes not always seen with tasting menus but it appeared with this course they seemed to step back to the default path of ending the savory part with a meat-heavy course. Even though technically very well made with tender sous-vide venison and strong tasting tomato confit the dish seemed to be out of line with the progression of the tasting menu so far and felt too monotonous with its focus on one large piece of meat.

8th Course: Tartare of beet and sour cherry, coconut tapioca
The use of vegetables as part of desserts is becoming increasingly popular and this dish had a very unusual combination of beets and sour cherry which was mainly overshadowed by the earthiness of the beets with some hardly noticeable sweet undertones from the cherry and coconut tapioca. This dish was paired with an unusual cocktail based on champagne and vinegar which actually helped to lighten up the dish with its acidity but it was still a rather challenging course.

9th Course: Candied carrots, chocolate-stout gelato, fermented carrot chocolate ganache
The last course was another, but much more successful, take on vegetables as dessert – the natural sweetness of the carrots paired perfectly with the maltiness of the chocolate stout and the fermented carrot ganache acted as an overarching theme to bring both together with the unexpected funkiness of the fermented carrots – a perfect ending to the tasting menu on a high note.

A pop-up restaurant event has always a unique character as the chef doesn’t really have to rely on return customers and so has the chance to take some culinary risks and try out some unusual flavor and ingredient pairings. It was good to see that Chefs Hunter and Molina were willing to take this road and served interesting courses with some highlights like the uni, spot prawns or the carrot dessert. And even courses which didn’t really work for us like the beet dessert are laudable as it shows their willingness to try to express their own culinary vision without much compromise. Hopefully Delicias will be encouraged by the good attendance of this pop-up, and GM Alex Campbell mentioned that they are thinking of having such events as a seasonal occurrence.

When two chefs cook together it is of course hard to determine who had which influence on which course but overall it was interesting to see how far the cooking style of these both chefs has evolved from that of their mentor Paul McCabe. It will be interesting to track how Chef Hunter’s first attempt at an own restaurant in Austin will turn out to be (and hopefully it won’t be the last time he cooked in San Diego) but the night also really reminded us that it is time for us to set up a tasting menu with Chef Molina at Delicias and experience his cooking first-hand.

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  1. Great review, sounds amazing. How did you know about this dinner? Insider info or on the mailing list.

    Still miss McCabe.

    2 Replies
    1. re: foodiechick

      There was a note on Eater San Diego about it a few weeks ago

      1. re: foodiechick

        You were purposely kept out of the loop...need-to-know basis, etc.

        BTW- Have I mentioned how good the Caesar Salad was at Blind Burro?

        And now back on thread track...

        (Sorry Herr Honkman)