Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Elevated Burger

Last week I drove up to Carlsbad to try a burger. I don't usually eat burgers anymore, much as I love them--but I was so intrigued by the concept behind Elevation Burger that I made an exception and off I went.

Elevation Burger was founded in 2005 in Virginia by Hans Hess, a former Californian. Looking for an alternative experience to the grease bomb many of us have scarfed down and then regretted, he came up with a fast-food concept that uses organic, grass-fed, free-range beef burgers with the meat freshly ground on the premises. There are also two types of veggie burgers, fresh-cut fries fried in Bertolli olive oil, salad, and hand-scooped milkshakes. Plus, a cookie or mandarin oranges for dessert.

It's not just the ingredients that are elevated. Carlsbad franchise owner Ron Weinberg explained that staff is paid above minimum wage and get health care benefits. The franchises all use renewable, non-polluting materials such as bamboo flooring, compressed sorghum tabletops, and low- or no-VOC paints and sealants. And they recycle.

All that's well and good but how's the food? I enjoyed it a lot. I ordered the Elevation Burger (two 1/5-pound patties, two slices of aged cheddar cheese, and a boatload of toppings--ketchup, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, raw onions, elevation sauce and a fabulous hot pepper relish on the side to taste). I got the fries, which were crispy and fresh tasting. And I ordered a thick coffee ice cream shake with chocolate syrup. I also got the fat cookie, made with chocolate chips, oatmeal, and pecans, which I saved for later.

I loved their idea of using metal baking pans as trays for shuttling the food and drinks. I appreciated that these weren't mammoth burgers. Patties are a fifth of a pound and the buns fit snugly around them, not overpowering the meat. And, I loved the prices, which are very reasonable, especially given the quality of the products. The Elevation Burger is $5.99. The fries are $2.89. The shakes are $3.89. The cookie is $1.79.

The friend I was with ordered the Veggie Burger #1, and it truly tasted like vegetables blended with cheese--as opposed to a substance that just wasn't meat. The other Veggie Burger (#2) is a vegan burger. There's also the Half the Guilt Burger, made with one meat patty and one veggie patty. And, you can order your burger carb-free, wrapped in lettuce. Don't like burgers? They have a grilled cheese sandwich. Love burgers with an insane passion? Fill 'er up with the Vertigo Burger; you could order up to 10 patties.

Elevation Burger has storefronts across the country. In San Diego County, it's located in Bressi Ranch Village Center at 2641 Gatway Road. According to Weinberg, who is Elevation Burger's area director for San Diego, they are scouting new locations--looking at UTC and Mission Valley as their next destinations.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Relate at Bistro St. Germain's: Introducing the Peripatetic Pop-Up to San Diego

Chef Dan Moody brought the pop-up restaurant concept to San Diego this week, settling into temporary digs at Bistro St. Germain's in Encinitas for three weeks with his Relate restaurant.

Moody has plenty of experience with the concept, having worked as sous chef at LudoBites in L.A., the hugely successful pop-up creation of Chef Ludo Lefebvre. In fact, a couple of the dishes he offered on his first menu come from his time at LudoBites.

I'm of two minds about the pop-up concept. It certainly offers chefs an opportunity to open a new restaurant without the drain of capital investment costs. For diners scouting around for new places where chefs can have a free hand to experiment with new concepts, it can be a terrific adventure. But, a temporary showcase can also mean a dining adventure that includes inexperienced staff in an environment that is makeshift at best.

I got to try Relate on Wednesday night at a preview dinner. And both of those experiences butted up against each other that evening. The dishes--a prix fixe meal of five dishes paired with wines from Mount Palomar Winery--were clever and delicious. But Moody definitely has some fundamental work ahead of him to make it an extraordinary evening. His staff appeared inexperienced and confused about what to do. The guests entered the restaurant at 7 and they left us standing around trying to figure out what we were supposed to do before Moody appeared and directed us to take seats at various tables. When it came to table service, our server couldn't answer questions about the dishes and basically giggled at his ignorance. Chalk this up to too little time to train staff that are not professional servers. But at $55 a person, this will need a fix. Fortunately, Moody, a San Diegan, has plans to open pop-up restaurants in other locations, which should gradually help address some of the experience problems in the staff he's developing. In the meantime, expect some adventures in dining.

Moody was charming about other issues that came up. The French Onion Soup listed on the menu couldn't be served because one of his kitchen staff, moving the pot from one part of the kitchen to another, tripped and lost all the contents to the floor. And a dish calling for beet chips wasn't going to have them. Stuff happens.

But dinner itself was lovely. It opened with a sweet Carrot Consommé Shooter with Ginger Foam, skipping past the misbegotten soup to a Roasted Baby Beet Salad with Golden Beet Vinaigrette. Unfortunately, I don't like beets -- but that didn't prevent me from enjoying the salad's leafy greens, judiciously sprinkled with fresh lavender, and featuring a dab of sweet cherry yam preserves.

Photo courtesy of Megan Novak Shockney
Then came a luscious dish of Butter Poached Lobster, Warm Egg & Caviar Salad, and Leeks with Fennel Jam and Onion Froth. (My photo was too dark so I'm using this from the PR person from a tasting done earlier. It's similar enough to give you an idea of what we ate that evening.) The salad was perched on challah toast and adorned with a creamy lobster hollandaise. It was a delicate dish that would be a perfect brunch item, but that evening it was a sweet segue to more substantial dishes to follow, like the Rabbit Cassoulet.

This had to be the best dish served that evening. The rabbit was tender and sweet and the flavor combination exquisite. It was a small serving but those few bites yielded perfectly cooked beans, pieces of rabbit, and a savory bit of sausage all joined together in a rich and mellow sauce melding rabbit and duck confit in veal stock.

The cassoulet yielded to another hearty dish, Spiced Beef, Spinach Avocado Puree, Crispy Porcini Spaetzle with slices of black truffle, and a Guinness Gastrique. Moody explained that this is basically his signature dish. The meat is rubbed with a spice mixture of chipotle, ancho chile, coffee, cinnamon, and clove resulting in a heady flavor that has just enough bite but is mellowed by the cinnamon and clove. The spaetzle was terrific--very earthy tasting with a nice chewy feel. The slices of truffle were a lovely extravagance and complemented by the sweet gastrique. The only thing that felt out of place was the puree. It was designed to offset the meat's spiciness but I didn't find it necessary and it seemed a clunky addition to an otherwise wonderful pairing of ingredients.

The meal ended with a dessert of Smoked S'mores, House-Made Graham Crackers, Agave Marshmallow, Chipotle-Orange Ganache, and Tequila Crème Anglaise. This is something you might also find on a LudoBites menu, but Moody made sure we knew it was his creation. At LudoBites you'll find it served with avocado ice cream--Lefebvre's adaptation of Moody's dish. It's a fun dessert and, indeed, smoky to imitate the effect you'd get making them at a campfire.

As for Relate's ambiance, there's a little work that needs to go into that, too, to match the caliber of the food. The night I was there, the place definitely looked like the casual breakfast/lunch spot it is. There were no tablecloths, the large display case that holds the day's pastries was uncovered, revealing the several leftover muffins left stranded inside, and the lights could be dimmed. But, on all the walls were charming paintings by culinary artist Christopher M. And, in fact, the artist was at dinner that evening and presented Moody with a pen-and-ink drawing of the chef examining his knives.

When you make reservations--and I suggest you do--check to find out what wines are to be paired with dinner before you commit to paying extra for the pairing. The Mount Palomar wines we were served were unimpressive and some diners said that next time, they'd bring their own. However, if Moody changes the wines, it would be worth exploring that and any craft beer pairings he does in the next three weeks. The menu I experienced will run through the weekend, then Moody will periodically change it up during the rest of the three-week run.

Relate at Bistro St. Germain's is at 1010 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas. It's open Tuesday through Saturday until February 26, from 6 to 10 p.m. You can make reservations on the website or call 858-367-379.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Renewed Ave. 5

I love the luxury of a gorgeous white tablecloth restaurant. But I'm just as partial to hanging out at a casual spot with a great burger. Chef/owner Colin MacLaggan's Avenue 5 in Bankers Hill started out with the white tablecloths and the upscale menu to match--but he always had great burgers and other casual fare, too.

Now, he's given in to his casual side--and economic realities. Avenue 5 has been rebranded as Ave. 5. The tablecloths literally have been removed. And, there's been a little remodeling. The front wall has opened up with more windows. His brother Brian designed a couple of oversized wrought-iron lighting fixtures that hang in the dining room. And, at the front of the house, the bar area is more defined--with belly tables and an enormous blackboard filled with the day's specials, beer lists, and the like. White tablecloth has given way to light-filled bistro.

The menu, too, has changed. You'll still find favorites like truffle fries, duck confit, shellfish linguini, and the Ave. 5 burger, but they've been joined by a variety of new dishes, including several new burgers focused around cheese and onion pairings.

Such as the French Burger, a luscious melding of ground beef with Brie and caramelized onions.

French Burger
MacLaggan has also included a Lamb Burger, with Middle Eastern flavors of cucumbers and yogurt; a BBQ Burger with soft goat cheese and balsamic onions, and a Blue Burger with, yes, Danish crumbled blue cheese and crispy onions. The Ave. 5 Burger, with aged cheddar and pickled onions, remains a house favorite, and rightly so given the strong cheddar flavor and tanginess of the pickled onions paired with the beef's umami qualities.

Ave. 5 Burger
All of the burgers are accompanied either by a house salad or irresistible truffle fries.

Truffle fries with white truffle oil and parsley
The starters are an eclectic collection of dishes, from a charcuterie and cheese plate to local Carlsbad mussels in ginger, garlic, and jalapeno. There's a roasted squash risotto with sage butter and a delicious scallop taco, which is married with chorizo, potato, and a tomatillo, jicama, and mango sauce. I also enjoyed the Ave. 5 Mushroom Tortellini with corn and grapes in Madeira cream. The tortellinis were smooth and earthy, while the corn and grapes added sweetness and texture that paired well with the creamy sauce.

Still looking for a more upscale meal? Try the Braised Lamb shoulder with garlic whipped potato and rosemary jus, Organic Scottish Salmon with confit potatoes and lemon and dill beurre blanc, or the Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with sweet sausage stuffing and stone fruit glaze.

Whatever you choose, save room for dessert. You can't go wrong with a cheese plate. This is a holdover from the old menu and MacLaggan has selected the creamy Humboldt Fog, a tangy Spanish Manchego, and rich Camembert, each served with toasted bread and fruit. But I say go with the Butterscotch Pot de Creme. You'll simply want to dive into the bowl and lick your way out. And the accompanying rosemary sugar cookie is an added treat.

Butterscotch Pot de Creme
Or, for something just a little more decadent, try the Baked Fromage Blanc with creme anglaise. It's got the rich tartness of a great cheesecake, but with more elegance. This month, MacLaggan also added a pumpkin creme brulee and bread pudding.

Baked Fromage Blanc
MacLaggan has found new footing with these changes, which he says are more reflective of the way he likes to cook. The setting, too, seems more in line with the casual Bankers Hill locale he's been in--perfect for pre-theater dining, to meet friends for drinks and then eats, or for Sunday brunch. And, it's one of the few good spots in the neighborhood open during the week for lunch.

Ave. 5 is located at 2760 5th Avenue. The phone number is 619) 542-0394.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cafe Madeleine: "French Fast Good"

The last time I was in Paris, I took a long walking tour of Le Marais and afterward wandered up and down little streets until I just ran out of steam. I was famished in a city where hunger is an absurdity. Little cafes dotted the neighborhood's major avenue but which to choose? I finally just chose one, the name of which I don't remember, but I sank onto a chair at an outdoor table, and wearily ordered a cheese omelet and café décaféiné. It was a sublime meal.

I remembered those simple, delicious flavors and my happy settled feeling as I was eating not an omelet but a smoked salmon crepe at South Park's new Cafe Madeleine, owned by Mistral chef de cuisine Patrick Ponsaty and Christine Perez (who owns nearby Vagabond with husband Jerome Gombert). Ponsaty, who recently joined Mistral after being at Bernard'O, had been planning this spot before he took the new job. The cafe, which opened in June, is still getting some finishing touches, like sweet Toulouse-Lautrec-like decorative paintings on the Juniper St. side of the building that were being painted this week by Ponsaty's friend Alexandra Pastorino, a French artist now living in Los Angeles.

But, let's get back to the crepe, which was filled with bite-sized slices of the salmon, along with capers, creme fraiche, little bits of red onion and confit pepper -- and surprising little chunks of lemon. Topped with a small green salad, almost as a garnish, the crepe was light and with popping flavors. Like that omelet in the Marais, the crepe was an easy, sophisticated, and satisfying dish. The perfect black dress of meals.

Of course, like any good French cafe--in San Diego--the little black dress itself would be far too much for this casual neighborhood eatery. It's a tiny spot on the corner of 30th and Juniper with a sidewalk wide enough to sit several tables comfortably--Ponsaty points out that they're dog friendly, by the way. Inside, are just a few tables and a counter behind which most of the food--crepes, paninis, and salads--is made.

The other savory crepes on the menu include chicken with bechamel, blue cheese, pear, and walnut; beef with horseradish, caramlized onion, and tomato, and vegetarian with tomato, mozzarella, pesto, and balsamic. The paninis mimic the crepes--vegetarian, chicken, ham, proscuitto, beef, and the smoked salmon. And there are two distinctive salads--Baked Goat Cheese Crouton with honey, green salad, and dijon vinaigrette and Arugula, blue cheese, chicken, walnut, fresh pear and balsamic vinegar.

Then there are the sweets. With such a small kitchen, Ponsaty brings in some pastries from his friends Thierry Cahiz and Vincent Garcia at Opera Patisserie. But many are made in house, like madeleines, of course, and several crepes "sucrees," including one with nutella and an intriguing sounding orange and grapefruit with pastry cream. Ponsaty presented me with a lemon crepe that's not on the menu. It reminded me of Dutch pancakes I had grown up with--thin pancakes that are folded up and topped with a swipe of melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and dusting of powder sugar. This crepe had the lemon juice and powder sugar and the perfect flavor combination of sweet and tart.

Also try the house-made comfort food dessert that is Gateau Basque. Made with a yeasty butter crust that envelopes pastry cream, Gateau Basque is a confection that Ponsaty grew up with in Toulousse, France. Another variation of the pastry is made with black cherry jam, but I enjoyed every creamy spoonful of this version with a decaf espresso.

Along with the food, which Ponsaty describes as "French Fast Good," the owners pride themselves on the Illy coffee and a line of Damman Frères teas they serve. And, as you're thinking about the upcoming holidays, so are they--Ponsaty is planning on making a variety of holiday cookies and, of course, Buche de Noel.

Cafe Madeleine is open daily at 7:30 a.m. and closes Monday - Thursday at 3 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m. It's located at 2248 30th St. at  Juniper St. The phone number is (619) 544-1735.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

The Regal Beagle: Tapping into the Beer & Sausage Crowd

Mission Hills has a new neighborhood gastropub: The Regal Beagle. No, you won't find Chrissie, Jack, or Janet -- or Mr. Roper -- there but look around and you will see a Thigh Master.

More to the point, you'll also find a rotating selection of 24 tremendous craft beers and some of the best sausages around in San Diego, made by the very talented San Marcos sausage maker Jacob Kappeler.

The Regal Beagle, owned by Tim Girsch and Matt Guilbert, is a friendly, casual spot that is already picking up a good local crowd. Go and hang out with friends, play a game of darts, watch a game or perhaps old episodes of "Three's Company."

I tried a flight of beers the evening I was there that included the Ballast Point Big Eye IPA, the Belgium Duvel Green, the Brewers Special Brown from a new local brewery called New English Brewing Co., and Scrimshaw Pilsner, a cold-filtered lager. 

Their website isn't really ready for prime time yet, so you can go to Tap Hunter to learn what 24 beers they're serving up on draft on a given night. This week, for instance, you'll find choices that range from A'chouffe Houblon Chouffe and Ballast Point Wahoo Wheat to Lost Abbey Witches Wit and Stone Ruination IPA. They also have another 18 varieties in cans -- including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Oskar Blues Mama's Lil Yella Pils, Maui Island IPA, and Old Speckled Hen.

The chalkboard behind the bar will also give you the full range of their selections. And, if you can't make up your mind, just spin the wheel of indecision!

Now, to be honest, I'm only an occasional beer drinker. I enjoyed the Duvel Green the most and gave the others a good go. But I came alive when I saw the grilled sausages. The choices here change, too, but my friends and I gave most of what was on that day's menu a whirl. All had great bite and flavor, even though none of the sausages has more than 15 percent fat.

The linguica is your traditional garlicky Portuguese sausage. The smoked beer, make with Stone Smoked Porter, was a robust tasting sausage. The Turkey Cranberry was a tremendous surprise; it was moist and tender and tasting just like freshly roasted turkey. The Moroccan-style lamb was herbilicious -- again moist but with lovely Middle Eastern flavors. Finally, there was the German garlic sausage, giving great snap with every bite.

The sausages are enveloped in Sadie Rose rolls -- you have your choice of buttermilk or whole wheat. I enjoyed the buttermilk, but found the whole wheat roll too dense and chewy for the sausages. Topping the sausages can be sauerkraut, grilled onions, grilled peppers, or cheddar cheese. And, of course, there are plenty of mustard choices. All sausages come with hand-made potato chips, but there are also house-cut French fries, sweet potato fries, potato salad, and something I got a kick out of: Tater Tots. Not house made but the real deal.

The night I was there -- a week night -- there was a full crowd so it looks like this little space is taking off. I'm looking forward to a return visit to try some unusual brew and perhaps the smoked cajun sausage. Or maybe the veal bratwurst.

The Regal Beagle is located at 3659 India St. Phone is 619-297-2337.

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