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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