By David Nelson
Photos by Sara Norris
Forget canned TV "chef shows." It's all raw, live, non-stop action for the six diners who score counter seats at the open kitchen of Jesse Paul's brand-new The Wooden Spoon in Escondido . Relaxing to watch? No. Invigorating, exciting and fun? Yes.
One of the county's top-rated chefs, Paul used to sweat behind the scenes at swank places like Vivace, the highly praised Italian restaurant at Carlsbad's Park Hyatt Aviara Resort. Now he's the star of his own five-nights-a-week performances in a comfy but not flashy location on Valley Parkway, Escondido's rambling East-West axis. Since the building was constructed in the '60s to house fast fooderies, the layout offers limited indoor seating, but the gracious outdoor area has room for a crowd - and heaters for cooler North County nights.
Although speedy chow composed former menus at this location, there's nothing "fast" about the cuisine Paul and his two cooks hustle to prepare.
"This is a good challenge," Paul says while plating a big serving of grilled chicken, hot biscuits and gravy. "Hungry people come in, and I can feed them."
As The Wooden Spoon logo states, Jesse feeds guests "Comfort Food Redefined," and his menu revels in items like "Offal of the Day."
"I love organ meats," says the chef, who has already presented a pile of chicken-fried sweetbreads tarted up with lemon aioli and showers of sliced celery - the sweetbreads, unctuous and luscious, play against crisp celery and sharp aioli to emphasize their buttery texture and delicate flavor. "I'm starting off slow with sweetbreads, but I'm going to introduce braised hearts and so forth."
Many sources inspire the fare, including the home cooking Paul grew up with and the down-home cooking he encountered elsewhere. As a result, starters include a deep bowl of rich broth that almost submerges a pair of dense, chewy matzo balls. It takes the edge off the appetite and then some. Balancing this Old World soup are a toast of the day with crisp pork belly, vegetable-based pesto and provolone cheese; thick house fries drenched with gravy, if you want to up the ante by two bucks; and potato latkes cleverly finished with fragrant caraway cream and feisty apple relish. All potato pancakes should have it so good.
"I don't want people to be hungry when they leave," says Paul.
This explains why items like the Shepherd's Pie - a flaky baked casserole of braised lamb, vegetables and potato gratin - are essential to The Wooden Spoon's philosophy. The dish weighs at least a pound.
"It's definitely filling," says Paul, cheerful as he watches a counter guest plow through a serving.
Among other kitchen décor hangs three rectangular blackboards above the stoves and fryers. One of them bears the numbers 2/24/15, followed by a row of white chalk slashes that indicate how many days The Wooden Spoon has been in business. The place is so popular that, at some future date, Jesse will have to buy a bigger blackboard. He enjoys being busy, and, on a recent Tuesday night (nationwide, Tuesday is typically the slowest restaurant day of the week), nodded at the near-capacity crowd, claiming "It's kind of slow compared to what we've been doing."
All night long, Paul pulls flaky, buttery biscuits from the oven to be slathered with gravy, sided with grilled asparagus and topped with two pieces of chicken that, to be frank, have their legs crossed. It's a best seller, rivaled only by the Spoon Burger, a hearty presentation dressed with the restaurant's unique "Baconion jam," arugula, smoked blue cheese and tomato aioli.
As a table's order becomes ready, Paul sings to his cooks, "We're coming up on two Shepherd's, a burger and a chicken," and everybody dances to get appetizing food on the plates while it's sizzling. Meanwhile, Paul saws a log of meatloaf into six hefty slices, piles them on a black slate plate and heaps on garnishes of "smashed" potatoes and honeyglazed carrots. Yes, the ketchup on the side is brewed here.
Tart and tangy as it is, the ketchup doesn't explain the crowds. This is the job of The Wooden Spoon's mission statement: Our food is made with love and respect. We are guided by passion and driven by perfection.
Hard work is a big part of it, too, but everybody seems to take that for granted.
The Wooden Spoon
805 E. Valley Pkwy., Escondido