Chain of Gourmand

By Frank Sabatini Jr
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda

Back by popular demand (by 10 of the city’s top chefs), PacificSD proudly presents the fifth annual Chain of Gourmand, wherein a local chef cites his or her favorite dish, and then the maker of that dish calls out his/her fave, and so on, until a 10-chef chain is linked.

The head of this year’s culinary chain gang is Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars winner-turned-judge Richard Blais, the culinary force behind Little Italy’s acclaimed Juniper & Ivy and the soon-to-arrive Crack Shack, the latter of which is a chicken-and-egg-themed venture slated to open on an adjoining property in November.

In addition, Blais runs Flip Burger Boutique in three East Coast locations. Yet, despite his illustrious career (which, he says, “began as the poissonier at a little restaurant named McDonald’s”), the celebrity chef remains a novice when it comes to cooking Mexican cuisine.

“It’s a genre of food I find fascinating,” he says.

Most recently, Blais became awestruck by the complex black mole Tijuana-born chef Javier Plascencia created for Bracero Cocina de Raíz.

Richard Blais’ favorite dish
Acorn and kabocha squash in black mole
Chef: Javier Plascencia
Restaurant: Bracero Cocina de Raíz
“Javier messes with your expectations of what Mexican food should look and taste like. I’ve had plenty of exposure to mole, but this was totally different and a stunning interpretation of it.” -Richard Blais

A paste using prized chilhuacle negro chiles from Mexico’s Oaxaca province gives the mole its deep, dark color and arresting flavor. Chef Javier Plascencia builds the sauce with 25 other ingredients that include raw cocoa nibs and myriad spices. “It’s my favorite mole in all of Mexico,” he says, recalling when he first tasted it over chicken while visiting Oaxaca on a surfing trip years ago. Currently draping the mole over roasted squash topped with shaved hazel nuts, Plascencia says he might start using it on duck or short ribs in the winter months.

Bracero Cocina de Raíz
1490 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy


Javier Plascencia’s favorite dish
Pan-seared halibut in curry tomato sauce
Chefs: Rob Ruiz and Brandon Nichols
Restaurant: The Land & Water Co.
“The curry had a little heat, the fish was super fresh, and I paired it with a glass of white wine. It was the perfect moment after spending an afternoon at the beach.” -Javier Plascencia

As former executive chef of Harney Sushi, Rob Ruiz knows exactly where to source sustainable, sashimi-grade fish. In this case, it’s from a local fisherman trawling halibut in peak season (late summer) and delivering it quickly after it’s pulled from the water. The fish is caught ikejime-style, which means it’s killed quickly to maximize the quality of its flesh. Ruiz butchers the halibut while reserving the bones for fish stock used in the curry sauce. Chef de cuisine Brandon Nichols then moves in for the final preparation by pansearing the filets in heirloom tomatoes and red Indian curry. He swaps the traditional use of coconut milk for coconut foam to give the dish a lighter essence. For the fall and winter months, fattier Pacific albacore will replace the halibut.

The Land & Water Co.
2978 Carlsbad Blvd., Ste. 110, Carlsbad


Rob Ruiz’s favorite dish Kumiai oysters
Chef: Jason McLeod
Restaurant: Ironside Fish & Oyster
“These are my favorite oysters because they’re ocean-forward with a nice level of brininess and a slightly sweet finish. I love them so much that I eat them undressed, with only a glass of sparkling wine on the side.” -Rob Ruiz

On most days, Ironside Fish & Oyster serves up to a dozen different varieties of shucked-to-order fresh oysters, the Kumiai species of which originates from a Baja lagoon. “I was shocked that Baja had oysters since I was always used to seeing them flourish mainly in cold waters,” says Chef Jason McLeod, who carries the medium-size bivalves year-round. “They’re among the easiest to shuck because their shells are consistent. My staff is very happy working with them.” Good thing, considering how fast they sell. McLeod purchases Kumiai in 10-dozen batches and once witnessed a customer polishing off 36 in one sitting. “It’s the most oysters I’ve ever seen anyone eat,” he says. As for the ideal garnishment, he recommends dabbing them with housemade mignonette sauce. “It really pops their flavor.”

Ironside Fish & Oyster
1654 India St., Little Italy


Jason McLeod’s favorite dish
Peanut butter and fried banana pancakes
Chef: Carmine Lopez
Restaurant: Great Maple
“I typically prefer pancakes with lots of butter and warm maple syrup. But these were heavenly with only a touch of syrup and they brought me back to when I was a kid, eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches with my mom.” -Jason McLeod

Perfecting the fluff in these silver-dollar beauties relies on using cold ingredients (milk and eggs) and mixing the batter to a silky finish. The same applies to the tempura batter encasing a deep-fried half-banana that garnishes the dish. Crowning the cakes with a hefty dollop of peanut butter, Chef Carmine Lopez successfully evokes the nostalgic outcome that Great Maple owner Johnny Rivera requested of her when his brasserie-style restaurant opened three years ago. “We’ve all put peanut butter on bananas at some point in our lives, so we thought this would be fun for the kids,” Lopez says. “Ironically, we’re seeing our adult customers enjoying them even more.”

Great Maple
1451 Washington St., University Heights


Chef Carmine Lopez’s favorite dish
The seafood tower
Chef: Daniel Barron
Restaurant: Blush Ice Bar + East-West Kitchen
“It came loaded with everything you could imagine, enough to feed our party of four. There were sauces on the side, but I really didn’t need them, because the freshness of the seafood speaks for itself.” -Carmine Lopez

Priced per person, the customized seafood towers at Blush Ice Bar + East-West Kitchen range from two to four tiers, with the latter rising to more than three-feet tall. “We really don’t want to take it above that, because it would be perilously close to tipping over,” says Chef Daniel Barron. The tower has been a mainstay on the menu since Blush opened in July, luring a steady stream of customers with its fresh oysters, wild Baja prawns, Maine lobster salad, sashimi, and clams and mussels steamed in green curry. As Barron suggests, the spectacle pairs swimmingly with any of the restaurant’s boozespiked “blushies,” which are crafted with housemade fruit ice.

Blush Ice Bar + East-West Kitchen
555 Market St., Gaslamp


Daniel Barron’s favorite dish
Bison rib eye
Chef: Kurt Metzger
Restaurant: Kitchen 4140
“Simply seasoned, it’s a beautiful piece of meat with a little bit different flavor than beef. And it didn’t spew juice all over my plate when cutting into it.” -Daniel Barron

Weighing in at about 27 ounces, Kitchen 4140’s bison rib eye stampeded onto the menu this summer and will remain in place until early next year. “It’s much cleaner, less fatty and has a more solid meat flavor,” says Chef Kurt Metzger when comparing the dish to beef rib eye. The bone-in steak is a hot seller due in part to its obscurity on local restaurant menus. Metzger keeps it simple by dry-rubbing the bison with harissa spice, grilling it over mesquite, cherry and oak woods, and then hitting it with rock salt as the juices settle in. Crispy Brussels sprouts from the restaurant’s garden are served alongside.

Kitchen 4140
4140 Morena Blvd., Bay Ho


Kurt Metzger’s favorite dish
Crispy half duck
Chef: Jeffrey Strauss
Restaurant: Pamplemousse Grille
“Duck can often be chewy and blah, but Jeffrey gets that skin nice and crispy and ties it all together with cherry balsamic.” -Kurt Metzger

Chef Jeffrey Strauss hasn’t toyed with his recipe for crispy half duck since putting it on the menu 15 years ago. “It’s one of those reliable dishes that regular customers have come to expect,” he says. In fact, he’s roasted so many of them for Pamplemousse patrons and catering jobs that he can tell, from across the kitchen, the good birds from the bad ones. “If you see a lot of white, it means the skin isn’t cooked properly,” he says. “If it oozes yellow, you’re eating raw fat.” Strauss uses mallard ducks from New York State and Canada, splitting them into substantial one-pound portions complimented by sweet white corn, porcini mushrooms, sautéed gnocchi and cherry-balsamic reduction.

Pamplemousse Grille
514 Via de la Valle, Ste. 100, Solana Beach


Jeffrey Strauss’ favorite dish
Wiener schnitzel of veal loin
Chef: Martin Woesle
Restaurant: Mille Fleurs
“The crispiness of the schnitzel is exactly how it should be. Each time I go, I’m so focused on it that I don’t really pay attention to what else is on the plate.” -Jeffrey Strauss

A warning from Chef Martin Woesle, the German transplant who has helmed the kitchen at Mille Fleurs for two decades: “You can’t call it ‘wiener schnitzel’ unless it’s made with veal. If you call it that when using pork or poultry anywhere in Europe, you could be fined, since it’s just called ‘schnitzel.’” Woesle indeed adheres to the classic recipe he learned while growing up near the Austrian border by dredging pounded-out veal cutlets in flour, eggs and unseasoned breadcrumbs, and then frying them to a golden-brown crisp in butter and vegetable oil. The meal is completed with lemonbutter sauce, Fallbrook capers, arugula, beets and a quail egg.

Mille Fleurs
6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Sante Fe


Martin Woesle’s favorite dish
Duck confit
Chef: Stephane Voitzwinkler
Restaurant: Mister A’s
“The orange and huckleberry reductions gave the duck unique sweet and sour flavors that normally aren’t used in confit. It was soft in texture and beautifully presented.” -Martin Woesle

After rendering in their fat for four hours, these Hudson Valley fowl receive another round of French love from Mister A’s Chef Stephane Voitzwinkler, who grew up on a duck farm in the Alsace region of France. As of late, he compliments the ultra-tender duck with huckleberry sauce and orange reduction as a fitting come-on to the holiday season. Fresh garlic and thyme (and a recommended glass of mildly acidic pinot noir) provide charming balance to the dish’s fruity character. “It’s been a big hit,” says Voitzwinkler. “So I’ll keep it on the menu through the end of the year before using the confit in traditional cassoulet with beans.”

Mister A’s
2550 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill


Stephane Voitzwinkler’s favorite dish
Wild Costa Rican mahi mahi
Chef: Fabrice Poigin
Restaurant: Water Grill
“The fish was so moist and full of flavor, it was the perfect occasion for me finally getting to eat at another restaurant.” -Stephane Voitzwinkler

French chef Fabrice Poigin complements this popular Pacific Ocean fish with sherry gastrique and caponata (roasted eggplant, tomatoes and blonde raisins), nothing else. “The sweet and sour notes from the reduction of sherry wine, vinegar, honey and veal stock are enough,” he says. “With mahi, a lot of flavor comes from the fat and bones.” The dish is a collaboration involving three other chefs from Water Grill locations in the L.A. area. Poigin says he flaunted his French roots when rallying to add the unobtrusive gastrique as a permanent component.

Water Grill
615 J St., East Village