Chef Chad White Prepares a Feast for the Palate
Reviewed & Photographed by Tyler Dean
The Cellar | 156 Avenida Del Mar | San Clemente CA | 92672 | 949.492.3663
I’m glad I got here early – the place is packed.
I look down at a menu made up of words that I pretend to recognize. CARACOL. What is ‘caracol?’ I don’t think to check my smart phone, instead letting myself melt into the dull roar of the growing crowd behind me as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” plays over the speakers situated around the room. I take the opportunity to gather some photos, all the time watching the interaction of the shades play out on the reflective glass of the wine coolers situated at my front.
I check the time and have just began to look around to see if we’ve started yet when an unseen hand reaches past my shoulder in the same moment and places down in front of me a small, white ceramic bowl. Just past the bowl sits a very attractive pink bubbly that I’d been ignoring up until this point. And we’re off.
The first entrée of the evening is caracol and pickled cucumbers, accompanied by a cucumber-cilantro gel. Served with an avocado purée topped with habanero salt that sits off to the side for dipping. I decide to start with the bubbly and reach for its pinkish allure when my senses are suddenly met with the smells of a garden. The bubbly will have to wait. I pick up a fork from the stone bar setting and lean over the little bowl for a closer inspection. The presentation is simple enough, each piece of the puzzle separated for easy identification. It’s during this lull that I finally realize what caracol is – sea snail. My novice indoctrination into the world of food criticism comes with the caveat that I have never actually had the … er, pleasure of tasting such a specimen. Casting aside my reservations, I jump right in. Dabbing the little seafaring critter into the cucumber-cilantro gel and catching a slice of pickled cucumber on the way, I wonder if I’m going to regret this as I take the first bite of the night.
The immediate unpleasantness of the snail’s chewy disposition just as quickly gives way to visions of herbal springs and meadows. The gel is definitely a dominating factor here, and I can’t help but wonder if the cilantro comes on a little bit too strong. I take a sip of the Pink Panda bubbly and am pleased to find my taste buds further entrenched in a surprising swirl of fruity citrus. The tastes, recognizable when separate, paired with the soft pink bubbles courtesy of Rebel Coast Winery become something wholly different. It is not a taste that registers, but a sensation of wading through shallow pools on a hot summer’s day. Having never tasted habanero salt, I can’t say for sure whether the crystalized pepper was nestled among the collection of flavors running across my taste buds or not, but if it was it goes unnoticed. Regardless, it is a satisfying first course.
Curtis, my server for the evening, replaces my empty bowl with the second entrée of the evening – smoked gnudi and heirloom tomatoes accompanied by a dollop of tomato mustard and a sprinkle of tomato dust. The arrangement is easily more enticing than the previous course; sitting on a pizza peel and drizzled generously with tomato oil, the look conveys an earthy “herb” as an affectation. The alcohol pairing for this course is a Reckless Love cocktail, made up of another RWC label mixed with Carpano-Antica’s sweet vermouth, and topped with a dash of black pepper. Leaned up against the inside of the glass is a tobacco leaf, the end of which has been singedvin order to trap the smoky aroma into the foamy dermal layer of the beverage. I decide to start with the smoked gnudi, and pop one into my mouth without mixing it into the dust or mustard. At first, I am surprised at how bland and unassuming the taste is … but then I break through to the center. My taste buds begin to sizzle in surprise at such an overwhelmingly rich flavor that is at once both savory and subtle, a ballad of deep, hearty notes. Then I bite into the pepper, and again the flavorless husk transforms for a second time. Impressed thus far, I decide to try one of the peeled heirloom tomatoes, this time taking advantage of the tomato mustard, dust, and oil. Although not as “fun” as the gnudi, per se, I am still pleased by the abundant variance of flavor: the sweet mustard, the powder revealing its true mettle with intonations of crushed chili and salt, and finally the tomato itself a display of earthy temperament.
I can’t say I was so sure about the Reckless Love cocktail. Paired for the first time, what I think it comes down to is how both the Reckless Love wine and the vermouth, by themselves very subtle – the former hinting at blackberries and dark red currants, the latter propositioning vanilla undertones – that when combined you get a very introverted drink, one that holds back despite a nice follow-through with the black pepper at the end of each sip. Personally, I could see the cocktail working itself more efficiently if paired with a stronger vanilla accent. It would be a nice juxtaposition of flavor, especially when compared with the sweet chorus of heirloom tomatoes and the rich gnudi. The tobacco leaf, while a nice idea on the whole – and one which certainly amounts to an exercise in forward-thinking – is similarly an unfortunate let-down. However, I can’t help but suspect this was more of an isolated incident rather than a lack of foresight.
But finish both I do. Still, that doesn’t stop me from crouching over the now-empty peel, hiding it from the searching eyes of the passing servers on clean-up duty and stealing wetted-fingered dabs of the remaining tomato dust. Max, my bartender for the evening, approaches.
“How you liking everything?” He takes the cocktail glass.
Not wanting to give away my kid-in-a-candy-store mentality, I straighten up a little bit and smile. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch as another invisible hand reaches past me and retrieves the finished peel. Darn.
I turn my attention back to Max. He’s asking me to choose between the pork jowl and the local sculpin for the third, and main, course. I tell him to choose for me. After all, I have no preference in regards to taste and would rather not be plagued by thoughts of “what could have been” were I to choose wrong. He disappears, and I begin to nurse a glass of water that had been brought out earlier. Turning my attention onto the other patrons, an organic membrane of laughter, flirtations, spirit, and soul, I watch an undulating tango of the masses play out before me. This is the place that fun people go to have fun.
The wait for the third entrée – Max ordered me the sculpin – it takes a little longer than the previous dishes, but eventually finds its way to the bare stony surface of the bar in front of me. This third course is made up of onion confit, charred corn, dabs of masa huitloche and burnt lime kewpie on the side for dipping, and, of course, the corned local sculpin. The alcohol pairing for this entrée is a Pistol Whip’d pilsner by Noble Ale Works of Anaheim. In a sort of stark contrast to the tomato dish, I notice first and foremost that the arrangement isn’t particularly impressive. Bridging the onion confit and corned sculpin is a nicely-portioned non-fried piece of the fish. So far so good, but then the structural integrity of the set-up seems compromised by random dollops of masa huitloche and charred corn, emphasizing an odd sort of symmetry that confuses more than delights.
A piece of the sculpin dabbed into the kewpie is easily the best part of the dish, especially when set loose on the taste buds with the help of the Whip’d. Despite this – and although I’m no chef d’auteur – I can’t help but think that the whole dish could have used just a tad more spice; for me, it was the onion confit, with its enticing translucence, that perhaps would’ve benefitted the most from an infusion with the fresh oregano that has up until this point been a garnish (albeit, used to great effect). The sculpin, while certainly tasty, doesn’t seem to have that magic, that “wow” factor that the previous dishes seemed to exude just by looking at them. It is in fact the pale yellow pilsner, sporting a florescent ego whose sweetness is maintained through a biting finish, which manages to carry the day by unlocking some of the flavors inherent in this more toned-down sampling.
The finished plate is replaced with what has to be one of the most attractive assemblages of zucchini bread I’ve ever laid eyes on: deep-fried squash blossom buñuelo perched atop a generous helping of melted honey-goat cheese gelato, pooling on and around a trifecta of nut-free zucchini bread. The alcohol pairing for this entrée is a Bouche d’Or dessert Chardonnay. A strategic smattering of walnut brittle situated around the plate gives good reason to delay cutting into the sultry display before me. I pick up a piece sitting on the outer edges, untouched by the gelato.
Having tasted plenty of peanut brittle before, but never of the walnut variety, I consider the explosion of the sugar matte an apt segue into the medial ecstasy of the fleshy bread that yet awaits the pronged points of the utensil in my hand. I make sure to get a little bit of everything in one bite – bread, gelato, buñuelo, and brittle – and, within milliseconds of registering that first bite, succumb to a most vivid and orgiastic stimulation of the tongue. I take a sip of the d’Or, whose honey-apricot melodies almost take the initial impact back to its full swell. It’s all I can do to keep myself from finishing everything too quickly; this is easily the highlight of the four courses. The only minor scrape I might have – and this is a big “might” – is that the d’Or may have almost been too sweet. Several times I worried that it would overpower and effectively dismember the dish’s intoxicating neurosis. Luckily – more for me, arguably – that was not the case.
It’s only minutes later that I finally give up trying to collect the remaining traces of gelato onto my fork, and offer the plate to a passing server. I gather up my notebook and belongings – including a fun RWC mason jar glass that had been given to me earlier in the evening – and as I start to get up, Max reaches over the bar and shakes my hand. He thanks me for coming in today, and I him for being so helpful. I look around one last time, the dull roar no longer so subtle despite the dwindling number of patrons. I’ll definitely be coming back.
(ATOD Editor, Dawn Garcia: Thank you to Monica Little for making this tasting possible and to Chef Chad White for inviting us to come and sit at your table.)