Tavern On the Coast: Act of the Apostle
To any chef who has cooked for a Thomas Keller restaurant, here's a piece of advice: Wherever you go and whatever you do, always flaunt your association with him. You are in possession of food-critic catnip. No one who writes about restaurants can resist any chef associated with the Midas touch of Sir Thomas of Yountville. Thanks to fawning TV shows such as Top Chef and articles akin to this, any substantive connection you have to Mr. Keller and his restaurants is now essentially a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Your reputation thrives on the presumption that if you were good enough to be hired by the man many regard as the best chef in America, then you must know what you're doing.
So when it comes time to start your own place, do as Bryan Podgorski did. When he announced the opening of his breezy slip of a restaurant with wicker chairs called Tavern On the Coast after nine years as the chef de cuisine of Bouchon in Las Vegas, he made note of his Keller connection on his website, lighting the food-critic smoke signal. For me, it instantly recalled the most recent flawless meal I had at Keller's Sin City outpost—a meal that, judging by the time period, Podgorski himself probably cooked.
I remembered Bouchon's salmon as the best I'd ever tasted. After eating Tavern On the Coast's version, I'm convinced the man responsible for the fish I ate that night at Bouchon is the same man who cooks it here. It's seasoned properly, pan-fried until a golden crust forms while the core remains supple, and then served so piping-hot the first few bites obliterated my upper palate. When a piece of fish is cooked this well, what's served with it matters little. Last month, Podgorski rested his salmon atop the slippery pearls of Israeli couscous, nearly liquefied pearl onions, peas and carrots, the whole thing bland but designed that way, as the salmon was the star. This month, he's serving it with rice pilaf and a red-wine reduction. No matter the accompaniment, each slab of salmon is prepared as exactingly as the last.
Tavern On the Coast, 34212 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 415-5888; www.tavernonthecoast.com. Open daily for "tavern hour," 3:30-6 p.m.; for dinner, 5-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. for brunch, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$70, food only. Full bar.
He executes every protein, not just the salmon, with surgical precision. This is the least I can expect from a Keller acolyte. A confit of whole duck leg is life-changing, leaving me dizzy thinking of the possibilities had it been a main course instead of an appetizer served on top of polenta. Even the roasted Jidori chicken entrée dazzles. The skin on the Frenched breast and section of leg arrive bronzed and wispy crisp. The meat bursts with moistness, not a trace of it underdone or overcooked, the whole dish fuming as though Krakatoa, served with fresh corn, mushrooms, bacon and dribbles of chimichurri.
It may be Podgorski's braised short rib that best exhibits the restraint and discipline I witnessed at Bouchon. Each corner on the meat cube is practically at a right angle to the others—the neatest short rib I've ever seen. Most important, it's not overbraised or oversalted, with every beefy strand I peeled off the block tasting pure and unobstructed.
Though proteins may be Podgorski's strength, salads are a weakness. Save for a sublime roasted beet salad, others are challenging, wincingly sour citric-acid assaults. One with chewy pork belly, stalky spinach and stone fruit doesn't seem to register as a salad, just a bunch of ingredients that happen to be found in the same bowl. A frisee, poached egg and prosciutto salad was almost medicinal and astringent, with the dressing coagulating into a sort of mustard soup at the bottom of the bowl.
If any Thomas Keller alums are still reading, take from this that more is expected of you. So when you offer a typical, cylindrically molded tuna tartare, do as Podgorski has done and use not a single molecule of avocado. He opts for marinated English cucumber, padrone peppers left both whole and sliced, and a ginger emulsion that doesn't use a drop of soy sauce. And instead of wonton chips, Podgorski utilizes the house flatbread dough, char-marked on the grill and deep-fried to something not unlike greasy pita chips.
Do make your burgers tastier than Tavern On the Coast's, though: thick and beautifully cooked but still somehow instantly forgettable—far too light in seasoning, decadence and flavor. The potatoes they come with are a different story. These rustic wedges cut from skin-on baby russets are fried to a sturdy mahogany crunch, making them immediately more endearing than the fries offered at Bouchon itself, which were revealed a few years ago to some controversy as coming from frozen. From this, learn a more important lesson: Even Saint Thomas is fallible.
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