Relate at Bistro St. Germain's - Encinitas, CA

Dinner - Saturday, February 26, 2011

Billed as San Diego's first pop-up restaurant (to my knowledge, an accurate claim), Relate is the creation of Chef Dan Moody - most will know him as Ludo Lefebvre's sous-chef at the recent iterations of LudoBites. In his own words, Chef Moody's style is "contemporary French with a down-home American flair" and his goal with Relate is to "offer high-end food without the high-end price tag". We dined here on closing night with a group of local food enthusiasts.

The menu consisted of a single 5-course tasting menu ($55), with the possibility of adding two supplements (which we ordered, naturally). Alcohol was limited to wines from the Mount Palomar winery in Temecula (we tried a glass of their 2009 Riesling and N.V. port - both were mediocre).

Amuse - "French onion soup"
Supplement - Crispy Burgundy escargots
Cauliflower puree, ancho chili, garlic
I enjoyed this - the escargots were cooked very well (not mutilated into a mush like so many places tend to do) and they paired quite nicely with the heat from the chilis. The foam, however, was completely tasteless.

Mussel chowder, bacon corn custard, potato foam
Perhaps the strongest dish of the night. The liquid was intensely mussel-flavoured - briny, musky and tasting of the ocean. The custard at the bottom of the bowl was a refreshing contrast, with the sweetness of the corn providing respite from the strong soup and the custard's own smoky bacon flavour. The earthy tones from the potato foam (used well here, I thought) brought everything back to the land, tying the corn and bacon to the shellfish.

63 degree egg, hedgehog mushrooms, duck confit
Star anise potato mousseline, vadouvan foam, crispy spinach
I was rather disappointed when I cut into the egg - the yolk was much more set than it should have been (perhaps the thermostat on their immersion circulator needs to be recalibrated). Everything else on the plate was cooked well, except for a slight grittiness in the potato mousseline. The duck confit deserves particular mention for being one of the better examples I've eaten in recent times, and the fried spinach leaves were very enjoyable.

Sesame-glazed barramundi
Baby bok choy, vanilla sushi rice creme anglaise, nori
My fish was perfectly cooked, moist and flaky with very crispy skin (although I heard some of my dining companions complain about theirs being overdone). Unlike some others at the table, I also enjoyed the creme anglaise. I could really taste each component in the sauce and appreciated them all - vanilla, rice, egg yolks, sugar, milk.

Supplement - Foie gras terrine
Olives, pistachios, kumquats
The terrine itself was a pleasure to eat, if served a bit too cold to fully appreciate. However, the candied pistachios and kumquat marmalade were cloyingly sweet. The olives were not enough to balance the saccharine components, and I had to remove most of the pistachios, eating them separately later.

Spiced beef, porcini spaetzle
Spinach-avocado puree, Guiness gastrique
The sous-vide beef was tender and flavourful, pairing well with the spinach-avocado puree. The gastrique added a nice maltiness that rounded off the other components - it worked well for me. The chef's "signature dish" actually started out strong, but towards the end, I started to suffer from considerable palate fatigue. The spiciness from the beef began to overwhelm everything else. I would've enjoyed this plate significantly more had I just stopped halfway through.

Banana bread pudding, bourbon pecan pie, vanilla cognac cream
Dessert was a rustic combination that was bound to succeed, and indeed it did. Nothing was overly sweet, and the cream had pronounced cognac notes that made it my favourite part of the dish. The bread pudding was satisfyingly hearty, an excellent choice for the unusually cold evening. My only complaint was that the bananas used weren't sufficiently ripened - this resulted in the "green banana" flavour that combined with the bourbon pecans to leave an unpleasant aftertase.

Considering that Chef Moody hired most of his kitchen staff on Craigslist at the start of this stint, I was reasonably contented with what the kitchen managed to turn out. However, the general consensus at the table was that for $55, there are local restaurants that can produce better and more consistent prix fixe meals. Still, this is only the first iteration of Relate, and I expect the chef will tweak the format and improve things for the second round - I wish him the best of luck.

1010 S. Coast Highway 101 #103
Encinitas, CA 92024
Phone: (858) 367-3709