Solace and the Moonlight Lounge - Encinitas, CA

Dinner - Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Matt Gordon is known for serving high-quality comfort food (rich and hearty are apt descriptors) at his two popular establishments - Urban Solace in North Park, and Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas (as of this writing, a third place, tentatively named "Sea and Smoke", is in the works for the Del Mar area). His concepts are very attuned to the wants of the local dining scene, and both restaurants have been tremendously successful. Although we've never been disappointed by any meal at Urban Solace, it is not generally a type of cuisine we crave, preferring lighter (one could say greener) fare. On this night, however, he demonstrated a depth we hadn't seen before, executing eight dishes that were a significant departure from his regular offerings. It was impressive.

"Sea and Smoke"
Smoked oysters, duck fat, clam dip, squid ink crisps, lemon shallot chutney
Excellent - simple but brilliant, my favourite course of the night. Smoked oysters sat atop a dip made of duck fat, mussels and cultured cream. Very addictive with the lightly-salted crisps. The chutney was a welcome respite, preventing the fat in the dish from becoming overwhelming.

Onion soup
Roasted sweetbread, Gruyere-onion purée, chive-crusted bone marrow, chive foam
A hefty interpretation of French onion soup. The purée was creamy, and relatively mild compared to the heady, salty (delicious) consommé. Grilled onions provided the slightest crunch - texturally irreproachable. The salty-sweet glaze on the sweetbreads was somewhat overwhelming, but in line with the spirit of excess conveyed here.

Sablefish, poached and roasted carrots
Sunchoke, star anise, watercress
"Curds and whey"
Ricotta roulade, green olive juice, candied kabocha, honey jelly, caramelized whey reduction
A roulade of house-made ricotta was mostly a neutral backdrop for its accoutrements - I particularly enjoyed the honey jelly (spiked with a touch of cayenne) and the briny olives. The true standout, however, was the ridiculously tasty caramelized whey reduction - like a salty version of dulce de leche, with all of the corresponding complexity.

"Uni-laterally banned"
Shrimp, uni, foie gras
Two lumps of cornmeal shrimp cake were special, with excellent texture and surprisingly light flavour. So too was the perfectly fried sphere of foie gras mousse - it burst open, revealing an unctuous liquid center that flowed and melded with a sauce of uni shellstock reduction. Seared foie gras was less successful, suffering from veins and temperature issues.

Pine-smoked venison, chanterelles
Potato mille-feuille, pickled baby red onions, red wine syrup
Cauliflower pot de créme, whipped vanilla bean, brown butter cake
Sweet jalapeno caviar, cheddar crisp, cinnamon basil, candied bacon dust
For desserts, Matt invited Jeff Bonilla (perhaps the most talented local pastry chef, most recently at Evolve Cuisine and Kitchen 1540) to ply his trade. This first sweet course was inspired - it tasted intensely of cauliflower, balanced by the saltiness of the crispy cheese and the mild heat of the gelled jalapeno. A few leaves of cinnamon basil accentuated the spice. Busy, perhaps, and yet there was the perfect amount of sugar (both in the whipped vanilla and in the custard itself) to make the dessert sing. Very polished.

Chocolate genois, Grand Marnier gel, Satsuma foam
Candied orange glass, aerated chocolate, chocolate sauce
In his own words, Matt described our menu as "cooking for himself". In our dishes tonight, we saw his style distilled - each plate was more concentrated and refined than their counterparts on the regular menu, but the commonalities were evident, his core ethos intact. The question is whether San Diego is ready for him to begin cooking this way - I'd like to think yes. With luck, his new restaurant will afford him more opportunities to paint with a larger palette and wider brush.

Solace and the Moonlight Lounge
25 East E Street
Encinitas, CA 92024
Phone: (760) 753-2433