The Chef's Tasting at Cowboy Star - San Diego, CA

Dinner - Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Theme name - check. Butcher shop - check. Dedicated steak menu - check. One could easily be forgiven for thinking that Cowboy Star is just another steakhouse - many of the indicators are there, down to the staff's Old West belt buckles. And yet, as we discovered, there is far more than meets the eye.

Executive chef Victor Jimenez and recently-hired second-in-command Chris Osborne (this guy is serious - ex-Townhouse and ex-George's California Modern) have been running a weekday reservations-only tasting menu at the kitchen counter - an opportunity for the kitchen to play, experiment and just cook without restraints.

Santa Barbara spot prawn
Meyer lemon curd, yuzu kosho, local beans, pickled radish, wood sorrel
Honeyloupe, celery, ferments, fish head broth
My dish of the night. The cool broth, augmented with coconut and cilantro, was poured tableside. Salty fermented radishes and funky heirloom tomatoes contrasted with the sweetness of the honeyloupe. The kampachi (beautifully cooked) was sturdy enough to stand up to these strong flavours. The beverage pairing was equally enjoyable - a honeyloupe "martini" with tequila, lemon and cilantro salt (very balanced, but really, why call it a martini at all?)

Baja stone crab claw
Cauliflower marshmallow, brown butter powder
Sonoma lamb heart tartare
Brioche, nasturtium, jalapeno, jamaica gelée, cabernet verjus
Nice textures in this dish - from the toasted brioche crumbs, to the silky onion-leek puree, to the crunchy cornichons, to the toothy lamb heart. Heat, herbs and salt were nicely calibrated to highlight the meat.

Hearts of palm, uni, scrambled duck eggs
Hackleback caviar, pickled leeks, bourbon barrel fish sauce
Scottish wood pigeon
Carrots, potato, pigeon liver jus
Delicious minerality in the rare pigeon, highlighted further by the iron-rich liver jus. Together, they made the accompanying carrot purée and crudités seem preternaturally earthy. Lightness was actually provided by the paired beverage - a fizz of Plymouth gin, creamed carrot, Angostura, lemon and egg white. Cleverly done.

35 day dry-aged New York strip
Dehydrated onion, onion marmalade, chanterelles, port bordelaise
Lemon thyme panna cotta
Huckleberries, crispy chicken skin, mustard green gel
The panna cotta, made with condensed milk, was nicely set and very creamy. Spread over the top was a huckleberry jam, topped in turn by shards of crispy chicken skin. A nice contrast of sweet, salty and herbal (especially with the mustard green gel and a few sprigs of micro shiso), although our skin was not as crispy as we'd have liked.

Vanilla souffle
Vietnamese coffee, cocoa nibs
Each dish on the menus they've executed thus far is purportedly unique, and this is evident in some places - with a bit of refinement, a few good dishes could be great. But their goal here is to have fun, to try new things, to actively engage the diner in conversation across the pass. I accept that rationale, although I'd enjoy a deeper reflection on each course.

I can also appreciate their reluctance to advertise this degustation - the burden of menu development with their current format would be overwhelming. Rather, I hope to see elements of it trickle down into their regular menu, as it has at Trey Foshee's restaurant - a trickle can become a flood. For our part, we're more than satisfied to see another local restaurant challenging itself to stretch its boundaries.

Cowboy Star
640 10th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 450-5880