Last year I had the chance to tour northern California and check out the cuisine, including dinner at Chez Panisse on their 39th anniversary. On my round-the-country trip I wanted to check out a farm-to-table southern California restaurant. My brother and I dined AR Valentien on a Monday night.
My brother made an interesting companion for this experience, as he worked in food service for a number of years, ending up as a sous chef at Gerard’s Relais de Lyon before he left the trade. Chef Jeff Jackson comes from the same cooking lineage, although my brother was quick to point out that he himself had learned classic cuisine, and missed the nouvelle cuisine training that changed French and Californian food styles.
The restaurant’s web site promotes Valentien as experimental and dedicated to farm-to-table cuisine. The day’s tasting menu featured Maine lobster and the beef hailed from Kansas, neither was what I came to try, so I ordered from the regular menu. I was very interested in what could be done with California vegetables, and particularly interested in fresh foods like salads. Ironically, in America’s Salad Bowl, I ended up with a meal that leaned toward meat.
After we ordered, our waitress offered us a selection of bread, and then placed the one we chose on our bread plates. The cornbread biscuit was very fine, light and fluffy with a delicate flavor of corn. This was followed by an amuse bouche (my brother had been saying “Where is my amusee!”), melon soup topped with orange foam, a perfect palate refresher.
I ordered my starter from the charcuteri menu. (My brother made me practice saying “charcuterie” until he was satisfied I could say it properly.) The waitress made sure I understood the Chicken Liver Pate would be a country pate. It was, and a fine one too, balanced well by the pickled carrots, although these came atop noodles that weren’t explained and I could not identify.
The entree is the same late fall meal I’ve been having throughout the trip: thin slices of pork loin, braised kale, a bit of apple, and polenta. To my palate it seemed very similar to the other meals I’ve had – I wasn’t sure why it was particularly California cuisine. My brother commented it was the polenta.
To my mind the vegetable dish was the star of the show: roasted red and golden beets with pistachio butter. I asked my brother if pistachio was local, he said he’d seen pistachio forests in New Mexico. Close enough. Beets usually come up sweet, or rich; the pistachio brought out the nutty flavor of the dish.
We shared a dessert, apples and pears three ways, an Iron Chef kind of preparation: dots of pears on apple shortbread, pear sorbet with apple chips, caramel panna cotta with MacIntosh apples.
I applaud all attempts at farm to table cuisine and I’m glad to have had a chance to check out Chef Jackson’s cuisine. Here the farm to table idea seemed to be subordinate to the fine dining idea – classically inclined French-California food in the American foodshed.