Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Romesco, San Diego
Back in what has firmly become my second city and home-from-home, San Diego, and a belated write-up of what is fast becoming my favourite restaurant there - Romesco, in Bonita. You may remember me waxing lyrical about the extraordinary Mision 19 in Tijuana last year, a world-class celebration of the finest Mexican food (and believe me, the competition in that category is quite fierce) from chef Javier Plascencia. Romesco actually predates the Tijuana joint by a few years, but is still the only Plascencia place in USA - all the rest are in his home town - so for Californians wanting to try innovative and exemplary Mexican food without negotiating a border crossing, it's a great place to start.
Which is odd, because on paper (literally, I mean the menu), Romesco is doing a lot of things very wrong. It calls its food Mexican-Spanish (or even "Mexiterranean", would you believe it), but has a vast, rambling list of dishes encompassing Greek salads, lasagne, risotto, tapas, tacos and steaks enough to strike the fear of God into anyone who's ever suffered at the hand of so many other unfortunate "fusion" restaurants. I'm usually the first to ridicule anywhere that claims it can cook, say, Malaysian, Thai and Chinese food to a competent level in the same kitchen but those cuisines at least all share the same subcontinent; how on earth would Mexican-Spanish be any more successful?
The answer, to everyone's great relief, not least my own, is a whole lot. Romesco dismisses worries about the oddness of its concept and geographical fuzziness with food that, sampled over two visits and at least two dozen dishes, is rarely less than stellar. Perhaps this success is down to the wise decision to largely keep the Spanish and Mexican elements (and American, and Greek, and Italian, and so on) distinct but separate, rather than attempting too many linguini tacos or chicken mole paellas. So despite being somewhat experimental, a tamarind margherita, for example, is unmistakeably Mexican - and very nice.
House bread (a French baguette, just in case they hadn't quite covered every single country in the world just yet) went remarkably well with pickled garlic (Lebanese? Syrian?), bouncy and crunchy and bright.
OK so maybe some dishes are literally Mexican-Spanish fusion after all. "Grandma's Tacos de Fideo" (I hope she doesn't want them back) were made with that noodly stuff the Catalans use, and also included Spanish chorizo, a rarity in this part of the world more used to the chilli paste (think Mexican n'duja). And very nice they were too.
Even better were the beef cheek tacos - no fancy fusion business here, just a great big glistening load of heavenly-rich beef, and a steamer full of those fresh masa flour casings that make Californians go all wobbly and sing the Star Spangled Banner.
Croquettas were, if we're going to be brutal, perhaps not quite as impressive as examples I've tried in London - using Cheddar cheese can't have helped - but a fluffy aioli perked them up a bit, and they were still enjoyed.
And then. And. Then.
And then the bone marrow sope.
Try and imagine - you won't be able to, but try - three golden brown, piping hot cylinders of roast bone containing a marrow so unbelievably smooth and rich and intense it was like eating the result of an experiment designed to distil the very best beef on the planet into a single mouthful. Each perched on a neat little circle of crisp cornmeal, and topped with a sprig of greaselessly deep-fried curly parsley, delicate enough to collapse into essence after little more than a hard stare.
We're not done yet. Next imagine a little bowl of chile de arbol sauce, with the haunting flavour of wood fires and citrus, presented alongside. Next to that, another bowl of what Romesco coyingly refer to as "beef glaze" but which goes nowhere near describing the wonder, the utter life-changing glory of this, God's own demiglace, a silky, heady reduction of red wine and beef stock so extraordinary simply knowing it exists makes me feel infinitely better about the state of humanity.
Then imagine combining all of the above and enjoying it as a single, divine entity. A symphony of animal and vegetable, taste and texture. Impossibly good.
Sorry I think I lost myself for a second there, but if there's one dish that was worth travelling 5,000 miles for it's that bone marrow sope, and I'm going to make it my mission to eat it on every future trip to San Diego.
Prawns - sorry, shrimp - in garlic butter were authentically Spanish, and perfectly cooked so as to retain a good firm texture. And even the desserts didn't disappoint, fluffy fresh churros served with a good homemade ice cream and creamy dulce de leche dip.
What else? Oh, the service - this, too, was something special, our waiter on our most recent visit (I'll namecheck - he was called Alfonso) a relaxed, seasoned career professional of a kind that exist hardly anywhere else in the world. And the icing on the churros was the bill - with the wine list being half price on Wednesdays we got a whole bottle of Californian Pinot Noir for about a tenner.
Looking back at the Romesco menu even now, after two trips, I still can't quite understand how it all works. This bonkers collection of influences and inspirations should have been, and heaven knows usually is, a disaster. Javier Plascencia is a supreme chef, of course, but being a skill in the kitchen is one thing; making a success out of a fideua taco is quite another.
But, in the end, who cares how it works. You need to know only this - it does work, and it's good value, and the staff are lovely and it's all just... just really, really good. Sorry, I've run out of words. I was thinking about the bone marrow sope again.
My flights to San Diego were very kindly provided by British Airways. Prices start around £717 return.