I've probably said it before, but one of my favorite pastimes is spending time with chefs in their kitchens. So, I consider it a huge streak of good fortune that I've been invited to a number of kitchens this summer--which means that this space will be covering a lot of culinary territory in the weeks to come from the likes of Matt Richman of Table 926, Catherine Perez of Con Pane, Miguel Valdez of The Red Door, and several others.
Last week I spent an afternoon with Matt Richman, his sous chef Molly Johnson, and pastry chef Katie Jenkins. The three have an easy rapport and Richman, the restaurant's chef/owner, purposely keeps the atmosphere light and relaxed. Richman describes the intimate north Pacific Beach restaurant as serving California cuisine, and his local and seasonal dinner menu points to numerous influences, from Latin and Asian, to Italian and French.
"Simpler is my style," he says. "I just want to find good ingredients and then let them shine."
The 36-year-old Richman is a San Diego native, attending La Jolla Country Day before heading off to college in New Mexico--only to realize that he really wanted to be a chef. So, he attended culinary school in San Francisco, and then did a series of stints at restaurants in San Francisco and Miami before returning to San Diego, where he worked at Sbicca, Wine Vault & Bistro, Pacifica Del Mar, Ilume Bistro, and The Cosmopolitan, where he worked under chef Amy DiBiase. He opened Table 926 a year and a half ago.
I got to the restaurant about 11:30 and Richman was focused on prepping three dishes for the evening's menu: a rich Calabrese and smoked tomato sauce to be served with his lamb sausage penne, tossed with artichoke hearts, olives, arugula, and pecorino; a minty nepitella chimichurri sauce; and cauliflower and salsify bisque. Each of these has a key commonality: Richman is taking what might otherwise be a lovely but often-made dish--including some his mom taught him to make--and changing it up with a unique ingredient or technique. Or both.
The tomato sauce is a version of his mom's, but he's made it his own with the sausage and smoked tomatoes. The Calebrese sausage is wonderfully fatty and spicy (if you can't find it, just substitute sopressata) and smoking half of the tomatoes adds a smoky complexity to the flavor, which is intensified by simmering for four hours.
Chimichurri is a delightfully herbaceous sauce that's designed to be served with meat. Adding nepitella, a popular Tuscan herb in the mint family (grown at Suzie's Farm), to traditional flat leaf parsley marries the flavors of Argentina with Italy--a mean accompaniment to lamb sirloin. He has a second chimichurri that melds oregano with the parsley, which he serves with chorizo empanadas. In both sauces, he includes apple cider vinegar for mellowness.
And then there's the salsify. This otherwise homely brown root, once peeled and added to the soup, lends a sweet silkiness to the cauliflower. You'll notice that Richman doesn't use a stock in this soup. By design, he likes to keep his soups vegetarian, so he lets the vegetables develop into stock. The result is a creamy cloud of sweetness. He says his customers can't get enough of this soup. It's easy to see why.
Cauliflower and Salsify Bisque
from Matt Richman of Table 926
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup celery
1/2 cup onion
1/4 cup combination of shallots and garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium to large heads of cauliflower
4 salsify roots (can substitute 4 medium sunchokes)
1/4 cup dry white wine
enough water to cover ingredients
salt and pepper to taste
1 2/ cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon sherry or champagne vinegar
1. Peel salsify and soak in a bowl of water to keep it from oxidizing.
2. Chop the celery, onion, shallots, and garlic. Add olive oil to a large pot, heat, and add the chopped vegetables and flavor with salt. You can be a little aggressive with the salt here, since the cream added later will mellow the flavors. Let sweat.
3. Add the white wine.
4. Separate the cauliflower heads into small florets. Slice the salsify. Add to the pot. Then add enough water to cover.
5. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
6. In the last 15 minutes, add the cream and season with salt and pepper. The soup is done done cooking when both the cauliflower and salsify are soft.
7. In small batches, add the soup to a blender and puree. Then press through a chinois to strain.
Table 926 is located at 926 Turquoise St. in north Pacific Beach.