But have you been to Real Bar & Bistro in Solana Beach?
Yeah, I didn't think so. It's not in a hipster locale and the chef, Jeffrey "Willy" Eick isn't rubbing shoulders with the cool kids. Not yet, at any rate. But I'm thinking he will be soon.
Eick, who moved to San Diego's North County from San Jose at the age of 15, is running a surprisingly creative, farm-to-table kitchen at Colin and Mark Urquhart's Real Bar & Bistro and once you learn his background it all begins to make sense.
"I was always into cooking and tried to go to culinary school after high school, but it was too expensive," he says. Instead he studied automotive technology at MiraCosta College. He also took a job at Tomiko Japanese restaurant in Encinitas as a line cook--just working with the owner--where he learned how to prepare sauces, dashi, and, he says, the real fundamentals. After a year he was hired at Bistro West in Carlsbad--first as a line cook, then as sous chef. Yeah, that restaurant that has its own farm up the road--and when he wasn't on the job there he also worked at the Holiday Inn at the Oceanside Marina, where, he says, because it was a slow kitchen there was a lot of room for creativity. "So, I would play around a lot with ingredients."
That experience contrasted nicely with Bistro West, which he said at the time was a very fast, high-volume kitchen--500 covers a night. "So I really learned how to operate a restaurant."
With staff turnovers at Bistro West, Eick went to work at California Modern with Trey Foshee, who taught him the whole fine dining world. "I learned about plating and how to truly bring out flavors and balance flavors," he says.
When Chef Jason Connolly, for whom he'd worked at Bistro West, went to Real Bar, he hired Eick. And when Connolly--now sous chef at Pamplemousse Grille--left Real Bar last May, Eick officially took over the kitchen as executive chef.
In that time, Eick has built a close relationship with Cyclops Farm in Oceanside and its founder Luke Girling (who had been the farm manager at the Bistro West/West Steakhouse farm), getting most of his produce from them. Eick also likes to forage.
In fact, at his March 2 five-course pairing dinner with Pt. Loma's Modern Times Beer (yeah, tomorrow--still time to get tickets) many of the ingredients on the menu will have been foraged, including sorrel, mint, sunflower petals, purslane, nasturtiums, pine needs, and natal plums. The rest will come from Cyclops Farm.
I've been to one of these pairing dinners and they're great fun; in January I was at the one with Stone Brewing, at which CEO and co-founder Greg Koch spoke between courses. There was a stunning Poached Prawn with sunflower "sand", beach herbs, and citrus. A lick-your-plate clean Bay Scallops with apple, whey butter, and radish. He comes up with concepts like sprouted lentils, pine nut milk, barley congee, and smoked chocolate mousse--yes, he makes all the desserts, too.
So, this upcoming dinner should be very special. Here's the menu:
In the meantime, Eick showed me how to make his richly flavored Seared Scottish Salmon with White Beans, Bacon, Chard, Mushrooms, and Pesto Aioli. Salmon is one of those fish customers insist on, so he uses a high-quality farmed Scottish salmon. Unlike many of his more complex dishes, this is perfect for a home cook to prepare, even after a day at work.
Seared Scottish Salmon with White Beans, Bacon, Chard, Mushrooms, and Pesto Aioli
From Willy Eick of Real Bar and Bistro
2, 6-ounce fillets of Scottish salmon
1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup bacon, diced
¾ cup crimini or white button mushrooms, sliced
1 loose cup of greens, chopped
1 cup cannellini or kidney beans
1 teaspoon minced garlic
¼ cup sweet white wine like a Chablis or sherry
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons pesto aioli (1 tablespoon pesto mixed with ½ cup mayonnaise)
Lightly sprinkle salt on the salmon. In a sauté pan, add and heat olive oil. If the skin is on the fish, lay it down skin side first. Cook 1 to 2 minutes for medium rare, then turn the fish, reduce the heat and cook another 4 minutes.
While the salmon is cooking on the second side, add the bacon. While the bacon is still a little soft, add mushrooms. By then the salmon will be fully cooked. Remove and spread the mushrooms out to a single layer as much as possible. Turn the heat to high and let the mushrooms caramelize. When they are nicely browned on one side, turn them to brown on the other (but don’t stir).
Add the greens, the beans, and the garlic. Then add the wine. Stir and let the wine cook down. Add a pinch of salt (unless the bacon is very salty). Cook enough to heat the beans. Stir in the butter and turn off the heat. Mix until the butter emulsifies with the wine and you have a nice glaze.
To plate, divide the bean mixture onto two plates. Place the salmon fillets on each mound of the mixture and then top the salmon with the pesto aioli. Serve.
Real Bar & Bistro is located in the Solana Beach Town Center Shopping Center at 124 Solana Hills Dr. off Lomas Santa Fe and the 5 freeway. To make reservations for the March 2 pairing dinner, call 858-793-7325.