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The origin of tasting menus is quite obscure and there are many different theories going as far back as to the Ancient Greeks and Romans who have been reported to serve multi-course menu consisting of 16-20 dishes. Individual courses might not have been as sophisticated as those of today’s cuisine, but these “tasting menus” already showed a similar progression that we are used to seeing today. Another important historic influence were traditional Japanese Kaiseki menus with their specific order, focus on seasonality, and elaborate presentations, highly reminiscent of today’s Western tasting menus - Thomas Keller cites them as a significant influence as “the Kaiseki dinner is very similar to the way we serve food in the French Laundry”. Over the last century, tasting menus were heavily influenced by French cuisine, and Escoffier is often credited as having “invented” tasting menus in modern times while working at the Ritz hotels. The French influence is also apparent with chefs like Paul Bocuse in France, and Thomas Keller in the US, who were both at the forefront to establish tasting menus at their restaurants and who thereby had a tremendous influence on later generations of chefs. Tasting menus present a unique opportunity for chefs to represent their individual cuisine and philosophy. However, except for French restaurants and those influenced by Modernist Cuisine, tasting menus are not that common to find on other types of cuisine.
Chef Accursio Lota was born in Menfi, a small town in Sicily, and was exposed to fresh ingredients and cooking early on in life as both his mother and grandmother used fruits and vegetables from their own garden, fish from the local sea, and olive oil harvested and produced from their own olive trees. So it seems like a natural progression that he ended up graduating from culinary school. One of his most influential, early mentors was Chef Sergio Mei at the Four Seasons Hotel Milan where Chef Lota was able to dive deep into the Italian culinary tradition. But Chef Mei was also instrumental in motivating him to move to California to work at the Biltmore Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara which gave him a different perspective to cooking. Not unlike in Sicily, the Biltmore kitchen also focused on local produce with Mediterranean flavors, but it also incorporated numerous other influences from the melting pot of California. In 2009, he returned to Sicily to work as Sous Chef at Hotel Imperiale in Taormina where, for the first time, he had the culinary freedom to develop his own style. In 2011, Chef Lota moved back to California to join Chefs Guillas and Oliver as Sous Chef at the Marine Room which gave him a wide exposure to fusion cooking. In 2012, he decided to fine tune his personal cooking style even more by starting Limone, an underground restaurant, focusing on multicourse dinners. In the same year he accepted the offer from owner Randy Smerik to join Solare as Executive Chef.
Solare was started in 2008 by Chef Stefano Ceresoli and his wife Roberta Ruffini, but in2012 the couple decided to sell Solare to only focus on their other restaurant at that time, Caffe Bella Italia in Pacific Beach. They recently closed the latter one as well to start Piazza 1909 in La Jolla. Solare was bought by Randy Smerik, and his two sons Brian and Tommy Smerik. Randy Smerik has an unusual background for a restaurant owner as he had originally worked in the IT field for 25 years, including being a vice president at Intel, a founder and CEO of Tarari and Osunatech, but he is also on the Board of Directors for Fortaleza Tequila. Since offering Chef Lota the Executive Chef’s position at Solare, he has given him free hand to realize his cooking style which also included implementing an Italian inspired 9-course tasting menu.
Solare has a rather unique set up for their tasting menu which is served at the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table is a kitchen counter with two bar stools and a perfect view of the action in the kitchen. These types of kitchen counter/Chef’s tables are one of our favorite ways to dine as it gives you a very close look to the processes of the kitchen, and interaction of the chefs and cooks.
1st Course: Shrimp, squid, clam, zucchini carpaccio, onion confit, tomato, caperberry, dehydrated lobster broth
Three impeccable pieces of seafood were the stars of this plate and showcasing the variety of flavors and textures of seafood, ranging from tender and subtly flavored squid to soft and briny clams. Instead of the obligatory lemon, caper berries, tomatoes and onion confit added some desired acidity to the dish. The dehydrated lobster broth sprinkled over the seafood added some salinity and enhanced the natural flavors.
2nd Course: Squash blossom, ricotta, mint pesto, pomodoro sauce
One of the classical Italian appetizers which is often served with greasy, soggy blossoms, tasteless ricotta and drowned in sauce. Here we had a prime example how to make it right – flavorful homemade ricotta was wrapped in a delicate squash blossom which allowed us to taste the floral flavor. Small dots of slightly acidic tomato sauce and herbal, but not overpowering, mint pesto helped to accentuate the dish yet provided a playful way to mix and match different flavor combinations so that every bite was different – a beautiful dish.
3rd Course: Carpaccio di Wagyu, wagyu beef sirloin, borrage flowers, arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary salt, balsamico pearls
The wagyu beef carpaccio had a surprisingly strong, pleasant beefy flavor, whereas the arugula provided some textural contrast, and the Parmigiano added the necessary saltiness. We liked the idea of adding the acidity by balsamico pearls instead to just some liquid amount of acetic balsamico as it was much easier to include the desired amount of balsamico in each bite which gave way to a perfect balance of salty, bitter, acidic and Umami.
4th Course: Risotto, vino bianco, scorza di limone, squid ink reduction, scallop
The risotto had the perfect consistency of creaminess with some bite from the al dente rice corns. The mixture of white wine, lemon marmalade and squid ink gave a very interesting combination of bitterness and acidity from the wine and marmalade with the savori- and saltiness of the squid ink. All these flavors worked really well with the beautifully seared scallop.
5th Course: Ravioli with ricotta & spinach, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, sea beans, pecorino
Pasta can be such a simple and yet difficult dish – just semolina, eggs and water - but rarely do you find such delicate finished pasta like in this dish - substantial yet thin enough that it didn’t overpower the filling of the homemade ricotta and spinach. The lightness of the dish continued with the accompanying vegetables like asparagus, tomatoes and sea beans. By far not the only dish where we wished we could get a second helping.
6th Course: Tuna, broccolini, fingerling potatoes, nostralina olives, limoncello, special olive oil, sea asparagus
A rather classic dish with the combination of tuna, broccolini, potatoes and olives – well executed dish with moist fish, not overcooked broccolini - but what really elevated it was the olive oil Chef Lota added at the table – DOP Val di Mazara from his home town. A very complex olive oil with notes of pistacchio, citrus and artichoke, and a low acidity which brought the dish together.
7th Course: Rabbit loin, carrots, kale, potato, brussel sprout, demi glace
Rabbit is often decried as being as tasteless as badly prepared chicken, but in this dish the rabbit loin had a nice distinct meaty, slightly sweet flavor which stood up surprisingly well against the other ingredients. This dish was another example of the ability of Chef Lota to create very complex but yet balanced flavor profiles in his dishes spanning from sweetness by the carrots, to bitterness by the brussel sprouts and kale, to Umami by the demi glace.
8th Course: Pistacchio crusted rack of lamb, lamb loin, potato-saffron timbale, pickled cipollini, pesto
Placing the pesto in the middle of the plate clearly indicated the overarching theme of the dish. The pesto worked equally well with all other components – lamb loin, rack of lamb and potato-saffron timbale and connected these parts to a coherent finish of the savory part of the tasting menu.
9th Course: Chocolate mousse, crispy almonds, candies pistacchios, berries, orange peel, amaretto cherry
The combination of fruits and chocolate ensured that the night didn’t end in an overly heavy dessert. The different nut preparations reminded us of some type of granola, and the dish was a continuation of the savory courses – excellent execution with very balanced flavors.
Every cuisine is associated with certain attributes which are obviously often strong generalizations since there is no such thing as a singular type of cuisine: every country has many regional or even local variations. French cooking is often described as complex and relying on technique and elaborated sauces, whereas Italian food is more focused on simpler dishes which let seasonal ingredients shine. Chef Lota impressed us with how he was able to capture this general “Italian” philosophy throughout the tasting menu, but at the same time was able to instill his own style. He presented us each course explaining the seasonality and the local farms where the ingredients came from, and with his thoughts on how the different components of the dish should work together. Focusing on few key ingredients in each dish required flawless execution of each of them. What really made all these dishes stand out, and seems to be a reflection of his style, was the complexity and yet effortlessness of the seasoning of the dishes. Many dishes had seemingly secondary components, like for example the dehydrated lobster broth or Val di Mazara oil which was essential in bringing the dishes together. Or dishes like the risotto were the combination of scorza di limone and squid ink reduction created something greater than the sum of its parts.
This tasting menu was a prime example how the menu format of a tasting menu allows a talented chef to showcase the cuisine from his/her native country, yet instilled with his/her own interpretations. We wish more chefs, especially from ethnic restaurants, would use this concept to present the many facets of their cuisines. We are looking forward to follow Chef Lota in his interpretations of Italian cuisine throughout the seasons.