The California Culinary Academy is a Le Cordon Bleu school that trains chefs in classic culinary techniques, as well as modern and global cuisine. As part of the training, the Academy operates a restaurant open to the public. Students learn to perform all of the duties of the restaurant. Four of us went for dinner to see what the students were cooking. Our server Brian was a student doing his final assignment, serving as our waiter. To some graduating students it is scary facing the next step, to others it was exciting. He was excited about it. During the meal he presented a cheerfully professional attitude, working cooperatively with the other members of the staff.
Our tasting meal offered many small plates of delicacies the chef prepared that evening along with five appetizers on the menu and our choice of an entrée from the list of six, followed by the dessert cart, all for seventeen dollars. During our dinner we saw the dessert cart wheeled by a few times, catching glimpses of delicate swan pastries and crème-filled profiteroles reminded us to save room for dessert. But the reminder was of no use. The array of tasty tidbits and appetizers filled us even before our entrees came. For drinks we skipped the wine list, had water and served ourselves tea and coffee from a serving table.
The first of the chef’s tastings, crumbled cheese and nuts on two oblong leaves placed stem to stem, looked so charming it was a question of being too pretty to eat versus looking so good we had to taste it. We all found the mixed textures and the contrast between the soothing nuts and the tangy cheese delightful. Second was a yummy bacon cheddar potato cake topped with maple syrup, crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. Following that Brian brought artichoke hearts and aioli. A truly delicate, tender halibut with young asparagus spears followed. The halibut brought exclamations of “You have to try this!” to our friends who had reached their limit and stopped eating.
Other appetizers were smoked chicken and wilted spinach salad with Maytag fingerlings and a mustard vinaigrette, a chilled Spring English pea soup with refreshing fresh peas, parmesan risotto with spring vegetables and porcini cream. The bread was grilled flat bread with special sauces: a soft red baba ganoush, a white sauce with green speckles made from yogurt and spinach, a tan tahini. We all enjoyed the eggplant baba ganoush and each of us seemed to have a different favorite among the other sauces.
In our group two of us ordered the seafood etouffee with grit cakes and collard greens, one ordered Lamb Navarin and tourne of vegetables, and I ordered the herb stuffed chicken with haricot vert and roasted new potatoes. The seafood was quite good, with mussels and other shellfish and an unexpected spicy version of halibut my companions reported. The lamb was delicious according to the third member of our party. And my chicken was quite tender and the herb stuffing pleasantly flavorful without being over-powering. The new potatoes tasted mildly earthy at first then a sweet aftertaste developed that led me to immediately take another bite. They were the very best new potatoes I have ever eaten.
Sometimes when one is quite hungry the food seems to taste exceptionally good, so imagine how very good this food is when people whose appetites are satiated find it so appealing that they take second bites even when they are not hungry!
After our entrees arrived and we’d had a chance to enjoy the first courses, the chef made his rounds of the dining room and stopped to ask how our food was. “Delicious!” We chorused. However, one member added that the lamb was wonderful but that the potatoes could have been cooked more. The chef responded with grace, getting some training for life in a regular restaurant.
When the dessert cart came to our table the swan pastries we had seen were gone but there were choices of berry tarts, spicy tropical fruit tarts, panna cotta with blueberries, chocolate mousse, house-made baklava, and profiteroles. We each ordered a different dessert and tasted each others choices but each decided that to us the one we chose was the best. The Italian cream panna cotta was so creamy you forgot to even notice, it was as if there was no texture at all, just a delightful taste, not too tangy and not too sweet. I made a note to myself to see if I could get the recipe so I could delight guests at my parties with this perfect dessert.
350 Rhode Island Street at 16th Street
San Francisco, California 94103