I was back in Michigan recently and the area I grew up in, which includes Royal Oak and Ferndale, is somewhat of a mecca for bars and restaurants. I had to laugh when two of the newer establishments were called The Local and Public House, two names and concepts that are already tired in Southern California but were considered fresh an innovative in that area.
My friend Troy Johnson, the restaurant editor at San Diego Magazine, recently wrote a great column about oh-so-trendy restaurant names that have worn out their welcome and it’s worth a read.
Most of these places stick to proven, if tired, menu formulas that include year-round offerings of Brussels sprouts, pork belly, short rib in some form or fashion, fancy burger offerings, and of course craft beer and cocktails. Nothing wrong with all that, it’s just that in my line of work it can be tough to write about with much enthusiasm. I mean really, how many times can I write about pork belly? Yes, I know. Tough problem to have.
That said, I was thinking about how tough it must be for restaurateurs and chefs to stay fresh and innovative, while appealing to the mainstream that most of them need to please to fill seats. I recalled a dish I had at Blue Ocean Sushi & Robata recently that was unique, delicious, and yet very accessible. It was the bacon wrapped quail, served like a sushi roll and created by Executive Corporate Chef Michael Zonfrilli. I’ve written about Blue Ocean not too long ago, and it really does fit my description of a restaurant that innovates in all areas, while pleasing the traditionalists and picky eaters.
I contacted Chef Zonfrilli to have him describe, in detail, how he came up with this dish and how he prepared it. Here is his detailed description of this wonderful dish.
“We start with a 100 percent natural, antibiotic and hormone-free quail from Manchester Farms in South Carolina. They are very consistent and the first to market farm-raised quail in the early ‘80s. Unlike wild quail, the farm-raised variety has a mild flavor, similar to the dark meat of a very good chicken.
“The bird is completely boned out except for its wings and succulent little legs. The wings are first removed, then the rest is rubbed down with a spicy chili blend called shichimi togarashi and stuffed with finely chopped fresh herbs. The quail is folded in half lengthwise and wrapped tightly in thinly sliced, smoked bacon. Using a wrap of foil it is formed into a nice tight cylindrical roulade and roasted until the center is barely cooked through.
“After it rests and cools, we slice it into thick medallions and skewer it to be finished to order on our custom made Robata grill. This is where the real magic happens! The skewers are grilled over imported Japanese binchotan charcoal, dipping several times in our yakitori sauce, until the bacon is fully rendered and caramelized from the intense heat.
“For garnish we prepare crispy garlic chips by first soaking the sliced garlic in milk to mellow the flavor, then frying at a low temperature so the garlic gets crisp and toasty without becoming burnt and bitter. To plate, we remove the quail from the skewers, and place the medallions in a nice line (sushi roll like) the last of which has the legs standing up in full glory. The tiny wings are fried as a crispy little nibble and the bird is drizzled with a sweet yakitori glaze, sprinkled with the garlic chips and some thinly sliced scallion.”
I’ve been around the culinary block, so to speak, and this dish makes my mouth water just reading about it. It’s exotic, yet accessible, a perfect blend of innovation and tradition. Even people who may have hesitated to try quail in the past, but have no problem eating chicken, will enjoy this.
I’ve been lobbying Chef Zonfrilli to make it a regular part of the menu for some time now and he has appeased me by adding it as a special at least for the couple of weeks following this column going to print. I should reiterate that the rest of the menu and the overall experience at Blue Ocean in Carlsbad are very worth checking out if you have not done so yet. Location, menu and hours at www.blueoceanrobatasushi.com.