Restaurant review: Robin’s a smashing success
October 27, 2011
By LOUIS BISHOP
It is hard to think of a vegetable more symbolic of a season than pumpkin in autumn. So symbolic that most of the effort seems to go into turning them into icons rather than into food–pumpkin pie being the only notable exception. But, sensing the need to bridge the gap, Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria is offering a five-course prix fixe pumpkin cavalcade, duly titled Smashing Pumpkins, throughout October.
I like the respect for the nomenclature. Butternut, buttercup, acorn and Guatemalan blue squashes, anything squash, orange-fleshed, maybe not even orange, with a hard skin, are all deemed pumpkins in our own household parlance. We have been known to cellar 50 pounds of fine-grained, sweet kabocha, also called Hokkaido pumpkin, at a time. Do the Japanese create anything that isn’t sublime?
Pumpkin is delicious and little used in Anglo-American cuisine. In Caribbean West Indian pumpkin is the basis of stews, quickly eroding into a soft puree. If you are ever in Miami, hunt down my favorite pumpkin dish–ajiaco, a pumpkin stew with yuca/cassava/manioc, green plantains, true yam, boniato/white sweet potato and malanga. Follow with 4 hours of cutting sugar cane.
Perhaps foremost, I love a menu that features and emphasizes healthy, plant-based or downright vegan eating.
So how did this “Iron Chef–secret ingredient Pumpkin” go?
In a phrase I have found a culinary soulmate in Chef Brett Blute.
The host is gracious despite our arrival 15 minutes late and we are seated in the semi-enclosed outdoor dining room. The scent of flowers drifts in to a dining area that is an eclectic melange of, er, eclecticism. Big Sur hippie chic, cozy with touches of country inn and adobe. Bistro chairs and pillowed banquettes.
The waitress arrives and she is fittingly adorned in Native American style with a small braid and feather and has the warm formality that promises good service. She is obviously familiar with the menu and enthusiastically answers our questions. Both my knife and fork had tiny but noticeable bits of dried food on them.
We opt for the braised short rib, $25, to go with the pumpkin monograph/plus wine pairings $70.
The soup, Rugosa Violina Wrinkled Butternut Squash Soup, (I am not making this up), is exactly what a first course should be, minimalist, understated and healthy. If you start with something rich, by the time you get to the main course you’ll be needing wild boar and by dessert you’ll be needing something of triple chocolate.
The chef lets the squash do the talking. The soup is very lightly seasoned and is delightfully textured with a fluff of quinoa. The pleasant, slight bitterness of squash skin comes through and balances the moderate sweetness of the squash. I’m thinking the kitchen used the squash trimmings to make a stock. A melting spoonful of creme fraiche with its slight sourness adds further flavor balance and textural balance to the graininess of the squash, yet without the least sensation of the greasiness characteristic of puree or creamed soups. Pepitas, pumpkin seeds, add a crisp contrast to a pretty composition.
Unfortunately, the soup, as with the rest of the meal, was not piping hot.
As if this soup isn’t serendipity enough the Four Vines Un-oaked Chardonnay, Paso Robles 2009 that accompanies is a brilliant pairing. The typical oak-bomb Chardonnay brewed ‘round these parts would overpower the soup (and everything else in God’s Creation). Instead, the wine’s simplicity, its clean, green apple acidity, is the perfect contrast to the moderate sweetness of the soup. A knowing take on the flavors of apple-butternut squash soup.
Though my partner likes it fine, I’m not as impressed with the buttercup squash gnocchi. First of all, I don’t really like the gummy quality of gnocchi. I could barely detect the flavor of pumpkin or squash of any kind, not that any was needed after the soup. The pecorino Romano cream sauce was like a funky, way-salty mornay sauce. The saltiness was especially pronounced when compared to the salt level of the other dishes throughout the meal. The hazelnut contrast was a well-conceived seasonal contrast, the nuts nicely toasted, but they were scarce. Same with the the perfect fig, but four thin slices. The fig-pecorino contrast was a very adult sweet-musky touch. I think I can safely say that I simply don’t like pecorino cheese.
We managed the saltiness by limiting the amount of sauce clinging to the gnocchi and by dabbing bits of sauce with the bursting-with-whole-grain bread. As strongly as I tend toward healthy food, I still prefer a good French bread or similar crusty white bread with a fine meal.
The wine, Maloy O’Neill 2004 Malbec, Paso Robles didn’t have a notable affinity for the dish . . . oh, except that it was utterly and fabulously delicious–smooth and harmonious yet still fresh and juicy with floral notes. Malbec is a lesser known grape, one of the six Bourdeaux grapes, commonly grown in Argentina as a varietal. This is about a $40 bottle retail and a generous gift of Robin’s.
The next course, oaxacan black and blue crepes was another primo piatto, or farinaceo, a starch coarse, where I would think a salad should have gone. That compunction aside, this dish was an absolute home run. I love it when a kitchen goes to the trouble of sourcing an unusual ingredient. And huitlacoche is about an 11 out of ten on the unusuality scale.
The Tolosa Pinot Noir 2009 was a spectacular pairing, a culinary journey to the center of the Earth. I’m thinking that we might have gotten a 2007 because it was open and bursting with flavor. Pinot noirs are classically paired with a more familiar fungus, mushrooms, complementing with an earthy, sometimes even manure, quality. With moderate alcohol, about 14 percent, a plush silkiness and full fruit, often a bit of pepper, good pinots, especially French-style rather than California-style, are a surprisingly good foil for spicy food. So this wine, like the best of marriages, had both complementarity and contrast going for it. I love when that happens.
The fourth course was billed as a Tahitian squash tagine with braised lamb, curry couscous, dried fruit compote. Still not craving squash at this point, but I don’t actually remember any squash. And the lamb, lacking a coating of sauce, arranged around a cheerful mound of gold couscous, looked a bit dry and not fall-apart tender as the term braise suggests to me.
But a big mouthful of the lamb and the moist and tender couscous along with the unctuous fruity compote playing off the curry was classic Casbah.
The Ken Volk Zinfandel, Lime Kiln, Enz Vineyard 2008 showed welcome restraint as opposed to the over-the-top, rocket-fuel, frickin’ fruit-bomb zins that are still characteristic ‘round these parts. Its still-full fruitiness and touch of spice played well off of each sweet-savory mouthful of food.
The only other dish we ordered, the braised short rib, tasted a bit fatty to me, but not to my partner. It was an impressive chunk, fork-tender and served bone up, monumental, high on a mound of mashed celery root and potatoes, a few root veg chips like ribbons gave it eye-appeal and altitude. I couldn’t make out a lot of celery root, just good, not-overly-rich mashed potatoes. The greens–sorry, I couldn’t identify them, maybe young collards–were fantastically fresh and vivid, barely sauteed, but I’m ambivalent about leaving in the crunchy center rib. A fruity port sauce was bright with cranberries and satisfying in its complexity and its sweet-tart balance. With its mild acid and big flavor it both tempered and enriched the the beef, and reminded me of a sauce that would typically be served with autumnal game. Yet another knowing touch from a chef with obvious classic training in his vast repetoire.
The courses are coming out at a clockwork pace, each new one delivered with its wine as the last mouthful of the previous plate is finished. But now our perfect server falters and serves the dessert course without the wine. She quickly notices the oversight and seves the wine.
One final gloria, the roasted baby bear pumpkin coconut creme brulee arrives nicely glazed in a pumpkin shell bowl. The bowl isn’t edible but the creme brulee sure is. Perfect texture yielding to mere pressure of the tongue. Lightly flavored, just enough coconut and pumpkin to leave a touch of the some fine grain in interplay with the soft custard. The white acorn squash beignet alongside made the dish all the more merry and, served warm, was a hospitable finale, saying, “I made this just for you.”
The Sauvion Vouvray, Loire, France 2009, a modest chenin blanc, is just the right lightness, acidity and sweetness to balance with the just-enough sweet of the creme brulee. This is so welcome a course. Think of it more as a sweet course than a dessert course. Way this side of chocolate and port.
To sum up my criticisms, and they are minor:
The dishes could have used just a bit more dressing up. Still, I’m glad they put the effort into the cooking rather than into trying to win an award for landscape architecture, so common these days.
Salt is a necessary ingredient for cooking, as it dissolves certain proteins in the cooking process. I wish they’d use a bit more in general.
Courses were not heated sufficiently.
It is hard to think of anything that food ought be that Robin’s isn’t. It is wholesome but tasty, earthy but elegant, satisfying without being decadent, knowing, varied, diverse, balanced, artful, even wise. They are true to their slogan, “Come to be fulfilled.”
We leave talking about the recent death of Steven Jobs and the proliferation of the hippie ethos into the mainstream of American culture, lo, these 40 years. Of such stuff is Robin’s made.
In the east a waning harvest moon is rising through a mist gathering on the low hills. It is pumpkin colored, a modest bite taken from its right side.
4095 Burton Drive, Cambria
Lunch, Early Bird, Dinner, Sunday Brunch