Top Chef

Top Chef

Herringbone chef Amanda Baumgarten backs up notoriety with star-studded seafood

Posted on October 29, 2012

Hollywood magic makes it easy to put reality show chefs on a pedestal without ever tasting their food. Likewise, many discount TV toques, pegging them as glitzy over gourmand. Top Chef season seven’s Amanda Baumgarten initially succumbed to the latter upon relocating from L.A. to helm Herringbone, the fifth restaurant in fellow TC alum Brian Malarkey’s ever-growing Enlightened Hospitality Group (EHG) empire.

Malarkey knows a little about such scrutiny. Two years since opening his first spot, downtown San Diego’s Searsucker, some foodie circles debate his culinary merits, despite his runaway success. But the verdict’s in on Baumgarten, who brings both stardom and substance to the bill of fare at her stylish (designer Thomas Schoos took home an Orchid at last month’s Orchids & Onions ceremony) downtown La Jolla digs.

Sea fare is the primary focus at Herringbone. It’s a medium Baumgarten is abundantly familiar with, and it shows. The treatments she applies to the high-quality fish and shellfish coming out of her fishbowl exhibition kitchen are simple, logical, and expertly executed. Baumgarten knows exactly how to make each oceanic gem shine on its own merits while allowing her expertise to come through via inventive accoutrements and stunning flavor combinations.

Top Chef

Herringbone

Baumgarten’s Alaskan halibut entrée is epitomic of her style. The fish is served with a golden brown, heavily seasoned crust reminiscent of NYC’s Le Bernardin (does she employ a light coat of Wondra flour a la Eric Ripert?), yet remains sumptuous and moist in the middle. Its supporting cast consists of surprisingly flavorful faro, soft roasted mushrooms, crunchy toasted hazelnuts, and Meyer lemon that boosts everything about the dish, including its alluring aroma.

Flavor and texture diversity plus cookery that’s spot-on — what more could one ask for? Those same elements are in play in a black cod main with brown butter squash puree, pecans and black currants, as well as addictively good Maine diver scallops with chorizo, apple, and almonds. And there’s skate wing! A delicacy seldom seen outside French bistros in top tier dining towns, Baumgarten’s is flaky and served with tangerines and, another rarity, meaty lobster mushrooms.

Meat and poultry are also on the menu in the form of a prime filet, pork chop, and sous vide chicken. Those preparations are equally tasty, but can be had nearly anywhere. Baumgarten’s specialty is seafood, so that’s the way to go.

The quality of Baumgarten’s food starts with top-notch ingredients — namely, fresh fish and shellfish plucked from waters near and far. Realizing this, the chef funnels time and energy into reeling in the good stuff. She can be found at the Alaska Airlines terminal in the early morning hours picking up fresh items, including the aforementioned line-caught halibut and sturgeon from long-time friends within La Push, Washington’s Quileute Nation of Indians.

On the small plate front, Baumgarten again goes for simple touches with cold items. Cases in point — hamachi served with sprinkles of Espelette chili and strips of melt-in-your-mouth lardo, and six varieties of oyster with lemon wedges and a simple tomatillo condiment to keep from marring the nuances of each bivalve. Shareable hot items include oysters that are fried but plenty plump, rich duck and wild mushroom poutine, and Malarkey’s mandated shrimp and grits, something offered at all of EHG’s eateries. Baumgarten’s hominy is enhanced with corn, pancetta, and crumbled Humboldt Fog chevre.   Brandon Hernández

Photography by Vincent Knakal