“People don’t just want farm-to-table anymore. They want to know exactly where their food is coming from.”
Chef Eugenio Martignago of West Steak and Seafood and Bistro West at West Inn & Suites in Carlsbad has taken me to their three-acre farm for the morning to forage for the daily menu. Despite the fact the farm is located on the El Camino Real, one of busiest roads in California, I feel completely immersed in nature and the smells of sweet basil and wild fennel, the sights of rolling hills and fruit trees, and the sounds of birds singing their morning songs.
While there are other restaurants in Carlsbad operating under a farm-to-table philosophy, none are doing it to the extent Chef Martignago is.
“It forces us to be creative,” he explains, as his restaurant, Bistro West, creates almost all their dishes from scratch. “We have a certain amount of produce available to use and we have to create something delicious out of it. We also like to use the entire vegetable, like the tops of turnips and beets.”
We tour greenhouses filled with microgreens, tomatoes and squash, as well as fields with rows of artichoke, snap peas and sweet carrots.
“Try this,” says Chef Martignago, handing me a freshly picked snap pea. While I’m not usually a huge fan of vegetables, the distinct snap and sweet flavor make me remember that farm fresh produce tastes nothing like the kind you purchase from the supermarket in a frozen bag. It’s interesting to think that if the kitchen runs out of an ingredient they can simply drive up the road to their farm and pick it fresh for the guest.
When I look over Chef is holding a bright pink flower.
“This is Watermelon Sage,” he explains. “We use it in our sauces and as a garnish.”
Suddenly, take plops the flower in his mouth and smiles. “Try it.”
Hesitantly, I bite into the beautiful flower, which tastes surprisingly like watermelon.
“There are so many plants that people don’t even know are edible. Like I said, we like to get creative.”
I can’t wait for tonight.
I begin my night of epicurious discovery at West Steak and Seafood to sample some of Mixologist Sean Merzbacher’s handcrafted cocktail creations. While many people have heard of farm-to-table dining, the establishment goes beyond that by doing stem-to-stem cocktails that feature fruit, herbs and spices from the West Garden.
Their most innovative cocktails in which they do this are the “Mango Chameleon” and “Raspebrry Chameleon,” both launched in February 2013. The “Mango Chamelon” combines citrus vodka, triple sec, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and mint from the West Organic Garden, served with a frozen mango purée and Malibu rum flavor changer. Additionally the “Raspberry Chameleon” brings together citrus vodka, triple sec, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, orange juice and basil from the West Organic Garden, served with a frozen raspberry purée and Chambord flavor changer.
Sean crafts the cocktails at the table so I can see exactly how they’re prepared. Two martini glasses sit empty with only the flavor changers at the base. After a precise recipe that involves spanking basil and a specific number of tosses in the cocktail shaker, the individual libations are perfectly poured into their respective glasses. And while the drinks both begin clear, with each stir they begin to change more and more yellow (for the mango) and red (for the raspberry).
As I sip, I tell Sean I feel like the cocktails are each getting sweeter and stronger as the time passes.
He smiles. “That makes sense. With something like this people are expecting a big change from the first sip to last. I wanted to create something that truly changed its look and taste.”
While extremely tasty, these cocktails are also strong, and once I start to feel my buzz settling in I decide it’s now time to move on to some farm-to-table dining before the drinking continues.
As Farm-To-Table As It Gets
In the same parking lot is Bistro West, a casual yet ambient dining space that is truly committed to farm-to-table and using flavorful, healthy ingredients.
“Having your own farm is a chef’s dream come true,” says Eugenio Martignago, executive chef at Bistro West and West Steak and Seafood. “Being able to experiment in the planting and harvesting process infuses a whole new level of creativity to the menu offerings at Bistro West and West Steak and Seafood.”
The venue has a rustic feel that matches the from-the-garden philosophy perfectly, with lots of wood furniture and touches. Modern artwork and decor give the laid-back space a classier feel. While the menu uses locally-grown ingredients from West Organic Garden, it also incorporates French and Italian influences. What’s also interesting is that all Chef Martignago’s creations are made from scratch, from the sauces to the pizza doughs to the pastas. This is impressive, as the menu includes everything from soups and salads to meat and seafood and everything in between like pizzas, pastas, burgers and signature entrees.
I start with the bruschetta. While this may sound like your standard antipasto, it is anything but ordinary at Bistro West. The chef prepares the mozzarella, literally crafting it from curds he strains himself. Additionally, the appetizer is prepared tableside, with the server stretching the mozzarella to perfection before placing it on top of thick slices of toasted focaccia bread. The dish is served with a bowl of salsa crafted from fresh West Organic Garden heirloom tomatoes, roasted garlic, peppers, olive oil, basil and kalamata olives.
From there I move on to the “Pear & Gorgonzola Pizza,” a delicious creation crafted using homemade dough. The soft, flaky-crusted base showcases caramelized pears, gorgonzola and mozzarella cheeses, prosciutto and chopped hazelnuts. Additionally, the decadent creation is topped with field greens tossed in blue-cheese dressing. Each bite seems to melt in my mouth, the sweet mixing with the savory, the tanginess of the different cheeses creating a unique contrast from the smokey meats and juicy pear.
Next is the pasta course. I ask for just a taste, as I know I won’t be able to fit an entire bowl into my stomach; however, I’m dying to sample some, especially since all the pastas are made by hand. I opt for the pappardelle pasta, served with porcini and chiodini mushrooms, ricotta cheese, truffle and bay scallops. The sauce blends together some of Italy’s richest and most Earthy flavors, and adds a textural element with the scallops, which taste like they’ve just been caught from the sea moments ago.
Although I’m stuffed at this point, I can’t resist some of Chef Martignago’s decadent yet feel-good desserts, homemade using mostly organic desserts. All desserts are baked from scratch, from the sorbets to the crusts to the ice creams. I opt to sample a mix of delights, including the warm breading pudding, cherry cobbler and chocolate trio. The warm bread pudding is like heaven, a mixture of figs, cherries and raisins topped with vanilla ice cream and bourbon sauce that reminds me of snuggling up by the fire after a long day of skiing. The cherry cobbler is served hot, with Tahitian vanilla ice and a Macadamia nut crumble that is the perfect mixture of sweet and slightly salty, the variety of textures pleasing my palate. And for the finale, the chocolate trio is pure decadence, featuring a thick slice of flourless chocolate cake, a rich chocolate truffle and a light and airy chocolate mousse served with a strawberry sauce and coconut rum sauce.
By the end of the meal I’m completely stuffed. That being said, I feel really good about what I’d eaten. Not a single thing was from a can or package, all the ingredients being fresh and locally sourced. My entire day — from the farm tour to the cocktails to the meal — was enlightening and sustainable, bringing me beyond morally-conscious cooking to becoming more aware of where exactly my food was coming from. Sometimes, great flavors come with a valuable lesson.
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