Welcome to Industry Dish, a new bi-weekly feature for Eater San Diego. In this space, our town's restaurant and bar pros will weigh in on their favorite eats and drinks, give their thoughts on local food trends and San Diego diners and talk about what it's like to work in this community. Know an industry pro who wants to do some sharing? Let us know.
[Matt Gordon, Chef and Owner of Urban Solace and Solace & The Moonlight Lounge, courtesy photo]
What's your favorite thing on your menu right now and why? Caramelized Leek & Bacon Stuffed Trout with Herbed Jus..kind of old school but great cold weather comfort seafood dish. New to the menu so of course I'm not tired of it yet!
Name two local restaurants that you like to go to regularly.
For real inspiration and fantastic, delicious execution it's always George's...I aspire to cook like Chef Trey someday! And Claire's on Cedros for breakfast...so aligned with our personal ethos on food sustainability. Good building, good neighborhood feel, good service...and really tasty too.
Anything that you're "over", in terms of played-out restaurant and food trends or ingredients?
I'm over the idea of food trends in general. I think that if someone else is doing great things with a specific ingredient then other people shouldn't do it! Find another ingredient to make something awesome with. I look back over our menus for the past five years at Urban and I think we have always tried to stay ahead or away from trendy ingredients and when we see something start to saturate the market we take it off the menu. Sometimes that makes me sad because I love some of our dishes that we don't serve anymore because they've become so common place.
The one I won't give up is our watermelon salad. I started playing with versions of it about 12 years ago and it was a real signature for Urban Solace when we opened in '07. We bring it back seasonally every year, and though I certainly didn't invent the dish, nor am I in anyway claiming responsibility for it being trendy, it's just really become common to see it on menus all over the area. But I just love the dish and it has a really loyal following so we'll keep putting it on every summer. I guess beef cheeks have become pretty prevalent too and I've had those on the menu for five years now, but I have the allocation on the ones I buy from Paso Prime Grassfed Beef so no one else can buy those.. .we use all they can produce!
One trend I want to see continue is the movement towards natural foods and ingredients. I think some restaurants or corporate chains do it because it's trendy or almost as a gimmick, but at the end of the day, the more that do it, the better. The demand will bring down prices for all of us and create more options and opportunity.
Do you have a wish or request for the local food scene or San Diego diners?
I would like San Diegans to stop thinking of this town as a second tier food town. If that's what we think we are, then that's what we'll remain being. I think there are two factors that perpetuate this.. one, we will never have the population density to support the vast number of restaurants that you have in the towns people traditionally think of as "food towns". We are just too spread out for this and I don't think that will change.
But what can change is the focus on service in this town...from managers to servers to hosts, it's the service that makes or breaks it and I think we as a collective whole of the San Diego restaurant community have a responsibility to put a greater focus on this and create memorable dining experiences (much more than just great food).
I think the food scene has altered drastically in the last six years and there are a great many restaurants that I enjoy spending my hard earned money at, but I think the level of food creativity and preparation has improved much faster then the level of service. The consumer can help this by demanding excellence!
What makes cooking in San Diego different than other cities you've worked in? How is it unique?
I moved here to open Urban Solace as a business decision (after having lived here a few years earlier for a bit). Not because I was in love with the weather or culture or geography. I felt like there was a need for great independent neighborhood restaurants and there really weren't that many back then. I am thrilled to be part of that movement with a number of other chefs and owners who really have created a ton of options for diners who want to eat like that.
The fact that we are in such a wonderful location for great product certainly helps that along. I came from San Francisco and Sonoma where we also had a lot of great product at our disposal, so I'm glad to see how that's increased here over the years.
Most of all though, the community of chefs and restaurant owners/managers is really special here. I have lived and cooked in a number of cities since I started down this path close to twenty years ago, but never has there been as much camaraderie and cooperation among chefs as I see here.
I truly feel like it's a very supportive community that really has a common goal and very little "competitiveness". I am proud to call a number of chefs my good friends, and I'm proud to be accepted by my peers as we all work together to make San Diego a really wonderful place to call a "food town"!