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Eat This: The Abnormal Experience

Chef Scott Cannon shows off skills beyond his years for this 12-course marathon


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Maple glazed root vegetables and pancetta

Scott Cannon looks about half of his 31 years. His youthfulness suggests he should be filling water glasses, not serving as executive chef of The Cork & Craft. Definitely not trying to pull off a 12-course tasting menu.

Tasting menus, or dégustation menus, are part dinner, part marathon. They’re not for the casual eater. And frankly, they’re usually only pulled off by chefs who are much older and more accomplished than Cannon. Chefs with big press clippings and IMDB credits.

I’m torn on the tasting menu experience. They can be oppressive. Somewhere between course eight and ten, fatigue hits you like a darkness. Life choices are questioned. You need water and a nap. On the other hand, it’s art and odyssey. You get to see the collected works of a chef, and try dishes you’d probably never order on your own. Instead of “dinner and a show,” dinner is the show.

I’d threatened to hoof it to the somnambulant hinterlands of Rancho Bernardo for two years to try his food. I grew up down the road. Rancho Bernardo, once home to the great El Bizcocho, is no food mecca these days. Cork & Craft is one of only a couple games in town. So I’m skeptical as I pull into the office park, enter the brewery-cum-restaurant, and sit down at the chef’s table for his “Abnormal Experience” (named after their Abnormal Beer Co.).

I finally committed to this because I hear voices. Voices from people who chase good food around cities. “Have you tried his food yet? Why haven’t you gone yet?” those voices whined. “Kid’s talented.”

And they were right. Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I threw down a month’s rent for the tasting menu at Momofuku Ko in New York, the food monastery from iconic American chef David Chang. And at the end of the Abnormal Experience, I asked her, not joking, which was better. They were close.

The Abnormal Experience is $145 for 12 courses. Beer and wine pairings are extra. And I have to say it’s worth it. Here’s a selection of some of the best dishes we had:

Bread Service

Excellent. Small cubes of rosemary focaccia, crusty and caramelized up top but moist crumb. Served with two housemade butters—whipped herb butter and a balsamic vinegar butter—warm and soft. I’ve never had balsamic butter before, and now I need it. Plated atop a hardcover book, which are apparently not extinct.

 

Kumamoto Oyster

The single oyster gets the Beyoncé treatment, served in a bowl that’s billowing liquid nitrogen smoke. Cannon smartly doesn’t overwhelm the mild, shy kumamoto, which has a natural honeydew flavor. It rests in its half shell bathed in an apple mignonette made with diced apples, Fresno chili pepper, shallots, black pepper, honey, apple cider vinegar, and sparkling wine.

Asian Pear Salad

A small lobster tail is rolled and cooked sous vide in duck fat for an hour at 130 degrees. The exterior is a tad tough, but the flesh inside is almost melted. It’s served with Asian pears compressed with water and vinegar, endives confit in duck fat, pear aioli, watercress, and a fruit leather. The pear aioli makes it, and the sharp flavor of the endive cuts through the sweetness of the dish.

Beef Tartare

Cubes of prime rib eye served with celery root puree, rye bread crumble, shaved celery, beef fat that’s been dehydrated into a powder, fennel pollen, and topped with puffed beef tendon. The beef tendon is the real magic trick here, puffed like a chicharrón and tasting like a French fry’s best version of itself.

Maple-Glazed Root Vegetables and Pancetta

Theres an Instagram account called “The Art of Plating,” which highlights the pretty/odd/beautiful things chefs make. This belongs there. Presentation matters. You eat with your eyes before your mouth. It’s designed as a garden mishap, vegetables spilling out of a fallen pot. Art’s cool. But it also needs to be delicious, and this may be his best dish of the night. Root vegetables are roasted and then toasted in a maple balsamic and laid over a swipe of carrot-top pesto. The “soil” is cocoa nibs two ways, first with burnt pumpernickel, brown sugar, salt and pepper and cocoa powder. Second, he takes that same mixture and melds it with goat cheese and brown butter.

Jidori Chicken Breast

The mash here is everything—roasted chestnut mashed potatoes with brown butter, goat cheese (I’m sensing a pattern), cream, Yukon gold potatoes, caramelized onions and chestnuts. Served with a creamy horseradish chicken jus and fried broccoli florets. I always judge a chef’s skills on their chicken dish, since it’s a ho-hum protein. Excellent.

Pork Tenderloin

This one’s on the regular menu, so if you don’t want to do the whole tasting you can still try it. The tenderloin is sous vide in buttermilk and thyme at 140 degrees for an hour, then tossed in porcini bread crumbs and fried crispy. It’s served with a honey mustard tarragon jus in a cloche of smoke for a campfire scent, and comes with sunchokes three ways: pureed with brown butter and cream, poached in herbs, and then fried into chips.

S’mores Short Rib

On no planet should this work. I’ve seen many chefs try to fuse dinner and dessert. I’ve seen many chefs fail. This works on every level. A chocolate demi-glace is made from Abnormal’s chocolate berry port and veal/short rib braising liquid, garlic, shallot, a touch of cream. This is glazed over the short rib, and served with a rosemary graham cracker crumble and salted marshmallow. On the side of the plate, cinnamon sticks burn like tiny logs, adding to the scent of the dish. Marshmallows on meat is the combo you never knew you wanted until this.

Butternut Crème Brûlée

This is a no-bake crème brûlée base made with vanilla, butternut squash puree, delicatta squash blanched in cinnamon, nutmeg, and simple syrup. It’s topped with toasted and candied pumpkin seeds, and served in a roasted and edible delicatta squash. Perfect way to use the two squashes’ naturally sweet flavor in a dessert presentation.

Carrot Cake

I’m done. Cooked. Can barely open my mouth. And yet this still tastes good. Cannon makes a carrot sugar with dehydrated carrots and cane sugar, then a puree made with carrots cooked in a simple syrup and topped with a maple cream-cheese frosting.

 

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