TBL3: In My Words

TBL3: In My Words

TBL3I’ve been in San Diego for 13 years now, and feel I’ve become a restaurant adult here, partly due to the knowledge gained from working with George Hauer, one of the smartest men in this industry, and partly for the incredible challenge that George’s at the Cove is on a daily basis.

I realized three years into my life at George’s that I was going to need to figure out how to keep the strength to stay in it for the long haul. As executive chef, I was going to need to stay inspired, creative, excited and most of all happy. I liken it to having a long-term relationship – once you get over the initial romance and become comfortable, it takes some work to keep things interesting. You gain a sense of security, but if you don’t challenge it on some level it becomes stagnant and you begin wondering what else might be out there.

Challenging ourselves is what keeps the momentum going at George’s. It’s what makes the restaurant better. It’s what makes us better as individuals. And it’s what makes the day-to-day fun.

TBL3 (Table Three) has received some recent attention and stirred up a conversation around degustation menus and their place in San Diego’s dining landscape. I decided it would be beneficial to anyone interested for me to explain TBL3 in my own words – what it is and why it exists.

We will never compete with The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Meadowood, Saison, Le Bernardin or other notable establishments such as these; George’s is a very different day-to-day restaurant, with two concepts on three floors. We seat a total of around 400 guests at one time and do 1,200+ covers on a busy summer day. We have an incredible staff that keeps things running smoothly, but my attention as you can imagine is directed all over the place. Except when we take a TBL3 reservation, which is why we put such tight restrictions on it. We’ve had to turn down as many TBL3 requests as we’ve taken due to the fact that we will not book it if we cannot focus our undivided attention on it. The idea of TBL3 came as a challenge to ourselves – if we have ultimate control of the experience, what level could we achieve? All the restaurants listed above control the diners’ experience so they can execute at the highest level.

With our concepts we offer two different experiences at George’s – a casual one on the Ocean Terrace and George’s Bar, and a more upscale one at California Modern. I feel we execute at a high level for both concepts.

TBL3 could be looked at as our third concept.

We felt the need to put a magnifying glass to our food, to ask some questions about who we are and where we are. We wanted to distill our thoughts without questioning whether it will sell, whether we can get the ingredients consistently, whether we can do it for a large group, etc. We wanted to challenge ourselves without the trappings of running a business, purely for the creative experience. We had no idea how successful it would be, or really what success meant given the limitations. What we learned is that there is a group of people out there interested in this kind of experience. We’ve met some incredible people through this process and hope to continue to foster these relationships through our exploration of food. I believe that is what defines the success of TBL3.

The influence TBL3 has had on our California Modern menu has been great. The creative challenge and focus on making it a distinctly San Diego experience has led to the development of some dishes that now appear on either our six-course tasting menu or our a la carte menu.

Seaweed Toast with Ricotta and Chino Farms Crudite 

 

Though we have a basic outline, each TBL3 menu is different. We start with 14 courses of blank space and write down the ingredients that will be important to include based on time of year and availability. First and foremost, we are looking for ingredients that give the dish a San Diego voice – uni, spot prawns, spiny lobster, abalone, and percebes. We write a list of vegetables available from Chino Farms, Crows Pass and Griffin Farms. I’ve been learning about our local wild products with Chris Ahrens, a local surfer and author, so we are playing with wild spinach, natal plums, cattail heart, eucalyptus blossoms, wild radish pods and pine nuts. I have wild fennel and bay in my yard so we usually include those in some fashion. Fish can sometimes be a challenge as not all of our local species fit the menu at certain times of the year. The meat and poultry tend to be standard but of the highest quality; we have played with beef tendon, rabbit, venison, foie gras, dry-aged beef, Wagyu and suckling pig. We tend to use the proteins as a vehicle for our vegetables. When you’re eating 14 courses, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortably full so we keep the protein portions small. With this list we piece together the menu.

Once we have the courses fleshed out, I go back and make sure we are answering the following questions for each dish:

  1. What is the story of the dish?
  2. Does it give a sense of place?
  3. Does it give a sense of time?
  4. Is the dish balanced in texture and flavor?
  5. Are the flavors focused and intense?

Oyster with Ham Gelee and Tartare with Miso-Cured Egg Yolk

 

Then I make sure the courses are in the right order – is there a flow to the meal, does one dish lead into the next. When this is all done, usually a day or two before the reservation, I meet with our front of the house team to discuss beverage pairings. We will sample parts of the dishes and try to choose pairings that prevent palate fatigue. Of course there are always surprises – an ingredient does not show up or is not good enough – so we sometimes have to adjust at the last minute.

Food is subjective and influenced by many things. I’ve heard the argument that local diners will travel to Chicago, New York and San Francisco and spend lots of money dining, but may not appreciate what they have right here at home. I have a hard time believing that.

The cost of a TBL3 meal is $170 per person or $250 with pairings. I came up with this figure based on what our expense would be to execute it, as well as looking at what many restaurants across the country offering degustation menus charge and dividing it by the number of courses. If you do the same, you’ll find we are less than many of them based on the per course cost.

I came up as a young cook in L.A. when L.A. was really making a statement based on a lifestyle with restaurants like Citrus, City, West Beach Café, Rebecca’s, Rockenwagner, Patina, Saint Estephe, Spago, 385 North and La Petite Chaya. These places changed the restaurant landscape for the nation and could not have started anywhere else. They all had a specific vision and were all focused through the lens of where they were located.

San Diego has that same opportunity. We have a culture that supports an outdoor lifestyle and physical health. We have an incredible community of science, art and architecture. We have a diversity of restaurants and some incredible ethnic cuisines. We have the best produce in the country. San Diego screams Southern California more than any other city.

TBL3 is our attempt at distilling that into a dining experience.