A Star Turn
Posted on Feb. 1, 2017
Three-time Top Chef veteran Casey Thompson was recently tapped by The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe to begin to reimagine its Morada restaurant. During Thompson’s first stint on the TV show, she knocked out fellow San Diego Top Chef alum Brian Malarkey en route to a top-three finish. She’s currently competing in the show’s 14th season. Already a formidable, dynamic competitor on TV, Thompson’s newest culinary creations prove she doesn’t need judges, timers, outlandish challenges, or aggressive opponents to drive her. Her Texas roots and skills are more than enough on their own. Thompson has stayed true to herself while revamping the menu.
Many diners in the Ranch, and San Diego in general, actively seek healthy cuisine that’s light on one’s palate and hips. Chef Thompson delivers Lone Star State staples and sensibility while incorporating Southern California’s natural bounty. Meals start with petite rounds of warm, sweet-and-salty cornbread. They offer a homey prelude to the salads, both elegant (endive with duck prosciutto) and rustic (charred broccoli with throwback Green Goddess dressing), or a tortilla soup that pays homage to the Mansion on Turtle Creek restaurant original, where Thompson learned this satisfying recipe. Entrées are an opportunity for her to use fresh, seasonal ingredients. The Arctic char (a close relation to trout and salmon) is served with perfectly crisped skin over herbaceous farro and thin slices of persimmon. Short ribs — ubiquitous and cookie-cutter elsewhere — are special here thanks to a 72-hour sous vide session at 135 degrees, which tenderizes the meat while keeping it pink in the center. The accompanying greens deliver a nice bitterness, and the smoky carrot purée adds a deep note to the dish. For something simpler, diners would do well to opt for the duck fat-fried chicken. Unbelievably tender (even the white meat), it is served lightly drizzled with honey, but is best dipped in Chef Thompson’s house-made, Texas-style hot sauce.
In many ways, while Thompson’s composed dishes are beautifully plated and feature exotic twists, her cooking feels right as rain with her native Coastal Plains in Morada’s spacious, well-appointed bar. This is particularly true of her Texas-meets-Cali take on Frito pie — rich chili con carne packed with brisket that’s dry-rubbed, then slow-cooked to sumptuous perfection over 17 hours, mounded atop that snack-food favorite along with cheese sauce and pico de gallo. Few are those who would associate this dish with SoCal, much less the Ranch, but it is an endearing, unpretentious winner. Slow-cooked pork belly punches up a bowl of manila clams wading in a warm, smoky broth. Do yourself a favor and, before diving into those bivalves, submerge a slice or two of bread in that liquid for later excavation and increased satisfaction. One chicken dish that comes across with a boldness of flavor seldom seen is flash-fried karaage-style and stuffed inside steam-warmed bao buns with pickled vegetables that are low enough in acidity not to overpower the meaty star of the show.
Coming soon to the bar-menu is a brilliant Spanish-inspired take on classic Scotch eggs — pitted olives stuffed with Manchego cheese, wrapped in chorizo, fried, and served beside a cooling, pimento-infused yogurt sauce. Add a craft cocktail spiked with The Huntsman Private Selection (bourbon from a barrel selected by Morada’s staffers at Kentucky’s Woodford Reserve Distillery), plus sterling conversation or a game on the bar-mounted TV, and lounging excellence will be achieved.
The Inn is preparing soon to remodel Morada’s dining room by installing comfortable booths around the perimeter and positioning an expansive table for large parties next to its holdover fireplace. (Currently, clients gravitate to the patio when it’s warm out, opt for The Huntsman next door, already a quasi-clubhouse for locals from the Ranch, or stay at Morada’s main bar.)
Thompson currently splits her time between San Diego and Napa, where she has lived for several years, making for a gradual immersion at Morada. The complete transfer should dovetail nicely with the dining room’s refresh. A full menu of her devising is on its way, but Thompson’s early additions are already abundantly promising and delicious. 858.381.8289, theinnatrsf.com Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal