Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Soy-braised, prime short ribs in panang curry
According to Gordon Ramsay, "Cooking today is a young man's game." But is cheffing? Ordinarily it takes over a decade to climb the back-of-the-house ladder. At the front of a pack of young gun local chefs, though, stands 26-year-old Willie Eick of 608 Restaurant (608 Mission Ave.) in Oceanside. At the core of Eick's game are creativity, passion and courage, but also a mature respect for his ingredients.
Take Eick's dish of sea scallops with ricotta whey butter and mustard greens. At one level, it is so simple: just three things on the plate. But within that lie both parallels and contrasts. The richness of the whey butter echoes that of the scallops. But the bitterness of the mustard greens makes the contrasting sweetness of those scallops pop. The luscious, sexy texture of those soft, sliced scallops plays with the snap of the raw greens, yes, but also the enveloping whey butter.
Or there's a soft egg with potato done two ways—as house-made chips and as an espuma with seaweed showing up in both noodle and powdered form. Where the espuma stops and the egg begins is wonderfully ambiguous, an experience that is heightened when the yolk is pierced and its richness sauces the potato chips and seaweed. It is both exciting and innovative, yet that soft-boiled egg brings in an undeniable feeling of comfort.
Eick is a master with meat. He slow braises prime short ribs in soy and serves them with a panang curry, maitake mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and both broccolini and mustard greens. One of his signature dishes, it sounds heavy and big. But while it isn't light, it is subtle. Yes, the curry and short ribs are rich but the vegetables brighten the affair and the maitake underlines the meatiness of the dish.
Make a point to be at the restaurant 28 days after Eick starts dry-aging steaks. Some chefs treat dry-aging like a competitive endurance event, pushing right up to the point the funk takes it over the edge. Eick adopts a subtler approach, aging the meat for depth of flavor and sensual pleasure rather than adrenalin. The steaks sit on charred and "creamed" corn, paired with a house-made caramelized onion whipped cream.
But perhaps the dishes that say the most about Eick are vegetarian. His salad featuring various types of beets, strawberry, almond, goat cheese and a sorrel vinaigrette is simple and simply delicious, a gorgeous arc of riotous color on a white plate. An ever-changing dish called "Cyclops Farms Vegetables" shows the respect he pays the produce plucked from his friend Luke Girling's farm. And it's not just glory vegetables but often stems and other bits that would likely otherwise be ploughed under or trash.
Eick's training with Trey Foshee at George's at the Cove shows, as does the fact that at 26 he already has experience running a restaurant kitchen (Real Bar kknd Bistro). But it is the evidence on the plate that speaks loudest. Willy Eick is a real talent and he is at the fore—at the top—of this "young man's game."