When enlisting the services of certain professionals, experience is nonnegotiable. Consider, for example, brain surgery. Or a bikini wax. But sometimes, the enthusiasm, creativity, even naïveté of a (relative) newbie results in a shot of something inspired. And when said shot takes the form of, say, an uni shooter with quail egg, plantain chips, citrus frisée salad, and ponzu sauce, so much the better.
Situated in a nondescript campus building, the Gourmet Dining Room — the restaurant where fourth-semester students of SBCC’s culinary program conceive and cook the dishes that constitute the menu (and work the front and back of the house) — is such a well-kept secret it almost pains me to write about it. But to keep it to myself would be a greater shame. For foodies on the prowl for a casual, under-the-radar score, it’s a deal: $40 for four courses (three wine-paired). And the friendly, student-staffed service makes it fun. (Particularly when you’re moaning about how delicious the Cajun shrimp mac ’n’ cheese is, and your waitress confides, “That’s my dish!”)
The menu changes with the semesters: A cook-off determines what makes the cut. The chosen dishes are refined based on critiques and what’s in season. Which is to say: Like fine wine (and my dog), they get better with age. Specials change often, depending on what students are learning. I lucked into beef carpaccio sliced so thinly one could read The Independent through it (were one so inclined).
On that recent visit, my foursome determined we’d order something different for every course, and share. A plan that — a testament to the menu’s appeal and the program itself — alternately made me very sad and very pleased. I had no interest in sharing my uni but wanted a bite of everything: crab and green apple slaw with avo and fennel; hoisin-braised pork belly; “chicken and waffles” made with Cornish game hen, bacon-Gruyère waffle, and maple-bacon jam; pan-roasted trout with succotash. (Yes, there are vegetarian choices; we were otherwise wooed.)
And while my sweet tooth is legendary — notoriously ferocious around 3 p.m. on workdays — it generally goes into remission after big, multicourse meals like this, not least because dessert can feel … afterthought-y. Not so here: These students want As. The baklava sundae with brown-butter ice cream and candied pistachios presented in a delicate puff-pastry cup is worthy of poetry (Roses are red, violets are blue; I don’t want to share with you). But each dessert was delightful — blackberry crumble, chocolate cake: light, cream-filled, doused in chocolate ganache, it could be called Ding Dong Goes to College. As should you, before the semester is out.
The Gourmet Dining Room’s dinner service is available Thursdays and Fridays, with seatings from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Reservations recommended: (805) 965-0581 x2773.