Have you been to El Jardin in Liberty Station? Claudette Zepeda-Wilkin’s new restaurant opened this summer. My mom took the Little Birds and me there for brunch a little while ago. The chef grows much of the produce right on the restaurant’s lot, and the breezy garden patio is comfortable and beautifully decorated.
Refined Abuela Cooking
Chef Zepeda-Wilkin’s roots are here in San Diego and across the border in Mexico. She brings the comfort and satisfaction of her grandma’s recipes and traditions to current day presentation and surprises.
The highlight of our brunch was the Chilaquiles Divorciados. Given the choice, I usually pick a green sauce for my chilaquiles or enchiladas. But I was happy to taste both homemade sauces. Divorciados means two different sauces side by side, making me think of a couple that are not quite divorced, but living separately in the same house.
All in the Details
Both the outside patio and the indoor dining room are decorated thoughtfully. I loved the utility of a stand near our table meant to hold bags. As a mom, I totally appreciated that there was a changing table in restroom stocked with Honest diapers and wipes. I mentioned it in my Instagram story, and the chef responded that the men’s room had the same set up!
We started with hot chocolate, which was mixed (batida) table side, and cafe de olla. They mix the coffee with piloncillo sugar. I found it too sweet, especially along side the sweet entrees.
If you have seen my cajeta recipe or caramel torte with cajeta, chocolate and pecans (you have to click through to see the picture!), then you know I am obsessed with CAJETA. The Little Birds liked the pancakes with cajeta. Mom tip: have the kids split the sweet dish and order them each a side of eggs.
One to Watch
I first met chef Zepeda-Wilkins in 2015. That summer, Specialty Produce held a tasting night a week before Javier Placensio’s Bracero opened. Zepeda-Wilkins, as that restaurant’s chef de cuisine, prepared Yucatan-style cochinita pibil sopes topped with heirloom beans and fermented pineapple. I really enjoyed hearing about the food from her. When her more famous boss came over, I asked to take a picture. She humbly stepped out of frame, and I insisted she get back in the photo. “Me?” she asked. “Yes!” I blurted, “I like you.” Because, sometimes I go with my gut, you know?
Since then, Zepeda-Wilkins starred in TV projects such as Top Chef in the US and Mexico. And in the time it has taken me to finish this blog post, El Jardin and the chef have been nominated for several restaurant awards. Yet, she still takes the time to bring the food to guests herself!
One More Tip
Top the chilaquiles with short rib, please! You’re welcome.
Here’s a fun post: a delicious recipe for loquat sorbet made with a splash of tequila and sprinkled with Hawaiian black lava salt.
The loquats came from a tree in our backyard. We started it from the seed of a tree down the street and it’s taken off. According to the Specialty Produce App, loquats grow well in most Southern states, but usually only fruit in California, Florida and Hawaii.
This post is a family collaboration! Papa Bird (our sorbet master) came up with the recipe and shot the “making of” photos. The child labor came from the (not so) Baby Birds.
Kids Cooking in the Garden
The girls have been honing their kitchen skills with their new knife set. They love the safety knives from Playful Chef (Amazon link) which are designed to cut through apples and carrots, but safely fit in young hands. They use them almost daily.
The kids also harvested the loquats from the tree, selecting the ripest, softest and sweetest fruit.
My kids enjoy cooking, especially sweet treats. And they LOVE making and eating anything from our garden.
How to Make Loquat Sorbet
Loquats are from the same family as apples, pears and roses. The fruit have a mild, sweet, slightly sour and refreshing flavor.
They grow rampant in Southern California. So check your neighborhood and forage! If you or a friend have a tree, you likely have more fruit than you can deal with. And sadly, there are not very many loquat recipes out there. Select fruit that are a little soft and pull off easily from the branch.
Next, Papa Bird set up an assembly line for the girls outside. The fruit can be juicy and sticky.
The kids cut the fruit in half. Loquats contain 3-7 large, hard, inedible seeds in the middle.
Remove the seeds. The fruit are now ready to run through a juicer.
Preparing the loquat sorbet
This sorbet came out delicious!
To make 2 cups of juice, Papa Bird used approximately 60 halved, seeded loquats. We have a Breville compact juicer, which quickly separated the juice from the skin and less edible parts.
Farmer’s Bottega features local artisan ingredients and organic produce in New American and Italian dishes. Italian-born chef and owner Alberto Morale, co-owner of the Fig Tree Cafe, opened the Mission Hills restaurant less than two years ago. We loved working with San Diego Restaurant Week last January. SDRW reached out again to tell me this month’s theme is local produce and we were happy to accept an invitation to preview Farmer’s Bottega.
The Oxtail Ravioli with cherry tomatoes, caramelized onions and herbed goat cheese immediately called out to me. The sauce was flavorful, rich with umami and balanced with the fresh green taste of the dandelion shoot garnish. The housemade pasta had the perfect aldente bite.
Our whole silly family found the staff friendly and hospitable. The hostess offered each girl full sized coloring books and a small tupperware of crayons, which kept them content during ordering. We also enjoyed exploring the back patio and garden space.
Total comfort food
The Housemade Meatballs were something special. The starter is presented oh so cozy in a small cast iron pan, and topped table-side by copious parmesan. The meatballs are cooked in a rich and spicy tomato sauce with fresh herbs. We requested an extra round of the Bread and Cie toast to sop up the last bits.
Featuring fresh and unique produce
Our waiter, Matthew, was very personable. He steered us towards the Seasonal Melon Salad. This week’s salad featured super sweet yellow watermelon, feta, wild arugula, and spicy caramelized pecans. The lemon vinaigrette was light and overall the salad was a refreshing balance to our other meat-heavy choices. In addition to buying direct from local farms, Specialty Produce supplies their fresh vegetables and fruits, sourced from San Diego growers.
Farmer’s Bottega is decorated in a comfortable “farmhouse” style, perfect for either date night or family. Oversized glass containers hold pickles and preserved lemons. How sweet would a date be under this wall of crate boxes?
Top Quality Meats
The herb-rubbed Buffalo Filet was also excellent, served with garlic mashed potatoes, swiss chard, asparagus, crispy onions, roasted Maui thyme and a petite Syrah reduction. The filet was cooked a perfect medium rare, and super tender. Unfortunately, I was not fast enough around my family to snag any of the asparagus and barely grabbed a corner of the crispy onions. I wished for more!
You have to eat dessert during restaurant week!
We finished our meal with a New York Cheesecake with fresh berries, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
After such inventive and satisfying starters and mains, the desserts were unflawed but not as memorable.
All in all, considering there wasn’t a drop left on the plates, they couldn’t have been that bad.
At one point I looked over at my three-year-old and she was doing a combination shovel/inhale on the Molten Chocolate Cake.
Tips for Farmer’s Bottega
We only ordered items we were told would be on the Restaurant Week menu. However, since Farmer’s Bottega features seasonal produce and locally sourced seafood, artisan meats, cheese and breads, selections may vary.
Our waiter let us know that they would offer the $40 SDRW menu not just the one week, Sunday, September 25th through Sunday, October 2nd, but would extend for a second week, too.
Reservations recommended: (619) 458-9929.
If you miss SDRW altogether, they offer a pre-fixed date night menu on Wednesday nights, and happy hour all night Tuesday at the bar. The TV’s at the bar were playing the Food Network. My kind of place!!
If you go, please tell them Baby Birds Farm sent you!
As mentioned, our food was offered free of charge. Opinions and photos are mine.
The Living Coast Discovery Center overlooks San Diego Bay and sits on the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The zoo/aquarium cares for birds, animals and marine life that would not otherwise survive in the wild.
The 2016 Farm to Bay
Once a year San Diego restaurants, breweries, caterers and vineyards come together to support the non-profit Living Coast Discovery Center and highlight sustainability and coastal wildlife. Event goers are treated to samples from over 40 food and beverage venders, including Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, Urge American Gastropub, True Food Kitchen, Panama 66, Suzie’s Farm, Viva Pops, Big Front Door, Juice Wave, and Duck Foot Brewing Company.
What the US Olympic athletes eat: sustainable scallop ceviche.
One surprising food partner was not a restaurant or a caterer, yet makes 1,000 meals a day. The Chula Vista Olympic Training Center feeds our hungry athletes during training. They offered us samples of a scallop ceviche (above) and a macadamia poke, made with line-caught yellow tail. Dang Brother Pizza (below) cooks Neapolitan-style thin crust pizza in a wood-burning Italian pizza oven built into a vintage fire truck. The pizza is delicious, and with taps built into the side of the truck, they are ready to pull up to your party.
How would you like a fire truck to pull up to your house party and serve pizza?
One of the event’s sponsors, Home Advisor, did not have anyone local to use their tickets. So a “matchmaker” named Candice from ZipSprout found me through the @BabyBirdsFarm Instagram and thought it would be up my alley. Gourmet, sustainable, farm-to-table food and drinks? Helping spread the word for a great non-profit? Spending a gorgeous summer evening on a wildlife refuge with my husband? Yes, please.
Wrangling Top San Diego Farm-to-Table Restaurants
Willy Wonka wrangled!?
Chef Will Gustwiller of Eclipse Chocolate Bar and Bistro was this year’s Culinary Chair, or as he calls it “Chef Wrangler.” He helped curate the partners and coordinate their offerings. (He told us last year half of the restaurants served ceviche — oops.) We chatted a bit about how they were all sourcing sustainable ingredients and the goal of being a zero waste event. In a large brown top hat, it was hard not to draw a connection between the chocolatier and Willy Wonka. Will shared how he hated being called “Willy Wonka” as a kid, but has since learned to embrace it as the best of marketing. We enjoy both brunch and dinner at Eclipse, and picked up 2-for-1 coupons for our next visit.
Finding Dory, Sharks and Sea Turtles
Saving marine and coastal wildlife.
Sapphire, the loggerhead sea turtle, was injured by a boat. Despite rehabilitation her sense of direction is off and she often winds up with her head in the sand. Yes, like the poor Beluga in the fictional Marine Life Institute in “Finding Dory”! She shares a tank with the leopard sharks swimming behind me in the above picture.
A pretty barn owl socialized at the Farm to Bay – they also visit schools.
Years ago, a coworker of mine was a tour guide at the then named “Chula Vista Nature Center.” I remember discovering and loving the scent of the Cleveland Sage there, and now have it planted throughout our yard. We became reacquainted with the Living Coast Discovery Center after their animal ambassadors visited the Little Birds’ preschool and my husband drove them down to explore.
I got to chat with Tommy, the Fishmonger at Catalina Offshore Products. Catalina is truly at the forefront of sustainable seafood in San Diego. Tommy shared a Portuguese Tuna Salad that the fishermen used to bring with them on the boat. I love any tuna salad that is made without mayonnaise, and this one was great. Fresh yellowtail, steamed, and tossed with a red vinegar dressing; Farm to Bay patrons had a lightened up version in endive. I’m guessing the fishermen did not.
Tip: If you want any easy way to improve your cooking, shop where the chefs get their ingredients.
My Little Birds love going down to Catalina Offshore to shop for seafood. Parallel in concept to Specialty Produce, Catalina supplies local, fresh and sustainable seafood to San Diego’s top restaurants yet allows regular retail customers to shop too.
Another San Diego favorite, caterers Sushi on a Roll, served up line caught blue fin as sashimi and in a cut roll with seaweed salad.
I had thought blue fin was solidly on the “avoid” list due to over-fishing. But chef Jeff started telling me about some of the efforts to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly farms.
Don’t hate me San Diegans, but I don’t really drink beer… So I really can’t write much other than that there were a TON of local craft beer samples at the Farm to Bay. Papa Bird was happy drinking old favorites including Grapefruit Sculpin and finding new up and coming beers like Duckfoot. I, on the other hand, was very happy tasting the “Island Girl” cocktail from Blue Chair Bay Rum. They also provided the recipe, which is at the end of the post. Perfect for a summer evening, it highlights their coconut rum (which is also delicious served chilled on its own), and is not too sweet.
Shocker: My favorite dish was dessert.
Finally, Corn Sorbet and Tres Leches from Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort completed a three-course corn-centric tasting menu. Following brown-butter-bacon popcorn and a pork belly with corn salsa, the pastry chef turned the vegetable into a surprisingly successful sorbet. The sorbet accompanied a personal-size tres leches and mint-jalapeno syrup. I made my husband go back to get his own. Luckily, Cool Down Coffee was at the next table, where I picked up a caramel cold brew.
Are you hungry yet?
I hope so! It’s not too soon to plan to attend the 2017 Farm to Bay. In the meantime, check out one of the San Diego farm-2-table partners. Or if you want to sip a bit of summer just a while longer, try out Blue Chair Bay’s recipe for the Island Girl.
Summertime… What does it mean to you? For me, summer is never complete without a peach pie. This year I experimented with nectarines in place of peaches. We tried out a nectarine and blackberry pie with an all butter crust.
Nothing beats a ripe nectarine for snacking, standing over the sink, letting the juice drip down your hands. But baking? My interest was piqued when I heard they can be baked without peeling, which can be tedious when preparing peaches. The Little Birds and I picked up extra sweet Carmen Miranda nectarines from a local farm at Specialty Produce.
My four-and-a-half-year-old loves baking and she helped with every step. She even took this picture of me and the pie dough. Here I am shaping half of the dough into a disc before chilling it in the refrigerator for half an hour.
These nectarines were so sweet there was no need to add any sugar. In fact, I added a splash of lemon juice to try to cut the sweetness. Because they were ripe and juicy, I added a little tapioca flour to thicken up the filling. You could use flour or cornstarch, but I think they leave a starchy taste. This recipe has zero added sugar, unless you want an optional sprinkle of a pinch of turbinado sugar on the top crust.
We love eating sweet, fresh summer fruit simply. But a pie is one way to celebrate the fruit and make it the star.
Peach vs. Nectarine Pie?
And the verdict? These nectarines almost reminded me more of baked plums than baked peaches. I liked the bit of pink the skin gave the fruit, and didn’t mind the texture of the skin one bit. But as far as being easier to prep than peaches… I had a hard time cutting the nectarines off the pit. The don’t fall off the pit nicely like peach slices. Then I figured out the trick of cutting them squarely.
Here is another trick for you: if you brush a little bit of beaten egg white on to the bottom crust, it can help prevent a juicy filling from getting the bottom crust too soggy. Cracking an egg, beating the egg, and brushing it on are all great jobs for kids!
A lattice top is pretty classic for a peach or nectarine pie. I rolled out the second half of my crust recipe and used a ravioli cutter to slice strips with a fluted edge. Use the longer strips in the middle and the shorter pieces on the edges, and weave over and under. Can you tell in this photo where I messed up the pattern?
The extra bits of crust went to Little Bird to make her famous pie crust cookies. Enjoy with vanilla ice cream for dessert, or simply as is for a sorta healthy breakfast!
Prepare an all butter pie crust according to instructions, chill in the refrigerator while you prep the fruit.
Wash and cut the nectarines. Wash the berries. Toss with the tapioca powder and lemon juice. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350* F.
Roll out the first pie crust and gently place in the bottom of a 9" pie pan. Brush a thin layer of beaten egg white over the dough. Gently pile the fruit into the pan. Dot with little bits of butter.
Roll out the second pie crust, then cut into slices. Decorate the top, weaving over and under, until a lattice covers the top. Brush the top crust with a bit of milk and/or sprinkle a bit of turbinado sugar.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the crust is browned and the fruit is tender. IMPORTANT (and hard): Let the pie sit for at least one hour before cutting.
Hi! I started Baby Birds Farm after the birth of my first daughter. I started sharing seasonal recipes featuring produce from our garden, eggs from our chicken, and homemade cheeses from our goat milk co-op. Fast forward a few years, another daughter, another business, and now we are just surviving and enjoying our busy life and food as much as we can. Join our journey of good food, farm-to-table restaurants in San Diego and healthy living!
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My Day Job
Abigail Burd, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist, provides women's mental health in San Diego, CA. Specialities include managing anxiety and depression during pregnancy, postpartum and parenting. Learn more about my practice, Burd Psychotherapy, in Clairemont (San Diego) at www.burdtherapy.com.