By Frank Sabatini Jr.
There’s much to be said about meals crafted by culinary students whose talents aren’t constricted by small kitchens, unreasonably tight budgets or egotistical bosses. You’ll know what I mean if you eat lunch at The Palette, a relatively obscure restaurant on the second floor of the The Art Institute of California-San Diego in Mission Valley.
Open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays until March 15, and then resuming for nine weeks starting April 11, both the kitchen and front of the house are run by students fulfilling their practicums at the institute’s culinary programs. (Check the website for future periods of operation at artinstitutes.edu.)
Some are completing associate programs. Others are moving on to earn bachelor degrees. With the exception of cheese, they make everything from scratch—the breads, pasta, stocks, sauces, desserts, etc.
They’re also responsible for coming up with recipes and menu themes for each three-course lunch – or sometimes buffets. What you get are fresh takes on common dishes, such as brisket I ordered from an early-February menu titled “rustic ladle.”
The slow-roasted meat was draped over a medley of lightly seasoned black beans and succotash and dotted with some sort of smoky aioli. The overall composition was fabulously creative yet without going over the top.
The other entree choice, which my vegetarian companion ordered, was spaghetti squash tossed with cremini mushrooms. It was intelligently accented with two classic sauces: lemon beurre blanc and Romesco. Its presentation was exquisite, appearing like a fine painting with the white, shallow bowl serving as the artist’s palette.
“The students are much better than they think they are, so it is my goal and challenge to bring that out of them,” said Chef Rudy Kloeble, who has guided enrollees at the school through menu development, inventory and general kitchen operations for the past 10 years. “They’re responsible for everything,” he added.
And that means handling operational hiccups when they arise, just as the students will inevitably encounter in the workforce.
Halfway through their shift, for example, the kitchen had run out of the aforementioned lemon beurre blanc sauce. Student Jerry Skakum was tasked with making more—not the easiest feat when under pressure considering the sauce can fall apart if the butter isn’t whisked incrementally into the white wine.
Or when we were accidentally given dinner forks instead of dessert forks toward the end of our meal, the waiter quickly caught the mistake and gave us replacements. Such an oversight wouldn’t occur in today’s casual dining scene because most restaurants don’t even stock dessert forks. But when you’re invested in a serious culinary school equipped with five industrial kitchens and a veritable restaurant, such details are required learning.
As with past visits to The Palette, I hardly notice such blips in the face of myriad fine dishes.
In this latest three-course lunch, priced at $15, my friend’s starter featuring eggplant rolls filled with mushrooms, caramelized onions and arugula pesto was impressive. The thin sheets of pasta were nicely marinated and cooked al dente. Though marginally over-salted, we found the overall flavor profile striking, better than what I’ve encountered anywhere else — even in Italian kitchens where eggplant is a common ingredient.
I chose for my first course chicken tortilla soup, which resembled terrific chili with its small red beans and hearty measures of pulled meat. It was packed with comforting texture. A dollop of avocado mousse served as an expected gourmet touch.
Our brisket and spaghetti squash entrees were portioned just right, not so big as to kill our appetite for two different desserts conceived by Sarah Huinker, a pastry student completing her last quarter at the school.
A heavy dose of pumpkin puree in her spiced flan gave it the weight I often crave in the custard-y dessert. And her raspberry swirl cheesecake flaunted tangy notes of sour cream, much like the Polish-style cheesecakes I grew up with back East.
Menus change weekly and always feature a vegetarian option in each course. And though not required, the restaurant accepts reservations, which are taken by students rotating through the front of the house as they ambitiously prep for today’s culinary and hospitality scenes.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.