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Brasserie SLO's new head chef lets seasonal flavors showcase themselves 

When it comes to his cooking philosophy, Brasserie SLO's new executive chef, Derek Brooks, said it's all about letting in-season, fresh, locally sourced ingredients speak for themselves.

This ethos is evident in the Garden Street restaurant's fall menu, which takes the tried and true staples of French cuisine and adds small, seasonal twists to let the classic flavors shine.

Take the pomegranate-glazed duck confit, for instance. The decadent appetizer boasts a perfectly crisped skin, slightly sweet from its pomegranate glaze. The duck is surrounded by mildly spiced green lentils, the perfect savory counterpart to the star of the show. But what makes the dish memorable is the Asian pears and pomegranate seeds that dot the plate, their tart juices rounding out the flavors.

click to enlarge UNEXPECTED COMBOS The pomegranate glazed duck confit fulfilled my obsession with sweet and savory flavor combinations: The tender duck, green lentils, crunchy Brussels sprout leaves, sweet Asian pears, and tart pomegranate seeds work together like magic. - PHOTOS BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photos By Malea Martin
  • UNEXPECTED COMBOS The pomegranate glazed duck confit fulfilled my obsession with sweet and savory flavor combinations: The tender duck, green lentils, crunchy Brussels sprout leaves, sweet Asian pears, and tart pomegranate seeds work together like magic.

It's easy to identify where each flavor hitting my taste buds is coming from, and that's central to Brooks' outlook.

"The duck confit is something that is incredibly straightforward but is luxurious in itself," Brooks told me. "Not too many components, just very simply put together. The pomegranate, Asian pear, and Brussels sprouts are raw, to give it that little bit of crunch and different texture."

Brooks worked in kitchens across the country before coming to Hotel Cerro's Brasserie SLO, each molding his approach to crafting a menu. He first experienced cooking at a French brasserie in the mountains of Vail, Colorado.

"That was unique up in the mountains: You had raclette, escargot, and it was a more traditional French brasserie," Brooks said.

What he loves about California, and San Luis Obispo specifically, is the availability of farm-fresh ingredients to play around with.

"Down here in SLO, it's more California influenced, and you get to experiment and kind of break some of the traditional French traditions by adding more seasonal ingredients," he said. "As a chef, sourcing ingredients is key and foremost. If you're able to get really quality ingredients, whether it's vegetables from local farmers, or trusted seafood or beef purveyors, you as the chef shouldn't be compelled to manipulate that."

Take Brasserie SLO's beef bourguignon: Red wine-braised beef cheeks, roasted pearl onions, carrots, and potato puree come together in a way that lets each ingredient speak for itself. The beef is juicy and tender, the carrots and onions are perfectly soft and doused in the hearty juices from the meat, and the potato puree is unbelievably smooth. Once again, each flavor is distinct and can stand alone, while also working beautifully together.

"When there's a run-on of 34 different ingredients, spices, components—yes, it could work together, but you're kind of missing out on what you're actually supposed to be tasting," Brooks told me.

click to enlarge SAVORY GOOD These aren't your parents' Brussels sprouts. Medjool dates, roasted peanuts, and an apple cider reduction make these crispy veggies memorable. - PHOTOS BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photos By Malea Martin
  • SAVORY GOOD These aren't your parents' Brussels sprouts. Medjool dates, roasted peanuts, and an apple cider reduction make these crispy veggies memorable.

While you'll find brasserie classics on the menu year-round, the menu also changes with the seasons based on what's ripe in the fields.

"It's about finding and keeping those traditional dishes on the menu, and still going through seasonal change as well," Brooks said. "For the fall menu you're able to put on a little bit heavier dishes, and same with winter, but then it's a sharp contrast between those seasons and then you have spring coming, which is one of the best seasons. You have those first spring peas, spring carrots, spring chicken, spring lambs, rams—all of those vegetables that signal that spring is here."

Until spring rolls around, SLO residents can enjoy the heartier fall and winter menus at Brasserie SLO. The little details—hazelnut caper brown butter, potato and parsnip puree, lemon herb ricotta—are what make each fall menu dish memorable.

"In California, with all of the local farmers and growers, pretty much the entire national produce for the U.S.—it's a great opportunity to really let the food showcase itself," Brooks said.

And the same goes for the vegetables incorporated into each fall dish: leeks, braised red cabbage, broccolini, creamed local spinach.

"That connection, sourcing those ingredients that are at the peak of their season," Brooks said. "Yes, if you go to the supermarket, you can get asparagus in the dead of winter, and it tastes like that, but you can't compare asparagus in winter to asparagus that's grown in season. It's completely different."

Brasserie SLO will be serving up some of the most classic fall flavors for Thanksgiving Day this year, with a special menu featuring whiskey roasted pumpkin bisque, roasted prime rib, and pumpkin cheesecake, just to name a few of the options.

click to enlarge BOTTOMS UP This blood orange margarita—a mix of tequila, blood orange puree, triple sec, and lime—was all kinds of yum. - PHOTOS BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photos By Malea Martin
  • BOTTOMS UP This blood orange margarita—a mix of tequila, blood orange puree, triple sec, and lime—was all kinds of yum.

On top of the food, the restaurant's ambiance is also top-notch. Inside, people can enjoy the open concept kitchen and particularly French aesthetic touches. Outside on the Mission Fig Patio, the colorful back area is peaceful and warm, even on a chilly SLO night.

"In our kitchen, we have the Santa Maria grill," Brooks said of the open kitchen. "You can see the flame from anywhere here in the restaurant, plus the pizza oven. ... It's a great way to showcase those two beautiful cooking elements that a lot of restaurants and places don't always have." Δ

Staff Writer Malea Martin is still thinking about that duck confit. Reach her at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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