Executive Chef Scott Mechura arrived in Escondido just in time to celebrate the opening of the new club house earlier this summer. The Great House, as the club house is called in the Escondido literature, is an imposing structure which is at the heart of this exclusive and elegantly designed community that provides the utmost in service and amenities to its members.
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour the property and admire some of many areas where members can enjoy all the things which Escondido offers, in particular the venues over which Chef Mechura presides. We started at the Lake Club, where the bar and grill menu includes snacks, salads and sandwiches, but most notably wood fired pizza, a popular choice.
From the Lake Club, we make a quick stop at the Smoke House. Located at the turn between the 9th and the 10th holes, the Smoke House has a menu that changes with the seasons. The food is portable (and complimentary)—barbeque or a slider, for instance, along with a beverage of choice—just enough to sustain the golfers for another challenging nine holes.
There are also two comfort stations on the course. They are stocked with such things as fresh deli salads—such as tuna salad or soba noodle salad—and an interesting assortment of snacks and beverages. There’s no need to go hungry on this course!
The Hacienda, which served as the club house at Escondido up until this summer, also continues to serve food on special occasions, but the main kitchen is at the new club house, which has a number of areas where food is served. You can start in the exercise room, where you can work out on machines and then enjoy some healthful and nutritious snacks to replenish your energy. Then head upstairs to the main floor. We visit the women’s locker room, a spacious area with its own bar and serving area. A dedicated group of Mah Jong players assemble there every Thursday and enjoy the food along with the game.
Finally, we head to the main dining room where we met Chef Mechura. The chef has had the kitchen prepare a luncheon tasting menu for us that represents some of his philosophy about cooking. The food is beautifully prepared and presented and the ingredients are top-notch, but it is approachable. “Approachable” and “comfortable” are words that Mechura uses a lot. He enjoys having fun with food, but he avoids things that are contrived and pretentious. His menu tends to be casual and eclectic, influenced by his vast experience with French and Mediterranean food as well as Asian cuisine and other cultures.
Our first course is a soba noodle salad that hits all those lovely Asian notes. I help myself to a couple of spoonfuls—trying not to be too greedy—and regretfully decide it might be a bit uncouth if I asked for a doggy bag.
Next up is an airline, air-cooled grilled chicken breast on a bed of greens with artichoke hearts, olives and other enhancements with a Mediterranean flavor. This dish is an example of Mechura’s insistence on the best ingredients. A couple of explanations are in order. First, an “airline” chicken breast refers to a particular cut that includes part of the wing, which makes the small breast portion look larger, according to the National Chicken Council. Another (less likely) explanation has been offered that the wing is meant to resemble the wing of the aircraft. In any case, it is a relatively costly product. You’re not likely to see airline chicken breasts on domestic flights these days, but it is a product that shows up at special occasion events.
Air-chilled chicken refers to the way in which chickens are processed. Popular in other parts of the world for some time, the method is relatively new in the U.S. and relatively expensive. The conventional method to cool chickens after slaughter is to dunk them in iced, chlorinated water. Air-chilled chickens are not immersed in water but, rather, sprayed and then blasted with cold air. The result is, they claim, a safer and better tasting bird that retains its natural flavors.
Our next course is a classic club sandwich accompanied with sweet potato fries. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the sandwich, but, as Mechura explains, every menu ought to have something really “big” on it, a sizeable dish that might satisfy one hungry diner or maybe even several. It is very good and the fries are great.
Our last course shows off Mechura’s playful and inventive side. The “bunless bison burger” is a colorful tower of ingredients, starting with the bison burger and topped with sautéed baby spinach, white cheddar, olive oil cured tomatoes, chipotle mayo, homemade sweet-hot pickles, smoked bacon, a fried duck egg, and a fanciful topping of crispy onions. It’s delicious.
Finally, dessert, a wonderful concoction of dense chocolate cake with a core of hot, runny and totally scrumptious ganache. I resolve to take just a ladylike bite or two, but as our conversation proceeds, I keep going back for another spoonful.
As we sampled these wonderful dishes, Mechura explained how the atmosphere of the private club influences the menu. First and foremost is the emphasis on service and a big part of that is that the club is a place where “everyone knows your name.” The staff knows, for instance, how you like your steak and what your beverage of choice is. There’s a certain level of comfort in knowing what to expect: interesting choices but nothing too exotic. The club house is home, in other words, and the outside world is where you go if you want something “different.”
This was echoed by Jeff and Becky Robinson when I chatted with them a few days later. Jeff and Becky have been members at Escondido since the beginning. When I asked Jeff about the food, his first comment was that it was “utterly consistent” and that you know a dish is going to be as good as the last time you ordered it.
They rarely miss Friday nights when the club offers a fixed price dinner served family style. It starts early, with a wine tasting, and, Jeff said, they often stay until 10:30 or 11:00. On a recent Friday evening when Mexican food was featured, they started with a table of 8 and ended up with a table for 15. From the beginning, Escondido has offered its members fine food, but, Jeff commented, Scott has taken it to a whole new level.
Mechura has a wealth of experience in catering to the patrons of exclusive establishments. His most recent job was in the position of Executive Sous Chef at the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana, a private golf and ski club and the only one of its kind in the world. Prior to that he opened the Timbers at Moonlight Lodge in Big Sky.
Mechura, a Minnesota native, was only 15 when he started working as a dishwasher in a malt shop. He soon discovered that he found restaurant work more interesting than his school work. While his buddies decided to attend culinary schools (and are now no longer in the business), at 18 he went on to his first serious cooking job at the Dock Café in Stillwater, Minnesota. From that point on, he worked in white linen, fine dining establishments where he was exposed to multiple culinary influences.
For nine years, he worked at Forepaughs in St. Paul, a lovely Victorian mansion where he learned classical French cuisine. The staff at the restaurant were Laotian, Vietnamese, Korean and Thai and he discovered that the staff meals were better than the meals at any of the Asian restaurants he went to when he wasn’t working. Those flavors continue to influence him.
From there he went to La Belle Vie, which specialized in Mediterranean food. Meanwhile, he had become an avid home brewer and beer enthusiast. He worked his way through a beer judge certification program and eventually became the youngest certified beer judge in the country. He took a break from restaurants for a period of time and became an assistant brewer at a beerpub in St. Paul. When we chatted about his interest in beer, it was clear that it was a subject he is still enthusiastic about. Just for the record, he told me one of his favorites is a Belgian beer called Liefmans Goudenband.
When he returned to professional cooking, he worked directly under the famous chef Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit Minneapolis. Samuelsson is an Ethiopian born Swede who has achieved world recognition and Mechura still considers him one of his culinary heroes.
Mechura has spent almost three decades in the restaurant business and there are certain things that he is passionately committed to. In terms of the food itself, it is, above all, the notion of “farm to table” that is key to many of his choices. He wants to know where food comes from and how it gets to our table. He has even arranged staff “field trips,” such as a recent trip to a meat processing plant. He’s planning an herb garden in an area adjacent to the club house and hopes to conduct workshops. Start with great ingredients, he says, and don’t screw them up too much—that’s where quality comes from.
Another element that is a key to Mechura’s style is his commitment to teamwork and his staff. As an executive chef, he sees his job as putting people in places and positions to have them succeed. He tells me that he has two sous chefs who are young, bright and talented and that by bringing them along, it completes the circle and validates what he has learned.
Finally, I found Mechura to be a great conversationalist who discusses all aspects of the culinary world, its personalities and its literature, with enthusiasm. He loves what he does, but at one point, he said, he was obsessed with work. Now he is learning to “save some for home” and balance his professional and personal life. Among his hobbies, he likes skiing and golf and he enjoys football. Moving from a Rocky Mountain state to central Texas may be a challenge, but he and his family are taking the time to explore the area and get to know their new home.
Chef Mechura was kind enough to provide the recipe for this irresistibly delicious, and, to use his words, “dense and gooey” dessert. The recipe yields 16 servings, but don’t wait until you round up 16 people to make this. You can safely halve the recipe. It is hard to halve 9 egg yolks, so Mechura suggested using 5 egg yolks and 3 whole eggs instead. As for the chocolate truffles, why not just go ahead and make all 16. Roll the extra truffles in cocoa or nuts and keep refrigerated for another time.
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MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE
For the chocolate truffles:
¼ cup water
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
¼ cup butter (unsalted)
Combine all ingredients in stainless steel bowl and melt over hot water bath, stirring together. Pour into container and cool. When cool, scoop into nickel-size balls and roll. Set aside.
For the cake:
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
1 pound diced butter (unsalted)
5 ounces cake flour (or substitute all purpose flour)
9 egg yolks
8 whole eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
Melt butter and chocolate in stainless steel bowl over hot water bath. Stir thoroughly to combine. Add sugar. Sift flour and fold in. Add eggs and yolks and stir in.
Butter and flour 16 4-ounce ramekins. Fill 4/5 with batter. Press nickel-size chocolate truffle in center. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-9 minutes. Turn out on plate upside down and serve.