Having reviewed a lot of restaurants, I know that not every chef inquires broadly into the food traditions of the world. But I find food to be most interesting when a chef, having mastered a particular kind of cuisine, begins to inquire what would happen if it takes a little journey, picking up unexpected flavors. And that is why I respect Chef Antonio’s cooking so much. When I sit down to eat with him, I know that the dish will be beautiful to look at, with unexpected flavor surprises inside.
So I am more than a little excited to be one of the first to taste-test the new dinner menu at Kanaloa. Chef Antonio places the new salmon with mole rosa in front of me and there is a distinct twinkle in his eye. This means it’s going to be something really special, and I am not disappointed.
The color is what I notice first. Bright pops of roasted corn kernels and pomegranate crown a filet of salmon that is sporting bold grill marks. And beneath it, a joyous explosion on the plate, is a rubied sauce that draws my attention. Chef Antonio smiles at my gleaming curiosity. “This is a mole rosa! It’s a popular Mexican sauce I had on the coast in Veracruz. I always wondered why mole isn’t paired with fish. So I investigated what was best for the fish and made many different kinds, and finally this was the one.”
And am I glad he did. Peanuts, almonds, and roasted beets blend into a distinctive, smooth sauce that has the strength and salt of nuts but a gentle sweetness that lifts it. Every mole (pronounced mo-lay) has a secret ingredient, of course. In Mexico, many moles have a little cocoa in them. The mole rosa has a secret too, something that gives it a smooth, creamy base. But I’m not going to give it away. You will have to try it for yourself.
The salmon itself is feral island salmon, and as always at Kanaloa, it is sustainable and impeccably fresh, requiring no marination. It has a higher fat content than regular salmon, so between striations of buttery flesh are juicy layers of flavor, and Chef Antonio places it on the plate “like an art display.” The char on the salmon is a really intense, smoky grill flavor, and inside is the exquisitely soft fish, supported by the creamy mole rose, soaring with the high note of pomegranate. And Chef Antonio surprises me again when I realize that the meticulously minced green vegetable that tastes a little like asparagus, is in fact nopales. The cleanness of the sautéed cactus is a great flavor component but also clears the palate.
Chef Antonio has taken quintessential California coastal cuisine and artfully brought Veracruz to the plate. I think you will really enjoy this new dish, and it may just become your go-to salmon.
Angela Borda is a Santa Barbara food writer who is delighted to be blogging about one of her favorite restaurants, Kanaloa Seafood.