Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gabriel Ordonez: Making Magic on Mesones

Chef Gabriel Ordonez has come full circle opening El Cincuenta Y Ocho, San Miguel’s popular new bistro and concert bar at Mesones #58.

The building that El Cincuenta Y Ocho is in also happens to be the same house that Gabriel’s childhood friend Seth was born in; a Déjà vu that he’s certain will bring him good luck.

El Cincuenta Y Ocho is not an upscale restaurant as you would expect but rather an unpretentious, multi-level bistro furnished in red velvet and eye-catching Mexican catrinas. There are a half a dozen in the entryway and the entire collection is magnificently displayed throughout the restaurant.

It’s rare to find a bar with imaginative food but Ordonez is creating small plates that are worthy of a cult following. The fascinating thing is he’s doing it in a very small kitchen.
The in-house joke at Mesones #58 is that the kitchen is smaller than the bathroom.
Being in close quarters is easy though because Sous-Chef, Jose Reyes, a former chef at Cumpanio Restaurante, also worked with Gabriel at The Restaurant.

I first met Gabriel at the SMA Food Festival back in June with Sandor Rodriguez, one of the chefs at The Restaurant. At the time, I didn’t know that Gabriel was another one of the many first-rate chefs to come out of Donny Masterton’s kitchen. Gabriel said that Donnie was his first boss and he considers him a mentor. Gabriel also cooked at Café Rama.

Gabriel’s passion for cooking comes from his grandmother, who opened his eyes to the world of food when he was very young. A remarkable cook, he would help her in the kitchen every week when she made Sunday meals for the family. His first food memory was his grandmother making the Spanish dish Fabada and also a delicious Beef Wellington fillet. In fact, her food takes on an almost mystical reverence whenever I bring it up.

A gifted chef with a talent for integrating flavors, Gabriel trained in the acclaimed Peruvian kitchens at both Malabar and Central Restaurante. Both restaurants earned spots on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants this past year. Malabar captured the number twenty position, while Central Restaurante took the top spot for the second year in a row.

Over the past decade, the chefs of Peru have worked together to dominate the global culinary scene, taking 3 of the top 5 spots on Latin America’s 50 Best in 2015. Collectively, the culinary elite celebrate 9 restaurants on the list this year.

With Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Malabar, which is known for Amazon fusion cuisine, it was all about ingredients and simplicity. Schiaffino is a renowned researcher and trendsetter for his use of ingredients from the Amazon never used before in haute cuisine.

Gabriel also thrived under Virgilio Martinez, who takes everything to the limit with his Avant-garde Peruvian cuisine. His restaurant, Central, offers a 17-course tasting menu set by elevation and was inspired by his many expeditions through the Andes. His 50 seat restaurant is maintained by a staff of 61.

When I remarked on how beautiful his small plates are, he replied that he likes small plates because it allows the customer to enjoy so many different dishes and flavors. “Many dishes can get boring after just a few bites”, he remarked.

Here is the 11-course tasting menu we sampled:

Beef Carpaccio with antigua mustard crust, parmigiano reggiano, arugula with a champagne-dijon vinaigrette, served with home-made potato chips.

Seared dumpling stuffed with shrimp and ginger, with a sesame soy jalapeno vinaigrette, black sesame seeds and fresh cilantro.

Peruvian style ceviche, with halibut, kiwi, sweet corn, glazed sweet potato, served with  a fried wonton.

Slightly cured salmon with fennel yogurt, black sesame seeds, and avocado.

3 Burgers: lamb with swiss cheese and oven dried cherry tomatoes; beef and cheddar with beer bacon; beef with coriander seed blue cheese and caramelized onions.

Slow roasted portobello mushroom with oven dried tomatoes, garlic confit, goat cheese and basil.

Chicharron crusted shrimp, with mango-chipotle sauce and avocado with leche de tigre.

Five-chile braised rabbit sope with fresh cheese, cumin beans, pickled radish and red onion.

Tandoori grouper with asian green beans and soy bean sprouts.

Grilled rib eye with chile ancho butter, chimuchirri buttered mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and zucchini.

Chocolate ravioli with mascarpone honey cream, strawberries and vanilla ice cream.

While all of the dishes were really good, we LOVED the lamb burger, the dumpling, the grilled rib eye and of course the chocolate ravioli the best.

What does Gabriel like to eat? He says he craves Tacos and all the greasy stuff. He also loves Foie Gras, Sushi, Chocolate, and Meat, not necessarily in that order. In fact, he eats just about everything except beets.

In San Miguel, his favorite places to eat are Andy’s Tacos, The Restaurant, Sushi Gami, Tacos en Mesones, Mi Vida, Nextia, and Mariscos Frescos.

When asked what type of cuisine he likes to cook, he said “I respect all types of cuisine. I’m inspired by recipes I know won’t fail and adjust them to my own taste.” He said he favors Schezwan, Peruvian, Japanese and Greek food.

He stays on top of food trends on the internet, devours cookbooks cover-to-cover, and eats.

He uses the freshest ingredients he can get and buys all of them from local producers. He expects to change his menu about every two months.

Gabriel has a taste for wine, red in particular, and is educating his staff in hopes that they will acquire a passion for wine as well. That’s a work in progress so for now, whenever a customer has a question on wine, he comes out to the table.

As a note, Mesones 58 did not have Chardonnay in their cellar the night that we were there. We’re certain that will change. In fact, when we offered a few suggestions for improving two of his small plates, Gabriel was more than eager for our feedback. That’s one of the things that will make him successful; he’s open to new ideas.

One thing I learned a long time ago is that the most important things in the kitchen is approaching everything with confidence. When I asked him what the hardest dish to cook is, his comeback was “with the right preparation, everything should be easy.”

When he’s not cooking for his girlfriend Catherine or at Mesones 58 (Wednesday – Saturday from 5 PM), he hires out as a private chef. You can email him at or contact him by phone at 415-115-1304.

In the mean time, we’re headed back to search his kitchen.

We know where his spoon is. We’re looking for his magic wand.

Buen Apetito!