If you’re headed to Oceanside for a meal, you’re probably anticipating some of the most interesting, counter culture, rule breaking, experimental food worth the drive from almost anywhere in San Diego county and plenty of places outside of it. Oceanside has become a dining mecca of sorts, home to some of San Diego’s top culinary heavyweights that include Chefs Davin Waite at Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, Daniel Pundik of Local Tap House and Stephen Reyna of The Privateer. The list just got longer, with rapidly rising contender and new kid on the block, Willy Eick, doing his thing as Executive Chef at the recently opened 608 Restaurant Oceanside.
Due to the whispers we’d been hearing, it didn’t take much convincing to entice fellow food writer, Michael Gardiner, to accompany me to check things out at 608 Restaurant Oceanside. In fact, the pm conversation could easily be summed up as, (me) “608?,” with the response, (MG) “When?”. It turned out to be the best way to check out Willy’s cooking – with multiple sets of taste buds absorbing all the nuances. You can read his take on our meal here.
Willy is young for an executive chef, even by chef standards, which is a young person’s game…Hours spent bent over prep tables and cooking surfaces in hundred degree heat. Grease burns. Cut flesh. Cases, cartons and pails of foodstuffs that weigh more than even union teamsters dare to lift. More time on their feet in one day than most of us spend in a week. Usually hungry and dehydrated. And, then, even more hours, cleaning and prepping to start the cycle all over again a few hours later…
…all take their toll on a chef’s body and mind. So, in the lifespan of a chef, the experimental, “play with everything you can get your hands on” period is inexorably tied to a few factors which come naturally and abandon us all soon enough – youth, resilience and energy with a side order of confidence and brashness topped generously with knowing more than enough to be dangerous and a healthy dose of brazen enough to take risks now and deal with the consequences later.
There’s danger in being a trailblazer, though. The first guy to the door can easily be the last guy through it, stuck holding it open for everyone else. Being a difference maker requires guts, a competitive streak the size of Halley’s comet and a “you takes your chances and you takes your lumps” mentality – where failure is little more than another opportunity to eliminate an idea whose time may not yet have arrived.
Willy embodies all of those elements and it shows in his food at 608 Restaurant Oceanside. There are hints of genius accompanying the audacity in his cooking, manifested through his propensity for experimental combinations of cuisines, textures, techniques and flavors. He’s pushing the envelope of what has evolved into the definition of San Diego coastal cuisine, freshly and locally grown and obtained produce, seafood and other staples, often from only minutes away on land and sea. Combine those ingredients with any variety of diverse cultural and ethnic flavors and spices, ranging from South of the border, European, Asian or Pacific Rim, and you have the Willy Eick version of West Coast fare.
The 608 Restaurant Oceanside menu has all of that and then some. Ranging from easy to get your head around casual offerings like tacos and fried chicken through more adventurous items like raw scallops in whey butter, beef tartare and 28 day dry-aged ribeye, it’s like Willy is the Borg master of Oceanside. He’s never met an ingredient, herb or spice that couldn’t be assimilated into his flavor collective.
Accordingly, there’s a good chance you may not like everything on 608 Restaurant Oceanside’s menu. Or, it may take multiple visits and gradual expansion of your foodie comfort zone to build a frame of reference for some of the new flavors and textures you’ll encounter. That’s not an uncommon condition, though. It’s the same reason you’ll find sushi rolls on the menu next to sashimi at Wrench and Rodent and burgers on the bar menu just under foie gras in respected fine dining establishments like Bellamy’s and Ponsaty’s. Complex flavors, offbeat textures and exotic ingredients don’t appeal to everyone. In fact, even for those of us who revel in the weird stuff, sometimes a good taco is the choice du jour.
As your food arrives, none of your selections are likely to be quite what you expect. You’ll see what I mean when you try Willy’s signature dish – a Panang curry, braised short rib dish with vegetables sourced less than a mile away at Cyclops Farms. The dish is not so much a fusion of different cuisines and continents as it is a classically braised meat and roasted vegetable dish that’s served not with a traditional demi-glace or tomato based gravy, but a mildly explosive, lightly spicy, silky smooth curry sauce with evocative, earthy flavors. It’s a simple but effective tweak that elevates the dish from “just another short rib entree” to a conversation piece.
And so it goes throughout the menu. The lobster taco is a crowd favorite, and, for once, that’s a good thing. It’s simple, but succulent, consisting of a half a fried lobster per taco and dressed with a pico de gallo salsa and light cream sauce, mimicking a fish taco in everything but unctuousness, where it excels. It’s casual, elegant, familiar and different…all in the same bite.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you’ll want to order the Scallops in Whey Butter or the Soft Egg. The scallops, from a textural standpoint, won’t be for everyone. It’s a raw dish with intense flavor, a soft mouth feel and little structural or tonal contrast. There are only two flavors present – butter, with a barnyard nuance from the whey infusion, and scallops, with their distinctive briny, sweet undercurrents. The whey? It’s a byproduct from Willy’s house made ricotta cheese, of course. The result of this unique dish is a velvety, lubricated mouthful of intense butter flavor carried by the crudo texture of the scallops. Don’t let the simplicity of the two flavors fool you here…it’s the same number that smoked bacon has…
Then there’s Willy’s soft egg. The previous best version I’ve had of this was at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. There, it’s called the 5 Hour Egg, cooked sous vide and held at about 150F. It’s served over crispy, truffled potatoes with a sprinklin’ of cracklin’ and, has the whole package – syrupy texture from the semi-firm, slowly oozing, neither fully cooked nor runny yolk, earthy, savory notes, a hint of crispness and a spoonful or two of rich consomme to marry all the flavors together into one of the best mouthfuls of food you may ever eat.
The 608 Restaurant Oceanside version? Nowhere near as mundane. The crispy potatoes are still there for textural contrast, but are joined in the bowl by braised konbu seaweed, cut into fettucine sized strips, which replicate a toothy noodle and replace the earthy accents with oceany ones. What, you might be wondering, is Willy’s spin on the consomme? Nothing special, unless you consider a shoyu based, garlic and onion infused, norinade sauce spiked with just the right amount dark rice wine vinegar something to get excited about. And, if you don’t…I’m not sure we can be friends anymore. Cheers, my friends!
608 Restaurant Oceanside
608 Mission Ave.
Oceanside, CA 92054