The Coast News Group
Lick the Plate

A conversation with Chef Rob Conaway

Chef Rob Conaway from Inland Tavern in San Marcos. Photo courtesy Feeney+Byrant
Chef Rob Conaway from Inland Tavern in San Marcos. Photo courtesy Feeney+Byrant

After a fine meal at Inland Tavern recently, I had a conversation with their chef and discovered that he had some serious experience. His talent was evident in the food we ate yet his story is worth telling and his food is definitely worth checking out.

Your culinary resume is quite impressive. You attended culinary school in San Francisco and Thailand; tell me how your education in those diverse environments helped shaped you.

Both locations really opened my eyes and palate to new and exciting aromas and flavors. San Francisco was my foundation; learning the base of French cuisine and exploring all of the restaurants in the city and wine country was like being a kid in a candy store. I was wandering and eating everywhere, trying to fit as much in a humanly possible while I was there.

Thailand, while quite a bit shorter in time, gave me time to explore the street markets and ingredients of South East Asia. Both environments taught me to look at ingredients and think about how to pair flavors differently and in the moment. Additionally, both locations taught me a bit more about the historical components to food – the why, the how and the, “oh, I get it now” feeling about food.

Your road to Inland Tavern is equally impressive, with stops San Francisco, New York, Dubai, and Vietnam.  Some high profile restaurants in all those markets but the one that stood out to me was Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, California, which is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. What was it like working there under Bradley Ogden and how do that experience influence you?

Every job I accepted has a reason behind it. When the opportunity arose to get into the Lark Creek Kitchen, it was a no-brainer. Bradley instilled in all of his employees that by using the freshest ingredients possible, your work as a cook is to just bring out its existing flavor. Bradley pushed consistency and flavors (tasting your food) and that is what I took away from my experience there.

Additionally, the accessibility to your own garden for fresh herbs and flowers was a tremendous experience. Every job since I have built some sort of garden/herb box so we can have access to the freshest herbs possible. I am currently building garden boxes up in San Marcos so we can grow products for the restaurant, and I can pass along a little bit of my experience at Lark Creek to my current staff.

How would you describe the menu at Inland Tavern and what are some of your favorites on it?

I get asked this question a lot, and I like to tell people that it is “Bar food, reimagined.

Favorites, wow that is tough. The whole menu is what I like to cook and eat, but if you are making me choose I would say the Short Rib & Carnitas tacos, the watercress and gigante bean salad, the potted s’more, and anything that has pomelo in it.

One of my favorite dishes was the Escabeche. Can you educate me on this dish and the variations of it?

The dish is if Spanish origin, by way of Persia and the Moors. The traditional dish is also a preservation method, whereas as meat is either poached or fried and then an acidic sauce with vegetables is added. The acid (vinegar) retards the spoilage.  The current version being served at Inland Tavern starts with the fish we get from Tommy Gomes at Catalina Offshore and is ever so slightly cured or cooked in fresh squeezed limejuice from Specialty Produce. It is tossed with local pomelos and some great olive oil.

The house made rigatoni with short rib bolognaise, basil, and parmesan bubbles was a standout as well. Tell me about the preparation on that dish.

Well, this dish is somewhat laborious. First there is the pasta. Fine Italian semolina is mixed with water and some salt and extruded through our in house pasta machine. While the pasta is drying we start on the sauce. Blanching, peeling and seeding the tomatoes, caramelizing the onions, sweating the garlic along with a good dose of olive oil and vegetable stock.

We then simmer this over a low flame for two hours to develop and concentrate the natural flavors. Throw in a bit of salt and we are ready to add the short rib meat, but first we have to braise it. The short rib meat is seared then braised for four-plus hours in our oven along with mirepoix and aromatics. Once cooked and cooled, we handpick some of the meat and add it into the sauce “a la minute.” Cook the pasta, add the sauce and a nice chunk of braised short rib, all topped off with Thai basil and some Parmesan bubbles (and a little bit of molecular gastronomy magic). Whew.

You have a simple yet delicious dessert menu including those crazy good doughnuts. Tell me more about the dessert options. 

As I was developing the dessert menu I was keen on keeping things simple, both from a production and a guest perspective. The donuts (batter) is made daily and is cooked to order. We are currently incorporating some wonderful Wisconsin cheddar into the batter for an extra layer of flavor. Then they are tossed with cinnamon sugar and then dusted with powdered sugar.  We also have is the potted s’more. I remembered eating s’mores on Mount Palomar as a kid. Looking to create an adult version I settled on a chocolate pot de crème base and toasted house made marshmallow cream on top. I think it does the trick.

Lick the Plate can now be heard on KPRi, 102.1 FM Monday – Friday during at 4:10 and 7:10 p.m.  David Boylan is founder of Artichoke Creative and Artichoke Apparel, an Encinitas based marketing firm and clothing line. Reach him at [email protected] or (858) 395-6905.