Cooking with Chef Aaron Anderson of Harlow's Fine Cuisine and Crafted Cocktails
Opened in early 2013, Harlow's Fine Cuisine & Crafted Cocktails in San Juan Capistrano has been making an impact in its community and has even been attracting clientele from far away. Perhaps it is their commitment to make as much from scratch as possible or their focus on a contemporary Californian cuisine with as many organic and local ingredients as possible. Live music on the weekends can also be a big draw though it doesn't hold a light to just how good both the food and cocktails are. The location used to be a local pizza joint so when Harlow's took over, it was reconstructed from the ground up with even Executive Chef Aaron Anderson joining others in painting the walls and ceilings and using the jackhammer to work on the floors. Now the restaurant has a historic European vibe with some jazzy elements but don't be fooled - the food is still exquisitely modern. To gain more insight into what makes Harlow's a budding hot spot, we decided to sneak behind the scenes and get right into the kitchen and cook with Chef Aaron. Lucky for me, he was gracious in sharing the space.
From the parking lot, the restaurant does not look like anything special. Plain white exterior with clay red shingles on the roof, Harlow's could easily be looked over but don't miss your opportunity to step inside. It is elegant with dark reds and golds in a fashion that could border on being over the top but happened to work well all together. It easily carries an intimate atmosphere to make the restaurant a perfect date night out spot, and if you have the moment, do also check out the attention to detail in the bathroom decor. The women's lavatory had lovely tree and butterfly artwork all over the ceiling (pictured). For those coming in to dine, you can't go wrong in any of their rooms or at the bar. The back room can also host private events with its own bar.
Busiest on Friday and Saturday nights, Harlow's averages 100 covers per night and prides itself on attentive and amicable staff. We have to give a nod to our server that day, Dan, who has been at the restaurant since it opened. Not only are small details keen on the staff's mind in service but also in place setting - the cloth napkin rings were charming champagne cork cages, and each salt and pepper shaker was a ceramic swallow, paying homage to the migratory birds that draw tourists to San Juan Capistrano yearly. In such an environment, it only makes sense that the food and drink have to hold up to the same quality.
What is the inspiration for Harlow's menu?
"Well, we work collaboratively in the kitchen so the cooks and I brainstorm and try things out; we work as a team to create the dishes so everyone has input. We get inspired from everything: places we eat, local farmers' market reports on what's available, and sometimes even the prices of ingredients.
Everything is made from scratch that's possible, that makes sense. It eliminates the unknown - you want to have some pride in what you're doing, to stick your chests out a little bit farther knowing it was all made from scratch. We use lots of seasonal produce too and aim for GMO, hormone, and antibiotic-free."Executive Chef Aaron Anderson drives the from-scratch emphasis throughout the entire menu even down to the breads and sauces (Sriracha even!). Originally from Indiana, he has worked in the culinary industry in Portland and Los Angeles, opening several restaurants and working at Cafe Was, Irvine's McCormick and Schmick's, and Luxe Hotel by the Staples Center before moving to Mission Viejo and finding himself heading Harlow's. Growing up with a family that grew much of its own food, the chef always knew that he would end up cooking; even his family expected it to happen despite his forays into landscaping and corporate office work in earlier years.
"It's all simple. We don't make things with tweezers. We just take good stuff to make good stuff and hope that everybody likes it. That's kind of our motto around here."To learn more about the restaurant, we really had to go beyond the maroon walls and gilded gold accents. Stepping behind the kitchen counter gave us a clearer look at the work that goes into running Harlow's. The first peek was at the walk-in cooler where all the prep items were stacked up in delis and labeled; for the most part, all of their ingredients lined the shelves and walls here including seafood on ice and housemade pickles. The only frozen ingredients were their ice cream and beignet back-ups.
As for the meats, Chef Aaron works closely with Santa Monica Seafood to ensure that the restaurant stays true to what it advertises about its sourcing. The meats come from a group of California ranchers called The Vintage, and they ensure that the animals are from all-natural non-GMO raising practices. Some of the butchering occurs in-house for both seafood and meat such as whole tenderloins and fish. We watched as he took apart one of their two menu staple fishes; those would be the Steelhead Ocean Trout from Scotland (not local but from a sustainable seafood farm) and local White Seabass from the Newport dory boats.
What is not made from scratch here?The staff certainly also doesn't throw anything away. Stems from used Fresno chilis are frozen to be made into Sriracha later. Remaining flesh on citrus fruits that have been segmented are made into agua fresca for the staff. Rice bran oil is used for frying because it is clean and does not deteriorate as quickly as other fry oils therefore has a longer yield. The staff also always has gloves on to properly handle the food without wasting tainted ingredients.
"We don't make our own ketchup because I can't make a better one than Heinz. We were making our own ravioli but the pasta machine broke so have been using a local Italian company the last few weeks. We do churn our own butter which is just California cream that we whip until we separate the protein solids."
Is Californian always the style you've cooked?
"Predominantly. I did Italian at the hotel but this is where my heart is."
"I think everyone should spend some significant time in the kitchen before going to culinary school. I got a lot more out of it than I would have if I went straight to school."Lurking in the kitchen really revealed that there are no innocent bystanders back there. I was quickly put to work segmenting oranges for their Saturday dinners. These citrus slices are used with their salmon to give a citrus burst in the vegetable succotash. It also plays a part in their Hamachi Crudo, a dish I'll certainly have to try at another time. Chef Aaron showed me how to do it the restaurant's way and talked about how working with ingredients is based on natural divisions whether in fruits or butchery. He also demonstrated a trick of the trade that I've also been seeing other people talk about - slicing small round fruits and vegetables between plates or covers. We managed to get quite a lot of their heirloom cherry tomatoes prepared this way.
Aside from the oranges, I worked under his instruction to make one of their delicious flatbreads. We brushed the dough which had been freshly made in the morning and ran through a pasta roller. This had on an herb oil of thyme and rosemary after being marked on the grill. I layered with their coconut pesto (arugula, Feta, coconut, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil) before randomly placing our newly sliced tomatoes. After 550°F for 3-4 minutes, the flatbread was ready to be eaten once burrata and fresh greens topped it off.
What is your favorite herb to work with?
"I like using chervil - tarragon is somethimes overpowering so this has a milder flavor. We blister it whole to pair with our ribeye cap - the spinalis."
What is your favorite thing to cook and eat?
"My favorite to eat is seafood but belly proteins are my favorite to cook. The process we go through to make our lardons (which are just one component to one dish) takes a whole primal cut of an animal. Our pork chops are brined in-house in hard cider and herbs and spices before being smoked in-house and grilled. The fun aspects are getting your hands on interesting things. I made a strawberry rhubarb marmalade with the pork chops and earlier did a kumquat marmalade.
Whenever we buy local sea bass, we get heirloom cauliflower to fry. It's a small component to a dish and we could be getting commodity ones that wouldn't taste a whole lot different but we want to offer something to the public that they might not always see. These come in so many different colors."
After hopefully not disrupting the flow of kitchen prepwork on a Saturday afternoon, we finally left our view from the back of the house to sit down and enjoy the composed dishes of the components we had seen. Their daily baked fresh bread was phenomenal, a bread that was a mix between pretzel and brioche and was joined by house-churned butter. The rest of the choices for our dining came from the kitchen itself. Though there are several mainstay dishes on the menu, items come on and off of it depending on availability of ingredients and the season. One of the best sellers is their order of brussel sprouts which come with housemade pork belly lardons but we were feeling summery that day.
Next up was the Caprese Flatbread I had helped make. This and the bread service were presented on top of stone tiles picked out by hand by the Harlow's staff from a nearby quarry. They had spent an entire day picking out the ones they wanted to highlight their restaurant's dishes. Each bite snapped with a satisfyingly toasted crunch, a product of just how hot the oven had been when the flatbread was placed in there. We loved the flavor of the heirloom tomatoes which gave sweetness to a savory pesto, and of course, burrata was a star with its creamy richness.
Next came the bright Summer Salad which featured two colors of watermelon, watermelon radishes, cucumbers, toasted walnuts, arugula, and Feta in a preserved lemon vinaigrette (the lemons were sliced and patted with sugar). The spiced toasted walnuts contrasted crunchiness styles with the watermelon which were crisp as well. All of the colors together presented with a beautiful palette of colors that could easily entice anyone to have a bite. I have always enjoyed watermelon mixed with Feta; the combination works very well. The inclusion of arugula also kept the salad from turning sweet with all of its fruit-forward components as it lent some bitterness to the mix. It's a fun salad not only to look at but to eat because there were so many pieces; you could try flavor combinations out with any two of them!
One of the reasons why I enjoy cooking so much is because I love seeing how parts come together into one glorious whole. Seeing Chef Aaron in the kitchen taking care of specific sections of dishes still could not prepare one for what the end result would be, even when I was helping make the flatbread itself! One major piece during our talk was the grilling of peaches which he had tossed with seasoning and briefly marked on the grill. The Peach and Pork came with local yellow peaches, burrata, pumpkin seeds, a vanilla and fennel olive oil, pea tendrils, and La Quercia prosciutto (from Iowa). The halved stone fruit were luscious and juicy, adorned with the slight hint of smoke and char from the grill as well as the subtle bitterness of pure vanilla. Toasted pumpkin seeds did not allow for a flat texture nor did the delicate and salty prosciutto. Burrata creamed the pieces together and were brightened by the young pea tendrils. It was a dish with much to be favored, and one I was disappointed to see be eaten up so quickly.
Alas, we had to move onto the next plate though. Not always available, the Sea Bass was a treat for us because it was in stock that day. We had watched Chef Aaron break down the large piece of fish he had in the hefty 6 oz portions they serve; luckily for the customers, this fish hardly shrinks when cooked so the skin-on grilled masterpiece looks substantial when it arrives. The elements of this dish are inspired by several areas including the farmers' market and Chef Aaron's wife's Dutch Indonesian background (he dusts the shallots with cornstarch and salt before frying them to garnish the fish). The star rides atop deep-fried multicolored heirloom cauliflower, both swimming in a gently sweet English pea puree. Pomegranate molasses, common in Middle Eastern dishes, is drizzled around the plate to lend another form of sweetness while arugula and radishes top everything off with their harsher notes. The large fish was moist and skin perfectly crisp while the cauliflower played nice surprises every time we cut open a battered form. What color would there be next? I really also enjoyed the puree because it was so simple yet elegant. Overall, an outstanding dish and one we couldn't finish after so many tastes beforehand!
In between the dishes, we sipped on our server Dan's favorite cocktail, the Convent Gardens (muddled strawberries, cucumber, and mint with elderflower liqueur, Pimm's No 1, soda water, and Sprite) as well as Harlow's own Old Fashioned made with Fighting Cock Whiskey and bruleed cherries. Both were excellently balanced and made us want to return another time for the drinks alone. Ask the bar about their selections because they not only can make their own versions of cocktails but are versed in the classics as well.
Room for dessert seemed impossible but we had to participate in a friendly, kitchen-only cheesecake challenge. Because the restaurant goes through a rotating selection of cheesecake, the cooks in the back get the opportunity to create new flavors and styles for the clientele to try. They were in the midst of making new ones to put out so Duc and I were both caught into an impromptu judging. The three options that day were a Blueberry Ricotta, Honey Almond with hibiscus whipped cream and gelee and orange sauce on the bottom, and a savory Avocado cheesecake with a sweet tomato jam. The ricotta was light in texture but psychologically dense with all of the crumbles and thick sauce on it but the blueberry strength was amazing. The honey almond was subtly nutty and sweet, paired well with citrus and floral notes to bring out more of the nuttiness but never be overwhelming. As for the avocado cheesecake, it was quite different than any other preparation we have seen but its richness made it just as creamy as all of the others but with avocado's signature taste. In the end, we favored the honey almond above the rest but which would you choose?
Behind the scenes or not, it was very obvious to us the dedication and pride that Harlow's and its crew puts into what they make. There were moments during our chat that Chef Aaron would geek out about the food he was making or ingredients he was handling, a sign of the passion and genuine interest in his craft that we love seeing in chefs. Working alongside him changed his demeanor because when handling food, he was in his element. If you have not been to Harlow's yet, I highly recommend it based on what we saw in the back and ktichen as well as what we tasted out in the dining room. Their menu is impressive and they take care to note which items are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, and affected by nuts. Visit them at 31111 Rancho Viejo Road, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675 and say hi to the crew if you see them. Our thanks go out to Chef Aaron Anderson for allowing us into his domain (and me in the kitchen, Dan for being an excellent host, and line cooks Derrek Anderson, Jonathan Gomez, and Jose Perez for not roughhousing us too hard when we were getting in the way of Saturday dinner service prep!
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.