Hallelujah! Self-professed “Foodies” have a new destination restaurant in Temecula: Sorrel Restaurant/Bistro. Open less than two months in the Bel Villaggio Shopping District, this casual lunch and dinner bistro boasts exquisite cuisine that reminds us of why we love to eat. Chef Adrian Halmagean keeps the ingredients fresh and is an artist who has the knowledge and skill to bring out the best in the food.
Adrian is a Temecula boy, having grown up here when there were only stop signs and dirt roads. His father is Romanian and his mother is Mexican, and he grew up with home-cooked meals, most of the ingredients coming from the family garden. Good food—real food—is in his blood. He then attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena where he refined this innate gift to create the brilliant dishes served at Sorrel. Getting to chat with him was a treat: he’s smart, savvy, very personable, and obviously passionate about what he does. It’s astonishing that he is only 26—he’s certainly going to be one of the area’s up-and-coming chefs to watch.
My own experience at Sorrel was one highlight after another. The meal started with something I love that not enough chefs do: an amusée—a “gift from the kitchen” before the appetizer. Today is was Fried Spicy Pork Meatballs with a Tangy Taziki Sauce. This was followed by something that looked great on the menu, but whose execution was beyond my expectations and gave me the first taste that Chef Adrian is a master in the kitchen. The Thick Sliced Rustic Bread Baked with Goat Cheese Topped with Sweet Roasted Grape Tomatoes and Drizzled with a Balsamic Reduction is a must-have, primarily because of the delicate balance of all the flavors. The tomatoes are not just thrown on or doused in garlic, but instead are delicately roasted in brown sugar and bay leaves so they are sweet and juicy. His use of a balsamic reduction sauce mellowed the balsamic vinegar so it didn’t overpower the dish. I love eating food that I don’t have the skill or knowledge to cook at home!
I am also always impressed with a chef who can turn me on to menu items I never would have tried. In particular, this once-vegetarian who has never ordered pork at a restaurant, came away in love with the Flame Grilled Pork Chop over Sweet and Tangy Peppered Cabbage with Herb Roasted New Potatoes. The pork is sashimi grade and cooked medium rare. I have never tasted such a moist and succulent chop…and I grew up in Iowa.
Another surprise favorite: Rustic Summer Sausage served with Roasted Potatoes and Spicy Mustard Cabbage. I probably would not have chosen the cabbage, but the heat of the sausage really needs the tanginess of the cabbage. I love that Chef Adrian knows this and has designed his dishes for the flavors to complement and balance each other. It makes eating a little more fun.
The sausage is also noteworthy because it’s a family recipe and completely homemade; the pork is ground and stuffed in-house. In fact, everything—except the ketchup and bread (from La Brea)—is made at the restaurant. All the sauces, mayonnaise, and mustards are homemade. Chef Adrian even takes the time and care to construct the stock used to make the Bolognese sauce.
He is also very particular about where his food comes from. He chooses local ingredients whenever possible, having many connections with local farms. But even from distributors, he insists on knowing exactly where the food is from and how it was raised. His knowledge of every detail of his ingredient list highlights how fastidious he is about quality. I could taste this difference even before our discussion.
I also sampled the Spice Roasted Chicken and Spanish Chorizo Paella with Seafood. After the spiciness of the sausage, I expected a lot of heat, but was pleasantly surprised by the deep, rich flavor of the paella. The rice was perfectly cooked, and there were generous portions of protein: chicken, chorizo, mussels, clams, cocktail crab legs, and shrimp.
Next our bubbly server Elizabeth brought out the biggest UK Beer Battered Fish and Chips I have seen this side of the Atlantic. The batter is light, crispy, plentiful, and very flavorful, and it gets the approval of several local Brits as truly authentic.
Then the meal concluded with a very unique dessert: Basil Infused Panna Cotta with Blackberry Honey Sauce. This is a creamy Italian custard/gelatin that Adrian credits to his Sous Chef, Doug Sims. I love this dessert because I’m a fan of the distinct combination of basil and fruit and it’s not overly sweet. It was a perfect end to a perfect meal.
I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to see that the restaurant embodies sustainability, and without pretence. Sorrel only uses eco-friendly takeout containers made out of recycled corn silk. Adrian is even working with a local farm to “recycle” food scraps to feed livestock. In discussing the construction in décor, I was shocked to find out that my talented chef had also built all the woodwork and tables himself. (There’s a soft fabric underlay to protect patrons’ fine fabrics from snags.) The richly-cool interior is decorated with dramatic art by his cousin and local artist Sebastian Halmagean. Even the cloth table runners are custom-made by his father’s company. The result is what Adrian describes as “high-end European bistro with well-worn Irish pub and underground art gallery.”
Of course anyone who pays this much attention to detail will be meticulous with the beer and wine menu. Ordinary is not okay. There are 13 microbrews on tap, two of which are organic and several are local. The wine list is also carefully selected, using only boutique wines that produce fewer than 300 cases. Sorrel has now implemented Sangria Sundays and Thirsty Thursdays with $4.00 drink specials to celebrate some of his favorites.
With all this talent, I am impressed that the menu is astutely limited to less than 30 items so that Chef Adrian can keep it “fresh and fun.” It will also change three to four times a year to showcase seasonal items and keep patrons eager to see what he will create next. Remarkably, all entrees are less than $20 and sandwiches less than $10—a smart business move to compete with the suburban chains. But this also reflects Chef Adrian’s philosophy that it’s really all about the food. He casually explains, “I’m not trying to make millions—just provide for my family and have fun cooking the food I love.” At Sorrel Restaurant/Bistro it really is all about the food, and it is a passion and quality you can taste. So trust Chef Adrian—this young chef knows what he’s doing…and the “foodie” in me is ever so grateful.