Here’s A Love Letter to Secret Garden’s Decadent Dishes
PHOTOS AND WORDS BY ANDY SAMWICK
It’s no secret one of the most charming dining destinations is where lots of San Francisco magic has been made as of late. The food magicians behind Secret Garden have been popping up at Stable Cafe since April. Stable has been the launchpad for some incredible culinary talent over the years. I recall tasting amazing Belgium beer with Mark Bright when he and Josh Skenes were just getting Saison off the ground. I also remember a time when The Cheese School of San Francisco was the focus of the cafe’s courtyard; I had several occasions to taste all the cheese-focused treats. Guillermo Perez and Najla Turcyzn, soon to be husband and wife, have been creating a wonder for all of our senses with beautiful menus that give so much heart and soul when you bite into each of their dishes.
I have been cozying up to these chefs for months at one of my favorite watering holes, Holy Water, and didn’t realize their pedigree. It was on June 14th when I got my first glimpse into their kitchen and watched the technique that has birthed this tremendous buzz. I was solo that night, so I only tried the duck carnitas tostada with seared confit Grimaud Farms duck leg and culurgiones, which are like these Sardinian raviolis with potato and mint along with confit garlic, preserved lemon relish, and dill. I paired that with Domaine Laurier brut rosé, which was so reasonably priced I ordered a second glass. Perez and his future bride Turcyzn were so gracious and humble, allowing me to watch them take their handmade beautiful yellow and blue masa and layer it with avocado before adding a robust helping of that flavorful duck leg along with juicy Tory Farms Nectarines, japanese cucumbers, serrano, tomatillo, and this tamarind emulsion radish. I was drooling watching the performance.
I went back again on August 14th and began with bubbles— this time, a glass of Carboniste Brut Nature Pet Nat of Pinot Grigio Mackerel. I had to take advantage of summer fruits, so I started off with a peach and melon salad with whipped jersey ricotta, mint vinaigrette, burnt honey, and marash chili. I was in their greenhouse this time, cozying up to that open, wood-burning fireplace, and got one of each of the Lebanese skewers. The kofto-spiced lamb mince with labneh and cucumbers was terrific, especially with a soft yogurt dip. Their shish tawook-chicken thigh with ras el hanout and the Lebanese garlic sauce called toum was a spice lollapalooza in my mouth. And even the way the couple prepare okra was elevated in taste and flavor thanks to the lemon and their flavorful house tojin. Then chef Perez came out with what he called his “favorite dish,” his squash huarache with heirloom masa, cousa squash and its blossoms, queso fresco, jamaica pickled jicama, cabbage salad, tomatillo salsa, and cilantro. This was exactly on point with this distinctive vegetable collection. I felt lavish and decadent!
That flavor explosion was memorable enough to twist my arm and return a week later on August 21st with a rally of friends. I had no idea until I read it last week that this lovely garden treat was going on extended hiatus. I feel even more grateful that we got to go through most of that evening’s menu. I was late and saw a few snacks on the table. I took a bite of the fried shallot loaded za’atar deviled eggs, and took a large spoonful of those peaches and melons I had loved the week before. The chefs were generous and brought us an order of blistered shishitos, roasted new potatoes, and this marvelous warm Brentwood corn salad. Their take on the shrimp cocktail, the mixto coctel with Oregon pink shrimp, local halibut, dashi, spiced tomato, brokaw avocado, and serpent cucumber had us feasting and racing for the last of those dreamy heirloom corn chips that surrounded the dish. That carnitas Sonora taco with succulent confit pork was the evening’s standout. And, to unravel the final secrets of this menu, I finally got to try chef Turcyzn’s strawberry pavlova. I am still reminiscing about those Yerena Farms Mara de Bois strawberries and its cardamom creme anglaise. It was so delightful. What a great memory of friends cooking for friends, and loving what they do and each other. I can’t wait to hug them after Perez and Turcyzn return from tying the knot later this month and I look forward to all the magic that continues to come from their amazing partnership.
Andy Samwick is a bon vivant who brings decades of food and beverage insight to the table.
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