I am not a stranger to eating at strip malls.
In Atlanta, as in other large, sprawling cities, there are many fine eating establishments sandwiched between dry cleaners, gas stations, and hardware stores. Tacky sidewalk design and ample parking spaces only add to the ambiance. Three-star prix fixe restos are just as likely as hole-in-the-wall banh mi shops to be found in such a location. Driving 30 minutes on a freeway to dinner is not uncommon.
But I can count on one finger the number of memorable restaurants I've been to in strip malls in the Bay Area.*
Michael Warring (the restaurant) holds court in the corner slot of a small, upscale strip mall next door to a fancy golf course and housing development near American Canyon Road in Vallejo. This is not E-40 Vallejo. Think, rather, of the opening credits of the first couple seasons of Weeds. Hum "Little Boxes" while you drive up for the full effect.
Normally, I'd hate this shit. But it becomes clear once you step inside to the teensy tiny restaurant that this spot was simply convenient, and it provided a clean blank slate. Michael Warring (the chef) and his parter Ali are running a super lean operation and the vibe kinda works.
But okay, strip malls and luxury golf courses don't sound badass.
Hear me out.
Warring comes from a highly refined background. He worked at fancy-ass Auberge du Solei in Napa and Thomas Keller's Bouchon (blah, blah) for years before branching out on his own. His menu, in fact, has echoes of Keller-ness. Dinner is, naturally, prix fixe. There are five courses, plus a little chocolate nibble at the end. The culinary technique is French, with some modernist tweaks thrown in here and there. Warring uses gorgeous copper cookware and lots of masking tape.
Each night, the restaurant has three seatings and it looks like they run somewhere around 30 to 40 covers a night.
Maybe for a restaurant with an actual staff. Michael Warring has two employees, the chef and Ali, who runs the front of the house. They don't even have a dishwasher.
Have you ever tried to cook a dish out of a Thomas Keller cookbook? Not only is there a vast amount of technical skill required, but there are also a million fucking little things that need to be prepared ahead of time and re-heated and plated just so in order for the dish to sing in harmony.
Most high-end restaurants employ an army of prep and line cooks (and, obviously, dishwashers) to pull off this level of food. I have a friend who works at Saison in San Francisco (3 Michelin stars, hundreds of dollars a head, yadda, yadda) and for his first couple of months working prep, he mostly just juiced beets. The beet juice was then cryovac-ed with some more beets that I think had been fire-roasted beforehand. Then those beets get cooked again or some shit and plated with several other components that probably took 3 days to make. And, like, this beet dish is one of dozens that appear at each table each night.
IT IS A LOT OF WORK.
Nothing at Michael Warring is nearly as insane as the food served at Saison or Benu or The French Laundry or many of those other spots you've likely heard of. At my last dinner there (it was mid-May), we ate the following:
Smoked K & J orchards peach foam with micro fennel, mesquite, and fennel pollen
The foam shit is gimmicky, but the flavors of the dish were on point. The intense sweetness of the peaches is well balanced with hearty mesquite smoke, and I appreciated the grassy notes of the micro greens. I could do without the glass jar and smoke machine stuff. It's super weird to eat out of one of these, but this style of salad seems to be one of his signatures so I doubt it's going anywhere. At both of my dinners here, this has been my least favorite course.
Ocean trout with nectarine milk shake, soda yolk and trout roe
We had no idea what "soda yolk" meant. Turns out, it is sphere-ified Dr. Pepper, which sounds fucking disgusting, especially alongside smoked trout and nectarines. Still, somehow it worked. Each bite was crazy sweet and salty at the same time, and the trout itself was a clean, shimmering oceanic bite. I suppose I was impressed with the bold intensity of the plate, especially for a fish course. If you're scared of such things, better to just dig in and not pay attention to what you're eating.
Capellini with hens yolk, black truffle, and guanciale
This picture does not do justice to the sheer magnitude of black truffles that graced this pasta dish. Warring does wonders with pasta dough. The dish was fucking dope, and I felt like a huge baller eating so many dollars worth of truffles.
Loin of pork with porcini mushroom, sumac, and white asparagus
This here is not that much more than perfectly cooked pork and more luxury vegetables, cooked simply. I'm super into sumac like the rest of the culinary universe, so I was happy to see it. The tart, citrus-y spice was a great foil to the earthy mushrooms and asparagus.
It is at this point in the evening when Warring gets super cute and wheels around a cheese cart. There are three "real" cheeses to sample — can't, unfortunately, remember what these are — plus a big ass piece of crazy-buttery brioche that Warring also made in the morning. Obviously. The best part, though, is his sense of pride at the homemade nacho cheese sauce that gets dribbled all over everything. He blushes, we giggle, and then sop up every last bit of it with that bread. #Winning.
Brioche doughnut with creme anglaise, salted caramel sauce, marshmallow fluff, and mint bitters
I dunno, this was a doughnut. A good fucking doughnut, but the best part was definitely the bittersweet toasted marshmallow fluff situation. And also the crumbly, minty, chocolate dirt stuff on the bottom that I suppose the words "mint bitters" were referring to on the menu. It was actually a pretty light dessert, all told, and I appreciated it.
These were chocolates and they tasted good. Don't have much more to say there.
We also, obviously, drank wine with dinner. Ali heads up the wine selection and does a kickass job. I've had two meals there and both sets of wine pairings were exquisite. Bring a designated driver, for sure.
The point is, it is totally insane that one dude is cooking all of this food entirely from start to finish and serving it up to three seatings five nights a week. In May, we sat at the counter so that we could get a good view of the action. We watched him get in the weeds about midway through service and then pull it out like a fucking champ, barely breaking a sweat. Service was calm and well-paced, better than at many other fully-staffed restos near me.
The food is not mind-blowing. It is expertly cooked and delicious, but is certainly not going to get Lucky Peach's panties in a wad. Warring is clearly cooking the food that he wants to cook and is not answering to anyone. It's super fucking badass and you should all eat there.
OH FUCK also I forgot to mention the fact that his menu is only $69. With an additional $33 for a wine pairing or $21 for beer. This is CRAZY CHEAP. When was the last time you had food like this for less than 100 bucks? Never? Exactly.
*This does not count In-and-Out, obviously. Fast food never counts, calorie- or otherwise.