By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
And when those circumstances came along -- when Evangeline closed and the space went dark -- Moore locked himself inside and went to work. He did the entire refit himself: He laid the leopard-print carpet and every tile on the floor, built the banquettes with his own hands, designed the open kitchen with its copper-topped bar. "It was weird," he says. "It was a trip. I hadn't been in a kitchen in ten years. Hadn't put on a chef's coat in ten years. It was so scary, all that time. And all of a sudden, I'm opening a restaurant in a week. People are calling me Œchef.' I didn't know if I could do it."
He'd certainly done it before. Moore wasn't just some shlub who'd read a couple of books and watched too much Food Network, but a pro who'd done his time on the front lines of the revolution while it was happening. He'd trained under Tower (or, more accurately, under Tower's cadre of underbosses who were probably more talented, anyhow) at every hot San Francisco address in the late '80s and early '90s: Stars, Stars Cafe, the short-lived Speedo 690, MacArthur Park. He was there when all of American cuisine was going through a wrenching paradigm shift fired by Tower's ruthless brand of celebrity self-promotion and the cooking that he and Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters and even our own Mel Master were doing in kitchens in S.F., Los Angeles and New York. This was a man who took his inspiration from the source, not from second-, third- and fourth-hand reinterpretations of what California Cuisine had meant to the restaurant world.
In this industry, trends and fads go cannibal at the least excuse, eating their young like crazy, growing fat and insipid on their own incestuous imitators. But Moore had something going for him even better than his history on the coast: He'd walked at the right time, turning his back on the life ten years ago, before the worst of the sins started being committed in Waters's and Tower's names. He'd come out clean, with a purity of influence that isn't just rare, but pretty much non-existent.
Oyster shooters: $8
Chinese short ribs: $8
Monsoon dumplings: $6
Rock shrimp: $8
Grilled salmon: $18
Pumpkin ravioli: $15
Grilled swordfish: $19
Beef filet: $25
From the beginning, that clarity showed in Deluxe's menu -- an untainted artifact from back in the day, when California Cuisine was the hottest thing going. But his ten years' absence from the line also showed in his moves. In those first stumbling months, it was like Moore was cooking with mittens on, struggling along on crutches, desperately fighting to get his groove back. Rather than sell his stove, Moore kept trying.
But it was worth every day of struggle, because now he's cooking at the level that such a menu demands in order to be anything but a snooze. And he's not only got my attention, he's turned my prejudiced affections in his favor.
That menu includes a dish that might have been on a Chez Panisse prix fixe fifteen years ago: grilled salmon mounted over a warm white-bean salad, dressed with baby spinach greens and a roasted red-pepper aioli. For the past year, Moore has been nudging and tweaking and tinkering with this dish -- getting reaccustomed to the high-end grilling that was such a pillar of the California food revolution, stripping away all the flaws and unnecessary flavors -- until, today, it is a perfect example of the form.
During several visits last month -- hours spent sprawled along the banquette seats, or crouched at the copper bar watching Moore and sous Sean Beede (a Johnson & Wales veteran who exploded another lovingly held prejudice of mine, this one against C-school grads) work, listening to the hot jazz on the sound system and the electric buzz of full house after full house behind me -- I cemented my admiration for Deluxe's turnaround and the chef's second act. I fell in love as I ate grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto and an avocado salsa that might as well have been a poke in the ribs to all those cooks who never made it out of the Bay Area scene, and barbecued short ribs in Chinese five-spice hoisin stacked like a pile of Lincoln Logs on the plate, a dish that grew out of the L.A. line cook's impish urge to watch Beverly Hills ingenues in thousand-dollar dresses try to eat with their fingers without messing up their manicures. (Why do you think the open kitchen was invented, anyway? You don't really think it was because the cooks wanted diners to see them?)
Not having a manicure to worry about, I tore into the ribs. The meat was beautifully tender, just peeling off the bone, the sauce a smoggy-sweet charred glaze with that 10 percent Asian backbite that was such a hallmark of the '80s flavor. I also devoured simple, flash-fried rock shrimp served like popcorn in a bowl with just a little remoulade and a squeeze of lemon, and garlic-spiked chicken and ginger dumplings swimming in a broth made of chile heat and smoke. Deluxe has offered crab cakes as a special since the day the place opened; on a night I finally showed up early enough to wrap my teeth around the last available order, I found them a bit too daintily presented (four mini-cakes on a white plate daubed with a Nagel smear of thick basil aioli) but incredibly rich and tasty, and topped with that inescapable dot of salsa fresca without which no Californian dish is complete.