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Elegant yet easy appetizers adapted by Marine Room chef add sizzle to summer

Grilled lamb chops are coated with a Moroccan spice mixture and served on a bed of tzatziki.
This grilled Moroccan lamb chops dish from Mike Minor, executive chef of The Marine Room in La Jolla, has five components — along with the lamb — that can be prepared before grilling the meat.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Inspired by the small-plates menu at the Lounge, bluefin tuna carpaccio evokes Japanese cuisine and lamb chops are inspired by Moroccan flavors.

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With summer in full swing, so is outdoor entertaining.

If you’re keen to impress guests with appetizers that can both serve as an introduction to your party and be prepped in advance so you can spend time with your guests, here are a couple that come straight from the re-conceived kitchen of The Marine Room in La Jolla.

The creator of these appetizers is executive chef Mike Minor. In 2021, after chef Bernard Guillas’ retirement, Minor became the top chef of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club culinary program, which includes The Marine Room, as well as The Shores, Club Dining and catering events.

Minor has shaken things up at The Marine Room, especially its Lounge, which debuted last September. Both the decor and the menu take inspiration from the ocean just on the other side of the windows. A palette of blues and turquoise, including glass mosaic-topped tables, is the setting for dishes of small bites and craft cocktails. Minor complements that influence by using ingredients that are as local as possible.

Minor came to San Diego from Las Vegas, where he grew up and began restaurant work. He was a prep cook for Wolfgang Puck as a teenager and eventually met the “Two Hot Tamales,” chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.

“I worked for them for 16 years as their executive chef, where I ran all their restaurants and we traveled through Mexico, eating and studying the country and culture,” Minor said. “Susan’s like a second mom to me. They really took me under their wing, and Susan taught me everything I know today. I’ve taken some of that and implemented [it] here in The Marine Room.”

Executive chef Mike Minor at The Marine Room in La Jolla
Executive chef Mike Minor of The Marine Room adapted recipes for home preparation from a small-plates menu he implemented at the Lounge. He leads the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club’s entire culinary program.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Minor is introducing new flavors from Japan, Morocco and Spain at the Lounge — with small dishes that include tender Spanish octopus with smoked cauliflower puree; surf and turf bites of Hokkaido scallop, Kurobuta pork belly, caviar and bacon whiskey jam; bluefin tuna carpaccio and grilled Moroccan lamb chops.

Minor has modified the latter two appetizers in the recipes below for home cooks to create. You’ll notice there are a lot of ingredients in the lamb dish and perhaps some unfamiliar ones in the tuna dish, but you may be surprised at how easy the ingredients are to find (think Japanese markets and Specialty Produce, a local wholesale distributor that also sells retail) and how simple the dishes are to prepare.

Bluefin tuna carpaccio

Makes 2 to 3 servings

Toppings of shallots, truffle, ginger crystals, lemon zest and microgreens add punches of flavor to bluefin tuna carpaccio.
Toppings of shallots, truffle, ginger crystals, lemon zest and microgreens add punches of flavor to local bluefin tuna carpaccio. Shards of blue “coral lace,” used in The Marine Room’s plating, add texture.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ingredients:

• 1 teaspoon shichimi togarashi, a spicy Japanese condiment that has seven ingredients. Although the mixture can vary depending on who produces it, it always includes red chile pepper, citrus peel, seeds (such as black and white sesame seeds) and nori.
• 1 teaspoon furikake, another dry Japanese condiment that usually combines dried fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt.
• 1 cup sea salt
• 1 teaspoon juice from yuzu, an aromatic citrus fruit
• 1 pound fresh local bluefin tuna loin, thinly sliced
• ½ teaspoon truffle oil
• 1 tablespoon ginger crystals
• 1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
• 1 teaspoon fermented garlic chili oil
• 3 large slices of truffle
• 1 teaspoon smoked shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
• ½ teaspoon lemon oil or lemon zest

Instructions:

• Be sure to buy the tuna loin from a purveyor who has very fresh seafood and put it in frozen ice packs to keep it cold. You can buy it the day before.
• Mix together togarashi and furikake.
• Add yuzu juice to sea salt and mix.
• To slice the tuna, use a very sharp knife so you can avoid sawing back and forth. The goal is to cut once or twice for each thin slice.
• Starting from the outside and working in, place tuna slices in a circle like a pizza.
• Start topping the tuna slices with the rest of the ingredients. Drizzle the tuna with truffle oil. Then sprinkle with the shichimi togarashi-furikake mixture. Over that, sprinkle the mix of salt and yuzu juice, followed by scattered pieces of ginger crystals. Then place shallot rings, followed by drops of chili oil. Truffle slices are strategically placed next, then a drizzle of smoked shoyu and either lemon oil or lemon zest.
• If you like, garnish with micro herbs or flowers.

Slicing local bluefin tuna for carpaccio.
Buy the freshest tuna loin you can find for the bright red color. Use a sharp knife to slice it, avoiding the need to saw back and forth while cutting.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Grilled Moroccan lamb chops

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:

• 1 rack of lamb
• Coconut oil to rub on lamb if not mixing with Moroccan spice (below)

Tzatziki
• 1 cup plain yogurt
• 1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced (save a couple of fronds for garnish)
• 1 Persian cucumber, very small dice
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
• Zest of 1 lime
• Pinch of white pepper
• Pinch of sea salt

Red beet horseradish cream
• 1 large beet
• 1 cup sour cream
• 1 teaspoon canola oil
• ¼ cup plain grated horseradish

Pistachio almond crunch
• 1 cup raw almonds
• 1 cup raw pistachio nuts
• 1 teaspoon curry powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon salt

Mint chimichurri
• 1 cup fresh mint
• 1 cup fresh parsley
• 1 teaspoon chile flakes
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• ¼ cup red wine vinegar
• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt and pepper, to taste

Moroccan spice
• ¼ cup ground cumin
• ¼ cup ground coriander
• ¼ cup Hungarian paprika
• ⅓ cup ground nutmeg
• ⅓ cup ground cardamom
• ⅓ cup ground allspice
• 1 pinch ground clove
• ⅓ cup ground ginger
• ⅓ cup ground cinnamon
• Coconut oil (optional — enough to make a paste)

Instructions:

For the tzatziki
• Mix together all the ingredients and refrigerate until ready to serve.

For the red beet horseradish cream
• Heat oven to 400 degrees.
• Clean and then rub olive oil on the beet, then wrap in foil and roast for 50 minutes. Check periodically to make sure it’s not drying out (if so, dribble a little water over the beet and rewrap).
• The beet is done when a skewer slides into it easily. Let the beet cool until you can peel it.
• Puree the beet until smooth. Place in a bowl and add the rest of the ingredients, mixing well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

For the pistachio almond crunch
• Roughly chop the nuts, then toast them in a dry skillet with curry powder, cinnamon and salt for 10 minutes.

For the mint chimichurri
• Mince the mint and parsley. Add them to a bowl and mix in the rest of the ingredients.
• Set aside until ready to serve.

For the Moroccan spice
• Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. You can add coconut oil to make a paste.

Chimichurri sauce is added atop the grilled Moroccan lamb chops.
Place the lamb chops on top of the tzatziki, then spoon on the chimichurri sauce, followed by the pistachio almond crunch. Squeeze dots of the red horseradish cream sauce from a squeeze bottle for an artful look.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For the lamb
• Start the grill, oil the grates and let it heat up. If you don’t have a grill, heat a large skillet and add coconut oil.
• Cut between the bones of the rack and scrape the bones below the meat to make “lollipops.”
• If you aren’t making a paste, spread the Moroccan spice on a plate.
• Spray or rub coconut oil on the lamb and dip each chop into the spice mix. If making a spice paste, slather each chop with that.
• Place each lamb chop on the grates and grill on medium-high heat for about 2 minutes on each side for medium rare.
• Sear the lamb in the pan for the same time. Don’t move the lamb until you’re ready to turn to keep the spices on the meat.

To plate
• Spread the tzatziki across a serving dish. Place the lamb chops on top of the sauce.
• Sprinkle the crunch on the lamb and tzatziki and serve the red horseradish cream and mint chimichurri on the side. Alternately, you can place the horseradish cream in a squeeze bottle and artfully squeeze drops of different sizes onto your serving plate.
• Spoon the chimichurri onto the lamb chops, topped by the crunch.
• Place the remaining dill fronds over the lamb to serve.

— Recipes courtesy of Mike Minor