It is my sincerest hope that this letter finds you inspired and excited in the wake of a fresh, new year. I, personally, am looking forward to all that 2011 promises to hold. To elaborate a bit…

God has opened a door for me to serve in Asunción, Paraguay with The Christian and Missionary Alliance for two years. The main goal of CMA is twofold: to walk people out of their darkness and into the Light, and to raise up a national church to do the same. I will be assisting with church plants along with contributing to an Employment and Life Skills Institute the CMA runs for the poor. I will also be involved with leading an AWANA program for children and doing community outreach to impoverished families through those Children’s Ministries. There are also one-on-one discipleship opportunities with abused women seeking emotional healing, as well as plethora of other ways to support the short-staffed CMA team in Asuncion.

I graduated from UCSD in June 2009 with a B.A. in International Studies: Sociology and Latin American Studies. I have since been working as a social worker at an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The work of front-line crisis intervention has been emotionally and physically demanding, but I have learned much in the way of unconditional love and perseverance. It has been a journey that has honed my passions and equipped me with practical experience and skills to contribute to the ministries in Asunción.

But to say that it is my current job that has largely prepared me for ministry would be remiss. While it has played a formative role in my preparation, it is, in fact, a lifetime of experiences that has culminated in the fruition of pursuing ministry in Latin America. Spending my childhood summers growing up in Honduras instilled in me a keen awareness of poverty (both spiritual and physical) and a great love for the region. Short-term ministry trips to Guatemala and Mexico, an internship with UNICEF in Barcelona, and International Studies courses taken throughout my college career have additionally fostered in my heart the passion to live, serve, and champion social justice in Latin America. It has been a process of growth and development leading up to this point, and I am excited for the privilege to serve in this capacity.

In order to serve as an effective CMA team member in Paraguay, I need to raise about $12,650/year (a total of roughly $25,300 for a two-year commitment, not including airfare). This budget factors in the costs of housing, daily transportation, food, ministry expenses, CMA administration, my visa, and a monthly 10% tithe.

If you feel led to get involved with my ministry in Paraguay, please consider partnering with me in prayer and/or supporting the ministry financially. I have enclosed a card detailing the logistics.  If you would like to hear more in-person, I would love to meet with you! Please do not hesitate to contact me to ensure that we do so. The fruits of pursuing God’s calling in Latin America are buoyed by the dedicated prayer and support of the community around me. I covet your continued thoughts and intercessions on my behalf and for my ministry.

I am blessed by you, and I am looking forward to sharing with you all the trials, triumphs, and answered prayers encountered in Paraguay. Thank you for the love and partnership so far.

Besos and blessings,

Lo

Wine Vault and Bistro is a quaint little restaurant located on India Street snug next to Shakespeare’s Pub. They offer $20 prix fixe 3 to 5-course meals of fine dining fare, and the menu changes weekly, if not daily. Diners may also elect wine pairings to accompany each course for an additional $10.

B and I have been waiting months to give this place a run, poring over the email newsletters detailing the upcoming specials. When we received notice of a 10-course tasting menu for Mardi Gras that included fried oysters and espresso-filled beignets, we knew instantly that this was our night. As soon as we called in our reservations, another newsletter came out saying the night had been completely booked. Score.

First and Second Courses:
Asparagus “benedict” – biscuit – bearnaise – poached egg – bacon jam
Pickled apricot – hazelnut – creme fraiche – watercress
abita amber lager
Seeing as poached eggs are my latest obsession, I was slightly disappointed to find scant chopped egg white garnishing my biscuit, but the consumate flavor composition of the first course redeemed any faltering initial impressions. Additionally, I am slowly converting to the magical ways of bacon, and the bacon jam was one strong argument in favor of cured pork.

Upon first glance, the pickled apricot resembled a tiny piece of salmon sashimi, and I almost wish it had been. It had an interesting taste with quite a bit of nuttiness coming in from the crushed hazelnut, but I would have liked the creme fraiche to have a greater presence.

Third and Fourth Courses:
Shrimp “po boy” – braised lettuce – hot sauce “mayo” – pickles – crostini
Dungeness crab cake – creole mustard aioli – pickled pepper relish
2008 halter ranch “ranch white” rhone white blend
I was heartbroken at first to find that the fried oyster had been replaced by shrimp, but the shrimp was so perfectly cooked, I could not hold my grudge for long. It was steaming hot, succulent, and the batter was light and crispy. The singular pickle slice was an ideal component, and the crostini was neither too hard or dry as crostinis are apt to be.

The crab cake was pretty substantial relative to the other portions we had been served, but I found it to be overly salty and the mustard aioli did not provide much balance. I think more of the pepper relish would have done well to create a better symphony of flavors.

Fifth and Sixth Courses:
Gumbo – crispy braised pork – micro celery
Andouille sausage – black eyed peas – okra
2008 sextant “wheelhouse” zinfandel
I felt this was the most lackluster part of the evening. The gumbo had a strong, chemical-ly flavor that we could not place. Be it spice, herb, or hm?, it was too great a barrier to overcome. I was impressed though that the braised pork managed to stay crispy even when submerged in the soup.

Sausage, black eyed peas, and okra. Meh. The flavors were standard and severely lacking. I would not think to eat it again.

Seventh and Eighth Courses:
Charred strip loin – red beans ‘n’ rice – onion chutney – fried broccolini
Braised short ribs – farro – goat cheese – smoked paprika chimichurri
2006 saddleback cellars merlot
For the most part, I have a personal dislike for braised short ribs. No hard feelings, it simply is not a flavor my palate enjoys. That said, the eighth course did not present any sort of culinary epiphany, but the meat was incredibly tender and the chimichurri provided a good dose of acidity. Unfortunately, the goat cheese was pureed and so subtle, it was unnoticeable even after we inquired with our waiter as to where it had been infused.

The strip, on the other hand, was my favorite of the savory courses. It was grilled to an absolutely perfect medium rare (I do wish it had a bit more char) and together with the bright flavors of the onion chutney, formed a delectable pair. The texture of the fried broccolini was sheer genius and took the dish to a revelatory level. B and I took our composed bites and just stared at each other with wide eyes. Ohmygod.

Ninth and Tenth Courses:
Brioche beignet – espresso ganache – steamed milk
Cappuccino truffle
cafe brulot diabolique (devilishly burnt coffee)
In a Would You Rather… contest between eating only sweet or salty foods for the rest of my life, I would hands-down choose salty any day. I can appreciate a good dessert, but generally my cravings err on the side of savory (unless we’re talking doughnuts). These courses though, made me want to take back the whole meal, and eat the dessert over and over again. The mini beignet was served in a bowl of sweet milk foam, and when I cut into it with my spoon, rich espresso ganache oozed everywhere to my utmost delight. The flavors were unmistakable and lost me in a realm of sugary ecstasy. My only regret is not licking the bowl.

The cappuccino bon bon was not as conceptually clever but equally delicious. As someone who drinks their coffee black, the cafe diabolique, though reminiscent of the amazing Berber coffee I guzzled in Morocco, was too sweet for my taste.

Admittedly, I was wary of the whole fine dining, prix fixe novelty after our experience at Relate, but inspite of my skepticism, Wine Vault and Bistro still managed to blow my expectations out of the water. The simple black and white decor was understated yet still representative of a fine dining establishment, and the candlelit ambiance lent an air of elegance. The wait staff were attentive without crowding, and even occasionally checked to ensure the temperature of the heat lamp next to our table was not uncomfortable. And the food…oh, the food. It was exquisite, well-executed, and I am still mentally raving about the flavors. B and I enjoyed a wonderfully tasty evening, and are already planning our next meal back.

B and I have been churning through old seasons of Top Chef like smooth butter. So far, I enjoy the Top Chef: Masters seasons far more, because frankly, I can do without all the petty drama. I am sure it helps that these chefs have established and illustrious careers though, and are competing for charity as compared to regular season chefs who are competing for, well, their livelihood.

One particular character who does inject a bit of spice into the otherwise very chummy Masters series is Chef Ludo Lefebvre. He is the father of the culinary phenomenon known as “pop-up dining,” in which Lefebvre essentially “tours” his restaurant wherever he feels like opening up shop for just a few weeks at a time. It is a pretty novel concept that plays on conventional notions of fine dining and has come to draw food enthusiasts in droves.

B and I caught wind that Lefebvre’s protege, Chef Daniel Moody, was bringing the first pop-up restaurant to San Diego. Naturally, we made our reservations and waited with baited breath for what we expected to be a new and life-changing experience for the taste buds.

Here is a rundown of our five-course tasting menu:

“French Onion Soup”

Welcome to molecular gastronomy 101. It came in the literal form of a hush puppy and was served on a teaspoon. One would assume that anything deep fried is automatically delicious. Unfortunately, for this little nugget, the concept was not executed well. While soup did gush out as I sank my teeth in, it tasted nothing of the strong, salty french onion soup with its gooey, melty cheese. It simply tasted…fried.

Bacon Fried Egg, Potato Rosti, Baby Lettuce, Sherry Vinaigrette

A perfectly poached egg that I could rave about for days with its smooth white and runny center. Not to mention, it was also battered, deep fried, and infused with bacon. Sadly, the potato rosti, meant to mop up the egg yolk, looked like a greasy, grey patty underneath and possessed no crisp crust on the outside as a rosti should. The vinaigrette did provide a balance of acid though, slightly compensating for that which the pitiful potato slab was lacking.

Grilled Octopus, Mediterranean Quinoa Salad, Burnt Red Bell Pepper, Lemon, Oregano

Every component was cooked extremely well and the bright zest of lemon really highlighted the distinct flavors. The contrasting textures of the octopus and quinoa along with the tang of the burnt red pepper puree brought together a well-rounded, complete dish.

Sauteed Local Redrock, Vadouvan Beets, Coconut Curry Hollandaise, Fried Spinach Salad

The flavor profile of this course was all wrong. There was entirely too much bland on sweet on sweet on bland. The fish was tasteless and overcooked. The beets and coconut curry had a horrifyingly monotone flavor (yes, they tasted the same though I’m sure the intention was to create separate flavors), and I found myself making a concerted effort to control my instinct to gag. The fried spinach leaves were similarly bland and only served to add a mismatched touch of texture. What a train wreck.

Spiced Beef, Spinach Avocado Puree, Crispy Porcini Spaetzle, Green Flash Double Stout Gastrique

In hindsight, it was not the best decision to take a bite of the porcini mushrooms first. Not only were they not crispy in the slightest, they also tasted frighteningly reminiscent of the last course. Barf. I was displeased. The monochromatic brown presentation spiked by the nearly flourescent green of the spinach puree did not aid in convincing me of the dish. Especially when the baby food texture of the spinach avocado proved to be severely underseasoned as well.

Thankfully, there were two more elements on the plate, ones which were able to carry the weight of the fourth course to a taste of victory. The beef was exceedingly tender and when consumed with the indescribable gastrique, I wanted to get up and do a rain dance to thank the gods for sending down such flavor combinations. Seriously, there are no words for that punchy stripe of stout reduction. In fact, B and I still offer its glory a moment of silence every time it comes up in conversation.

Chocolate Terrine, Green Cardamom, “Crème Brulee”

The chocolate was rich like a decadent truffle and the cardamom cream dolloped on top was a refreshing contrast. The proportions were a bit off though as a smidgen less of the cream would have suited the dessert better. Additionally, I wished “creme brulee” had not been included in the description so as not to lure my hopes up. The square of bruleed sugar garnish was entirely too thick, rendering it inedible. B and I sat there, trying as politely and discreetly as we could, pounding the damn squares in attempt to crack the sugar as initially executed with a creme brulee. No such luck (and so much disappointment).

At a hole-in-the wall, the inconsistent quality of this fare would have been passable, perhaps even expected. But at $55 a person (and we declined the wine pairings for an extra $25), this meal was severely underwhelming and a profound letdown. Furthermore, the service was terrible. Our waitress was extremely inattentive and on the rare occasion, she did check on our table, I feared she might very well bite my head off. Sheesh.

As we waited for our table, we witnessed exiting patrons bringing their menus to the chef for autographs. We made a mental note to do the same on our way out, but by the time, we reached that point, we were not interested at all in commemorating such an expensive disappointment.

On the bright side, B wrote a blunt review about our experience on Yelp and received a personal email from the chef in response, apologizing for our uninspired evening. At the end of his thorough correspondence, he invited us to be his personal guests at his next pop-up venture. So I suppose that despite an unsatisfactory first showing, the real verdict on Dan Moody’s pop-up cuisine still stands.