February 28, 2008
PlumpJack Cafe Lands New Chef

Flynt Payne 06.jpg Five years ago, my son Justin and I had an amazing run of good luck while fishing in the Sea of Cortez off Cabo San Lucas. Within a few hours, we'd reeled in a husky blue marlin and a boatload of dorado, a.k.a. mahimahi. The marlin we immediately released, but the dorado that we didn't give the capitan we bagged and turned over to the chef at the resort where we were staying, Esperanza. We asked him if he could base each course of our dinner that night on the dorado, whose delicately sweet white flesh tends to the firm and lean, though not as dense as swordfish, with which it often is compared.

Under a nearly full moon, at a table on a ledge just above loudly breaking waves, and with glasses of poised and refreshing Mexican chardonnay in our hands, we savored a meal that included dorado ceviche, dorado dusted with the spice of habanero chile pepper, dorado sweetened with a mango salsa, and dorado prepared a couple of other ways now lost to memory.

We've had other successful fishing ventures in the Sea of Cortez since then, but we haven't again eaten at Esperanza, though we've remembered the name and talents of that chef, who at the time had been on the job just three weeks.

He's Flynt Payne, and after five years at Esperanza he's traded the sun and surf of Baja for the sun and snow of Lake Tahoe. He's just been named the new executive chef at PlumpJack Cafe Squaw Valley, a wing of the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn.

Payne grew up in North Carolina, studied cooking at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., and has put in stints at such restaurants as Joy America Cafe in Baltimore, the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe and Atwaters in Portland, Ore. Along the way he's gained recognition for quickly insinuating regional ingredients and techniques into his seasonally oriented dishes.

Over the years, PlumpJack Cafe Squaw Valley has been our most frequent Sierra dining destination, retaining a reputation for solid New American cooking through a succession of talented chefs. The current menu includes some PlumpJack staples, such as ahi tartare cones, barbecued venison and "duck two ways," but Payne looks to be adding touches stemming from his stay in Baja, like the agave-glazed prawns and grilled lamb with avocado pie. No dorado, however. But if I'm ever fortunate enough to land a mackinaw from Lake Tahoe, I know where to head.

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