Pacific Coast Grill, nearly ten years old, is a restaurant that, until now, I've passed dozens of times without feeling the urge to eat there. Maybe what kept me away was the sense I had of a kitchen where chefs came and went like downtown bus riders. But four months ago, PCG finally acquired a well-known, proven chef, Hanis Cavin (formerly of Dakota Grill and A New Leaf), and gave him the freedom to choose ingredients, remake the menu, and reshape the kitchen staff.
Set at the southern edge of its mall, the restaurant boasts whimsical neo-Craftsman decor. The approach is via a long, vine-roofed dining patio decorated with twinkling lights. Inside, the curvy bar is shaped like a dog's bone (restaurant designer Georgia Goldberg's tribute to her Airedale, Harry). Even under muted evening illumination, the interior is striking, with yellow-tiled mosaic paths set into a red-brick floor -- follow a tiled snake down two steps to the dining room. The walls are hung with mood-setting B&W photos of sleek 1950s bathing beauties, the swimsuits (all one-piece, of course) brightly "colorized."
Lunch or dinner, the table bread is a grainy, hard-crusted round loaf from O'Brien Bakery in Del Mar Heights, baked that day and served with rosemary-garlic butter. The new menu emphasizes organic vegetables and free-range meats (wherever feasible); you can taste the difference between natural and factory-farmed products, even if they're not side-by-side. It's easy to overlook a simple "mixed greens salad" among the dozen-odd more elaborate starters, but you don't want to miss the tender organic greens with almonds and blue cheese, dressed in a sun-dried cranberry vinaigrette that rides a razor's edge between tangy and sweet. My friends and I devoured the salad like a pack of famished rabbits.
"Bag o' Bonz" is another hit. Chopped-short, house-smoked baby back (pork) ribs and French fries are served together in, literally, a brown paper bag. It's not every day you can eat a pun and have it taste so good. The tender meat is fruity and smoky from applewood, and the fries are served unsalted with a ramekin of house-made ketchup. (Natch, there's a saltshaker on the table. If the fries mark a new trend toward letting diners salt food to taste, I'm all for it.) The same combination, let out of the bag, is also available as an entrée.
"Coco-Mac Shrimp" make an appealing appetizer if you've got a sweet tooth. Butterflied shrimp, coated with a light batter and rolled in crushed macadamia nuts and coconut shreds, are deep-fried golden and crunchy. They're set atop a jalapeño plum-sauce glaze freshened with diced veggies (carrots, scallion greens, and bell pepper) and enough cilantro to buy off the sugar.
Less satisfying were the lump crab cakes. Although the croquettes had little filler or binder, the seafood tasted listless, and the black-bean purée beneath them didn't add much impact. A roasted corn salsa was the most distinctive member of the congregation. Shrimp dumplings, too, seemed shy of flavor: Four gyoza wraps shaped like swollen Hershey's Kisses were filled with a creamy-textured shrimp purée over a heavy port wine sauce. To my palate, the dumplings needed bolder seasoning to face up to the sweet gravy.
My favorite entrée was "Brick Grilled Chicken," a free-range half-chicken grilled under a flattening brick, which brought every part of the bird into direct contact with the heat. Fresh basil sauce (resembling cheese-free, nutless pesto) complemented this seriously good poultry's crisp skin and moist flesh. A green bean-and-tomato mélange also mated happily with the basil purée. Lean mashed potatoes chaperoned. "I never order chicken in restaurants," said my demanding tablemate, the Lynnester. "Usually, I just don't like it. But this I love!"
An order of "Cowboy Steak" brought a bone-in rib-eye of Certified Black Angus (the equivalent of USDA top-o'-the Choice). The grilled hunk was served even rarer than our order of "rare." That was fine with me (if not with all my tablemates). The slick of balsamic demi-glace was easy to overlook because -- unlike the "jarred beef-flavor" restaurant-supply demi-goop served at lesser steakhouses -- it tasted natural and honestly made. Alongside were blue cheese au gratin potatoes topped with crisp-fried leek shreds, plus a side of butter-sautéed asparagus.
The salmon currently served at PCG is farm-raised in the icy waters of eastern Canada by a small-scale aquaculturist who keeps 'em clean, cold, and free of most of the chemical cocktails fed to factory-farm fish in US waters. Never frozen, it's a fine piece of salmon and could credibly pass for wild. Chef Cavin buys the whole fish twice a week and fillets it himself as needed. In his Char-Grilled Salmon, the fillets are cooked through but still moist, topped with a "Hawaiian barbecue glaze" of pineapple juice and fine-minced pineapple cubes. "I like this; it doesn't have the greasy feel of a lot of salmon," said my pal Sang. Unfortunately, the accompaniments that evening were the same string-bean-tomato medley served with the chicken -- minus the alluring basil sauce -- and a mound of yucky, sticky white rice, resembling sushi rice, sans sushi seasonings.
"Spicy Free-Range Pork Tenderloin" offers quality pork, extra tender and pink inside, grilled in one piece and then cut into strips. The meat is charred on one side only. My group found the accompanying mustard barbecue sauce tangy but not terribly interesting. Everybody liked the dish, but nobody loved it. It came with mashed potatoes and, once more, the pestoless string-bean medley -- evidently the week's seasonal veggie.
Desserts are all house-made. Always worth a gamble is the "Fresh Fruit Creation." One satisfying creation was an apple-cinnamon crisp with a crunchy, nutty crust and firm apple slices, served in a four-inch soufflé dish. A dollop of vanilla gelato (from Bubbe's in Encinitas) was the fabulous final fillip. On the other hand, a trio of profiteroles (us Amurricans call 'em cream puffs) were crispy critters, hard as burned cookies. (Next day, the chef dumped the rest of them in the garbage and ordered the cook to bake a fresh batch -- but that was a day too late for us. "Our profiteroles are awesome, and those were awful!" he said.) They were drizzled with dark chocolate syrup and filled with cappuccino-chip gelato.