There's a new blossom unfolding at the Flower Hill mall. Barely six months old, Paradise Grille brings fresh fragrances and flavors to Del Mar as chef Justin Hoehn hones his mixture of Caribbean, Polynesian, and California coastal cuisines.
Hoehn made a splash a few years ago at California Cuisine in Hillcrest, where I enjoyed some memorable meals. Then the chef vanished. (He'd quietly gone to Greystone, to toil in the realm of high-priced meat and mash.) When I discovered his reappearance in Del Mar, I recruited foodie friends Marty and Dave, who'd eaten with us at Cal Cuisine and were delighted to cross the Merge of Death in a pilgrimage to Paradise.
The airy restaurant is the first new structure to rise in the mall in ages. Planned at a cost of $2 million, construction expenses blew up to $3.5 million. Things took longer as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which caused a shortage of lumber, drywall, baseboards, and other materials. The owners, Conor and Shana Adair, had to pay carpenters artisan prices to create basic items that they could have bought ready-made at any home-improvement store a few months earlier.
Across the parking lot from Milton's Deli, Paradise occupies its own stand-alone building. A comfortable bar-lounge off the entrance is a hopping scene after dark. The hostess led us to a handsome dining room, where at one end an open kitchen afforded interesting views of chefs slaving over hot stoves. We were seated in one of the comfortable semicircular booths lining the walls; there are tables in the center (clothed in white linen, like the booth tables) for either very small or large parties.
Squinting at the menu in the dim romantic lighting, we selected an appetizer of grilled skewered shrimp, marinated in lemongrass and ginger. The skewers were thrust into large chunks of grilled watermelon, like flags at Iwo Jima. The monument was surrounded by an irresistible finely diced watermelon salsa sparked by grilled pineapple bits. "Look at this," said Dave, laughing. "The coating is made of -- Rice Krispies!" ("We wanted the crunch but not the same old coconut shrimp," chef Justin later told me. "A sous-chef came up with it.") This dish was an exercise in food-as-fun.
Another edible witticism gave fresh life to a bowl of calamari tempura misto. At first, it looked like standard restaurant calamari. But the light panko-fried squid mixture included onions, young green beans, and thin, mysterious-looking mandalas. These turned out, on tasting, to be batter-fried lemon slices, a surprise substitute for the standard lemon wedges. Once you try one and unmask its identity, you can use them to supply needed bitterness and citric acid -- bite by bite. The dish is also sprinkled with chili oil, which sinks to the bottom, leaving the food in the nether reaches of the bowl a tad greasy as well as spicy. Our waitpersons didn't alert us to its presence, and the hot stuff came as a surprise -- a pleasant one for me, but I hate to think how a Del Mar blue-hair might react. A side of mild, herbal basil aioli was pretty much ignored at our table. Nothing wrong with it, just no need.
Hoehn's signature, here and at California Cuisine, is his creative house-made flatbread, which serves as a canvas for a wide range of imaginative toppings. We tried the vegetable flatbread, resembling cracker-crust dish-sized pizza topped with roasted red pepper strips, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, and balsamic gastrique, plus melted buffalo mozzarella. The gastrique made the bread soggy, but not unpleasantly so. "You can fold it like a New York pizza," said Marty, demonstrating the technique. "You think we can talk Luigi's into making this topping?" I asked my partner.
Guava-glazed pork ribs are small riblets, simmered until fall-off-the-bone tender before undergoing a glaze of house-made barbecue sauce, finished with guava purée and a spin on the grill. The guava lent crispness but barely a hint of flavor. Both the men at our table liked the ribs for their moist texture, but Marty and I both craved a more intense fruit flavor. The side was a pleasant slaw of Napa cabbage, carrot, and daikon.
When we ordered the pistachio-coated salmon entrée, I realized that I just couldn't stand to eat another tourist-pleasing overcooked dead fish. "Listen," I told the server right off, "we're not Yuman. We don't want our fish as dry as the desert, we want it moist and full of life." Our fish arrived cooked precisely to order. We were fascinated by the combination of pistachio and salmon flavors, the contrast of crispness over tenderness, and the skinny mustache of avocado cream running down the center of the plate. (Of course, we'd have preferred a full Groucho Marx or Wilfred Brimley rather than the Little Richard model.) The plate included undercooked fingerling potatoes with a refreshing pickled onion and cucumber relish.
In the horseradish-seared ahi tuna, the fish was an excellent grade, treated to the standard raw-with-cooked-edges restaurant cliché. Alas, the fresh-
grated horseradish that was supposed to edge the fish had fallen off -- a technical problem evidently yet to be solved. (Elmer's glue just will not do.) The vanished horseradish made the superb accompaniments stand out even more: tiny, naturally sweet red beets touched with ginger and garlic, and astonishing quinoa "couscous." Quinoa is a nutritious but bland grain from the Peruvian Andes that's absolutely "good for you" but too often tastes like it -- even in Peru. Here, it was cooked as a pilaf with garlic, onions, lots of butter, and chicken stock, finished off with roast tomato vinaigrette and chives. The vinaigrette provided the acidity that few home cooks would think of adding, and the neutral-tasting grain sang with such vibrant flavors you'd never guess it was related to mamacita's boring old quinoa.
Short ribs braised in plum wine were ultra-tender and beefy but too bashful in plum flavor for my tastes -- I guess I wanted real plum, not just its wine. Again, the accompaniments starred: garlic mash and very sweet corn kernels. Thick, tamarind-brined Niman pork chops arrived cooked to our order of "rosy inside," with a tangy glaze and a topping of braised peach halves. Alongside were substantial onion gnocchi. "These are not airy or pillowy," said Marty, frowning. But Dave loved the contrast of the sweet peaches with the tamarind glaze, and the fine quality of the pork. I liked the dish a lot myself but was glad to have an enthusiastic taker for the very thick chop as I ran out of appetite.