1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
"A cat may look at a king," wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland -- and a scuffling writer could look at the Prince of Wales. That's what I told myself when, some years ago, I was invited to do a travel story on the Hotel del Coronado for the Washington Post. Although I couldn't remotely afford to eat there on the paper's budget, or my own, the hotel's press department was delighted to provide two nights of cut-rate lodging in a room at the top (up 3 stories -- or maybe 17), Sunday brunch in the Crown Room, and a charming personal tour guide.
The Prince was hidden in a dingy basement. His royal interior was furnished in dark woods, crystal chandeliers, red-tufted leather-upholstered chairs, bone china, heavy silver -- all as stuffy, masculine, and high-maintenance as the dining room at Camelot, although almost certainly warmer in winter. The menu was no less luxuriously gout-inducing: Beef Wellington, Prime-grade steaks, Dover sole boned at table, Caesar salad.
Last winter, the Del's newest owners (a hotel compendium) hired one of America's top restaurant and food consultants, Clark Wolf, to start all over with the Prince. Following his advice, the Del's management decided to knock out the wall to let in sunshine, sand-dune views, and sea breezes. They changed the restaurant's name to 1500 Ocean and hired renowned chef Jason Schaeffer to create a sprightly new menu for the 21st Century, centering on a Southern California identity, showcasing ingredients raised or caught from Santa Barbara to the tip of Baja, delivered fresh six days a week. Since reopening at the beginning of May, the food now epitomizes the current lighter, cleaner style of luxury cuisine, with superb ingredients in flavor combinations that enhance rather than mask each other.
Setting the stage for the new menu, Marin County designer Jennifer Johansen renovated the newly opened space to match the "green cuisine." She combined neutrals and blues to accent the "ocean palate" and replaced the wall behind the bar with glass colored the fiery reds and oranges of a sunset over the sea. If you sit inside (why, I don't know, unless it's pouring out), you'll be ensconced on a wooden throne upholstered in teal leather. Outside, you'll relax on the shaded dining patio in a captain's chair, watching little birds snacking at the feeders posted on the palms and people tossing Frisbees on the beach. Between the updated decor and fresh culinary concepts, the old Prince has shed his ermines and taken holiday on the Riviera.
As you look over the menu, a bread plate appears, with fresh-baked drop cheese biscuits (resembling your mom's Bisquick creations) and crusty sourdough torpedoes catered by Compane, a small bakery in Point Loma. We ate early, and the premium, lightly salted Straus Family butter arrived ice cold, alas -- but the table setting includes a salt saucer with a yin-yang design of red Hawaiian sea salt and lavender-tinted French fleur du sel, both so scrumptious they're worth their weight in sodium. The waiters are attentive, friendly, and craftsmanly but don't hover like news helicopters -- they're there only when you want them.
The bill of fare opens with the chef's tasting, then moves as you'd expect to beginnings, mains, and "accents" -- additional vegetable dishes, although all entrées, even steaks, come with veggies here, since the chef likes to control the combinations on each plate.
I ordered the tasting, including matched wines, while my partner chose from the regular menu. Our waiter pointed out that we wouldn't be eating in sync, since the taster has numerous small plates -- but nobody objects if you share a mix 'n' match dinner. In fact, our waiter seemed pleased: "More people should eat like that," he said.
The tasting menu offered two appetizers, starting with an optional Sonoma foie gras terrine (for a $15 surcharge) -- a silky, ethereal mousse to spread like butter on the accompanying toasted brioche bread. It came with local Crow's Pass Farm strawberry marmalade and purée (peaches are now replacing the out-of-season berries). The wine pairing was Thornton Brut from Temecula, which proved an instant education for me. I've never cozied up to real Champagne -- too steely and bubbly for me -- but the Thornton tasted mellow and a bit oaky, with bubbles as gentle as a Prosecco or a naturally sparkling Vouvray. This and all other pours were generous.
"Bubalus Bubalis buffalo ricotta gnudi" arrived next on the taster. "Bubalus" is Latin for water buffalo, the source of the California cheese enclosed in the gnudi -- thin-skinned dumplings resembling ricotta-filled dim sum. This isn't my first taste of gnudi, but it's the best I can remember. The ricotta tastes fresh and sunny, and the Meyer lemon sauce that robed the spheres was so flawless a match that I wanted to lick the plate. This dish came with a vina nora albariño, a steely, straightforward Spanish white that cleansed the palate like Evian water.
My partner began with an appetizer of lime- and honey-cured yellowtail, a type of jackfish that sushi-lovers know as hamachi. The firm, tasty fish arrives sliced like sashimi, along with avocado mousse, jicama and radish slices, and a daub of mild jalapeño jelly. "Taste them all at once, all the flavors will come together in harmony," said our waiter. We followed his instructions, making a jellyroll of all the garnishes on a slice of fish. We found this combination too sweet for our tastes. On the second round, we omitted the jam and much preferred the result. You can choose from eight other starter choices, including grilled hearts of romaine with smoked paprika-marinated calamari and Spanish piquillo peppers, and "toad in the hole": an organic poached egg in a nest of brioche with wild mushrooms and asparagus tips.
The tasting selection includes both a fish and a meat entrée chosen by the chef. The herb-crusted Pacific halibut recreates a popular dish that chef Shaeffer cooked at Laurel. A thick chunk of flaky halibut (some sections more tender than others) came with haricots verts (young green beans), pickled radish, braised scallions, and a light cream sauce studded with black Italian truffle shavings (at my visit they were canned; by now, expect fresh summer truffles). The truffles filled out the flavor, which might otherwise have been pallid. (That's halibut for you.) The wine that normally comes with this entrée is Zaca Mesa Chardonnay -- a big, firm, leggy classic from the Central Coast. But since that was the same wine I'd enjoyed for my aperitif, the sommelier substituted a glass of Talbott (which costs $2 more by the glass when ordered à la carte). If ZM is straight-ahead and zesty, the Talbott is rich and eccentric, with a nose of flowers growing in well-aged horse manure and legs like Nicole Kidman. It was a treat, and I appreciated the sommelier's consideration in providing a fresh taste treat.