The second main course was a natural certified Angus beef rib coulotte, the top strip of a prime rib that usually gets roasted well-done but is delicious anyway. I ordered it very rare, and so it arrived. It came with a tiny pastry filled with sinful, fatty beef marrow and a heap of golden potato mousseline (mash plus whipped cream) dotted with fresh morels and moistened with a splash of jus. It's a dish fit for a king. With it, the wine was a Curtis "Crossroads Block" Syrah -- mouth-friendly, food-friendly, slightly sweet. Even my beer-dedicated partner enjoyed a sip.
Before I could take two bites, my partner's entrée of farm-raised Baja mano de león scallops arrived, mingling with Maine lobster meat, bacon, and succotash. Baja scallops don't taste the same as Gloucester scallops: they're full of flavor but a tad tougher and saltier than their Atlantic cousins. They're also more consistent, and usually fresher (which is why local star chefs like George's at the Cove's Trey Foshee and Asia Vous's Riko Bartolomei have been favoring them). They were beautifully seared, translucent at the center, and garnished with thick slices of applewood-smoked slab bacon from Neuske's Smokery in Wisconsin, hunks of genuine lobster (not cheap processed knuckle meat but the flesh of whole "culls," blanched and shelled in-house), and a succotash of fresh corn and baby fava beans moistened by the salty cooking juices. (The other nine entrée choices include roasted Shelton Farms free-range chicken, Kurabata pork short rib and loin, pan-roasted sea bass, and California lamb porterhouse.)
I saved a bit of Syrah wine for the last course, a choice of one cheese or a selection of fruit with crème fraîche. I chose a goat cheese, served with dates, walnuts, and walnut bread. It arrived fridge-cold, so I took most of it home for a midnight snack. Trying it later at room temperature, I found it mellow on the exterior but grainy at the center, needing further aging. (This works for American tastes but would be frowned on in France, where cheeses are served mature and warm, running all over the plate like melting ice cream.)
My partner leaped at the chance to try a white peach tarte Tatin, devised by Del pastry chef Daphne Higa and plated by 1500's Pam Averkamp. This proved a charming rendition, with a single paper-thin pastry layer as the foundation for a fruity, not-too-sweet edifice of peach slices -- natural, unspiced, some pieces unpeeled. With it came a "peach soup," a thick, intense nectar seasoned with allspice and clove. On a cooler night, we might have chosen the Medjool date and almond tart with blue cheese mousse, or the warm mango rice pudding. A few degrees hotter out, and the fruit sorbet vacherin would have tempted us sorely.
With its new view, chef, and menu, 1500 is a restaurant I'd revisit anytime, and one where I'd be happy to invite my out-of-town guests. The Del may be one of our most stately monuments, but there's life in the old girl yet.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My mother cooks, and her mom, Grandmother Myers, cooked a lot," says Jason Shaeffer, raised in a tight-knit family in North Carolina. "I remember helping out as a little kid. I don't want to say it was a farm, but we raised chickens for eggs, and we had a huge garden, so I was always weeding and helping out there. I remember going down in spring with old-school serrated steak knives and cutting asparagus for that night's dinner. I started working as a dishwasher in the summer when I was 15, to get money for a car when I turned 16. I was bussing tables, too. It was a seasonal place, and at the end of the season all the cooks were leaving, and they asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook. I had done some pizza-making, sandwich-making, that kind of stuff, so I learned how to cook there and fell in love with it. I've been with it ever since. I learned on the job for about a year and a half, and then I went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island.
"I came to San Diego for a job that fell through. I was at Laurel for three years, and I moved from there to New York for two years, working as sous-chef under Thomas Keller [of the French Laundry] at Per Se and under Terrence Brennan at Artisinal Cheese Center. It was a great experience.... But I decided I wanted to come back to San Diego so I moved back here about a year ago, worked odd jobs, and then this job came up. I started here in February and was in on the whole project.
"At Per Se I learned a lot of things about discipline, about the way to do things, that I brought here. We have respect for each other and the food, and I learned techniques and technology. We train our staff here the same way. We had seminars and training sessions six, seven days of the week before we opened, to get as much knowledge out there as we possibly could. And instead of just calling in an order, I went out to the farms, shook hands, spent some time in the dirt. Met people in the seafood industry in Santa Barbara. Met the cheesemakers we use, watched them make their cheese. And I put people in touch, like, the Bubalus Bubalis cheesemakers were looking for a distributor, and I helped them find one, so you may find that cheese at other local restaurants in the future.
"The philosophy of Southern California cuisine, which we're outlining as Santa Barbara down to Cabo San Lucas, is in terms of what is available here as our base of a true regional cooking style with a kind of whimsical approach -- using things that are produced locally, things that are fresh and seasonal (although it's hard to say 'seasonal' here because the seasons go on and on). This concept was in place when I got here. They hired Clark Wolf, an entertainment consultant from Clark Wolf Company, for this whole project. He came up with the concept and hired the Engstrom Group from the San Francisco Bay Area. They did the design of the restaurant -- so this is a Clark Wolf brainchild. He works out of New York, but he's originally from the L.A. area, and he's done some pretty big stuff.
"I'm gonna change the menu every two and a half to three months, to follow the produce that's in season. At the end of each season we're going to preserve and pickle and jar the ingredients so we can keep them a little longer than that season."