Lynne, a lover of braises, chose short ribs “osso buco style.” They were what your mom might make if she’s a very adept cook — tender, just fatty enough for flavor, in a deeply beefy liquid. They offer old-fashioned goodness, even if they’re not the revelatory ribs of George’s California Modern, or of Market, both made from higher grades of beef and garnished with their chefs’ higher-flying ambitions. (As you might expect, the doggy-bag reheat tasted even better. Braises and stews do tend to improve overnight.)
Cheryl picked the evening’s seafood special, grilled swordfish. It wasn’t overcooked, and it came with actual vegetables — a wonderfully gooey, cheesy potato gratin and crisp grilled asparagus. I can’t say that the fish itself was truly interesting, but then swordfish is rarely as thrilling as one hopes it will be.
The menu is long, and perusing its various corners offered some amusement in the mode of time travel to the culinary past. I can’t remember the last time I saw veal liver and onions. (I know that several down-home eateries and diners around town regularly offer liver and onions — but I doubt it’s calf’s liver.) Here it’s made with “milk-fed” (translation: Simulac for cows) Provimi veal, whose livers would probably be light-colored and tender, something like a mammalian foie gras. There’s also a modest three-cheese meatloaf nestling among the expensive steaks, like a poacher amidst the fox-hunting party, and (so tempting!) a genuine butter-drenched Dover sole meunière, with fish flown in from Europe. That’s a fish leaving its carbon footprint over 7000 miles of sky (but so-o-o good).
On a menu section titled “Special Things We Do for You” (the source of both the short ribs and the Wellington), I noticed a marinated roast Shelton (natural) chicken. Normally, I wouldn’t really consider ordering roast chicken in a restaurant (unless I were at Chez Ami Louis in Paris), but next time I might, because Shelton birds are exceptionally flavorful, and I’d trust this seasoned chef to come up with a good marinade.
For dessert, we ventured on profiteroles, filled with vanilla ice cream. They were plated over caramel syrup and drenched in chocolate sauce, and the two sauces conspired to gum up the delicate texture of the pastry. Even with four sharing it, we abandoned it half eaten as just too sweet. A wedge of cheesecake imported from New York’s Carnegie Deli was huge, weighty, and as New Yorkish as a replica of the Carnegie Hall building carved out of cottage cheese.
The chef may be new here, but the traditions are old, and they hold. I don’t think people go to Rainwater’s looking for surprises. People mainly go there to eat what they’ve always eaten there. When I was 20, I would have found the food utterly thrilling, but in the immortal words of malapropish film mogul Louis B. Mayer, “Much water has been passed since then.” Dinner here seems a bit quaint and nostalgic, an array of luxurious cuisine from the bygone days of the genuine 40-hour week, of the vacation with no email device in the hand-luggage, of jobs that lasted forever and ended with employer-paid pensions instead of 401Ks — a time that was less culinarily adventurous but also less fraught, and vastly more indulgent with its rich, easy comforts. It’s a lovely time to visit.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Julian Quinones is a mellow local guy, returning after years of working out of town. “I started as a dishwasher in Del Mar at the racetrack when I was 16 years old,” he says. “Two months later they advanced me to cook’s helper — you know, run upstairs and get them the spices. And I saw the cooks — they were older, and they were having such fun. They’d be working hard and throwing bread across the room at each other, and I thought it would be fun to be a chef. So I asked them, ‘What’s the best way to learn to do your job?’ ‘Get in a good restaurant and learn to cook the right way. If you get in a bad restaurant, you’ll be messed up all your life,’ they said. I didn’t know much about food, but I picked the best. I started at Hotel Circle at Angelo’s, an Italian restaurant. At that time, the chefs there were from Las Vegas, and they were really good.
“I started there back in ’69, and I went to Plate 500, where Liberace’s orchestra used to play. Everybody was in tails. It was a huge thing for me. I started in pantry, and then I was making French desserts. Everything was served on silver platters. I moved to broiler and learned to cut meats. I learned sautés, how to make sauces, and I decided I wanted to be a chef [not just a cook]. From there I went to Pucci’s, which was also French service, huge menu. I started on [the] sauté [station], and six months later I was a sous-chef. I’d work 14 hours a day and get paid for 8, but I was doing everybody’s job. I learned really fast and had some natural ability, and six months after that they made me the chef. So I’ve been a chef since 1973.
“I’ve worked quite a few jobs. I worked at La Valencia for nine years in the ’80s. I got out of the business — I moved north to Washington State and bought an 80-acre farm and put a track in and was training and breeding racehorses. I opened my own restaurants up there. So I went about eight years running my own businesses, with restaurants and horses. Started my son [in the business]. He’s now executive sous-chef at La Costa — he’s turned out really good. I trained a lot of chefs who started out as dishwashers, and now they’re making more money than I do. But I love the business.
“Then I worked in Palm Springs at the Chop House, but since I’m originally from San Diego, my family’s here. My mother’s getting up in age, and I wanted to be close to her if she’s sick, and my grandkids are here, and I’ve got a great-grandson, too. So I came back here and applied for a job at Rainwater’s because I really had a good feeling about the owners. I’d applied with them before, and this time they hired me, and it’s been a great relationship.