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Marinated, grilled natural chicken breast with oregano and olive jus came with a mound of roasted corn, red peppers, and Israeli couscous. It was really good for chicken breast — not dry — but it was still breast. Perhaps someday scientists will find a way to turn this meat into organic transplant material for the glamour gals of Del Mar. Most weeks, duck is on the menu instead. Given the choice, go with the quacker. “Who’s better than a Chinaman at roasting duck?” says chef Tim Au.

The tasting wines for the scallops and chicken came as a pair: a Kim Crawford Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir from the same maker and region. They were fine, but both were blown away by the red that accompanied the beef, a Matt Block blend (Stellenbosch, South Africa) combining Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot. The overall flavor was that of a carefree, food-friendly Rhone with an undertone of darker Bordeaux flavors. The older I get, the less I cotton to the egotistical posturings of California Cabs (give me Bordeaux or give me plonk!) and the more I enjoy the friendly charm of grapes from the Rhône, wherever they’re grown — especially this area of South Africa, where they seem to have settled in comfortably.

The hits just kept on coming, although by dessert I found it harder to concentrate on yet more food, more wine. (Those penetrating appetizer flavors with their somatic impacts had taken a toll on my palate. How much pleasure can a body and mind absorb at one meal?) The hotel pastry chef, Rudy Wieder, devises desserts, following the general guidelines of Tim Au — who likes light desserts as much as I do.

Carlsbad strawberry shortcake with minted chantilly cream was airy, accompanied by an Inniskillin Cabernet Franc ice wine from Canada. Bananas Foster, prepared and flamed tableside by our waiter the old-timey way, was luscious with vanilla ice cream to lighten it up, and on the side, Inniskillin Vidal Icewine (like its kinfolk, from the Niagara area). The decaf espresso was perfect.

The underlying question about Molly’s is: Now that chef Brian Sinott has moved on, is it still worth eating there, in the territory of tourists and conventioneers? Well — unlike the fleshpots of the nearby Gaslamp, you get hassle-free, money-free parking. And a very pretty, quiet, civilized place to eat in. And truly fine food and a wine list that won’t bankrupt you for plonk but gives you interesting choices for whatever you can pay. All this, and what we ate was from a Restaurant Week menu — not the prime stuff, but the least-costly dishes for the kitchen to produce. And we were still thrilled. Tim Au is not a carbon copy of Sinnott, but he’s fully as good on his own, and miles ahead of the empty glitz that lies just to the north. Whoever this Molly is, she deserves a big kiss.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Timothy Au (preferably pronounced “Ow,” although he says “Aw” is okay) has been a chef for 25 years. His interest in food started early: At age six, he tried to teach the babysitter how to make steamed rice. He attended cooking school in Milwaukee and simultaneously suffered a rigorous French-style apprenticeship at a leading restaurant there. Then he worked in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Hawaii under some of the country’s most celebrated chefs, including Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Jeremiah Tower, and Bradley Ogden, including four years as chef de cuisine under Jeff Jackson at the esteemed A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, before moving on to Connecticut as executive chef at a luxury resort. Superstar chef Bradley Ogden brought him back here, recruiting him for the job at Molly’s. If you’d like to read his full résumé in detail, you’ll find it on Molly’s website.

“My mom cooked a lot of canned and frozen and convenience food. With both parents working and having four boys, both my parents cooked. My father cooked in the Chinese style, and my mother cooked in the convenient Midwestern ’50s style. I preferred — don’t tell my mom — my father’s cooking. His father was a Chinese missionary who traveled all around China with his wife, my grandmother, so the food they cooked wasn’t regional, it was basically the whole of China. It was like an American style of Chinese, homogenized, but they started with the Mandarin region — light, not spicy.

“Back when I started cooking in the ’80s, being a chef wasn’t a glamorous profession. I grew up kind of a bad kid. I wasn’t thought to be the brightest child on the block. And growing up in Wisconsin back then, it was very…Caucasian. The south side of Milwaukee was very Germanic and Polish, and I was kind of beaten down by teachers and classmates alike.… So the reason I started cooking was that I’d always have a job, I’d never go hungry, and I thought I was not intelligent enough to do anything else.

“In high school I went to two different schools, the School of the Arts and the Broadcast Journalism School, because I wanted to be a disc jockey. But I’m not a person who can live a solitary lifestyle as a disc jockey, so I decided to do something I enjoyed, which was cooking.

“I didn’t realize at first what upscale European food was about — I thought it was really cool, really interesting. As I was growing up, we’d go to some Polish- and German- and Serbian-style restaurants. There wasn’t anything much more in Milwaukee, and we didn’t have a lot of money to eat out. But later on in life I realized that the food I was eating [during my apprenticeship] was part of each country’s history and the way of life there. You could tell the weather by the way they cook. All the different foods have a reason why they’re the way they are. No, I haven’t traveled. I’ve pretty much filled my life with work…. I waited a long time before I became a sous-chef because I wanted to be the best in the kitchen.”

[2009 Editor's Note: Molly's has since closed.]

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