11966 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley
I’d been eating in low-down dives for months. Some were high-rent dives, with coastside views that give them an exaggerated sense of their own value, and I was tired of swallowing slop at any price. I needed a treat. I needed a lot of health insurance. I needed a vacation and a home in the country and a new car wouldn’t hurt. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a credit card. (My gun was gone — my ex got custody.) I put my hat and coat on and headed for Arterra.
The last time I ate at Arterra, it’s then nearly new head chef lammed it out the back door and ran home to Pittsburgh a few days after the review came out. Don’t blame me, I liked his food fine. Ever since the original chef de cuisine, Carl Schroeder, left to open Market a few miles north, Arterra’s been a revolving door, spinning chefs through at mad speed for no reason that I can fathom. Even Philip Marlowe might be stumped by this mystery.
This time, the “new” near-new (since 2007) executive chef, Jason Maitland, has been cooking, in one capacity or another, in that same open kitchen since its opening day. Son of a gourmet-cook doctor, and himself a graduate of the New England Culinary School in Vermont, he moved west looking for sunshine and found it in San Diego. He took a job at Arterra as junior sous chef in January 2002 and has risen through the ranks to the top toque position. Maybe he’ll stick around awhile. I hope so. He’s good.
I kicked myself for missing the bold fall menu, where Maitland challenged San Diego’s native food-fear with dishes such as seared beef tongue, roasted bone marrow, and truffled popcorn sweetbreads. Unfortunately, I was otherwise engaged, questing for manna on the meaner streets and mainly failing to find it. I finally got to the restaurant during January Restaurant Week, hoping for a little mercy to my wallet along with my palate. Instead of just three choices per course like most restaurants, Arterra’s $40 prix fixe offered a menu with six appetizers and six entrées, several of the most desirable choices carrying surcharges of up to $15. The wine list — remarkably thin at the low end — wiped out any other savings, since I’m not about to turn teetotaler anytime soon. I’ve heard about a country that tried that, about 80 years ago. It didn’t work out.
I was eating with Lynne and Mark and Ben. We told the waiter it’d be family style. He knew what we meant. Following the dictum “age before beauty,” he delivered the seared duck foie gras to me for first bites. I’ve eaten enough foie gras that I’m almost inured to its divinity, but I was taken with this astute treatment. A tart “salad” of local blood-orange slices complemented its unctuousness, while an intensely citrusy chutney-like marmalade offered bittersweet notes. Best of all, delicate, crackly soft flakes of black “lava salt” from Hawaii, placed alongside for the diner to add at will, brought all the flavors into focus with their gentle mineral undertones. This wasn’t salt for saltiness’s sake but a distinctive flavor of its own. (It also wasn’t one of those sulfurous Joe Versus the Volcano pricey black salts that stink like a blowhole on Kilauea or the mouth of hell.)
Local organic cauliflower soup sounded humble but outshone the foie. It had a darker, richer flavor than any mere cruciferous vegetable can ever confer, reminiscent of black truffles: cumin oil and coriander, per the menu. Floating in the soup were bits of rich braised beef and nameless sautéed root vegetables. “I want that again for dessert,” said Ben, who started the bowl and longed to bogart it. “I want it for my last meal,” I said. Only January when eaten, and it’s already a shoo-in for the year’s “best dishes” list.
After that high point, a salad of braised Chino Farms baby beets (both red and gold) was bound to be anticlimactic. Is there any California cuisine restaurant in the entire state that does not offer a beet salad? And of all the beet salads in all of California, how many of them don’t include melted goat cheese? This one was still lovable due to a few fresh seasonal twists, with organic blood orange and tangelo segments over shaved fennel and arugula dressed with curry vinaigrette, and chevre puffs coated in earthy whole-wheat flour. If we must have more beet salads, then let them be like this one.
The one semi-flop starter was a smallish, not-moist-enough pan-seared blue crab cake. If beet salads are now as common as dirt, crab cakes are as ubiquitous as ants. This one was plated over a hash of roasted chestnuts and butternut squash with “melted” cipollini onions and sage butter. “We’re here for our big scene with the duck,” said the squash cubes and onions. “Hey, I thought we were booked to back up the heritage pork,” the chestnuts and sage grumbled. However clever they were, these garnishes by nature seemed to rebel against lending support to wimpy crab cakes. I’m surprised they didn’t call a strike and walk off the plate.
The entrées weren’t quite up to the cauliflower soup, but few things are. The best was grilled natural Duroc pork — you may know it better by its Japanese name, Kurobuta. We chose the eight-ounce bone-in chop. (You could get a bigger chop or a “New York” cut for even higher surcharges.) It was cooked longer than requested but was still savory, surrounded by kale festooned with bits of salty, smoky bacon and topped with sweet-tart huckleberry compote and, for a final touch, served with a slick of creamy cauliflower purée. “This chef is so good with salt,” the Lynnester said, eating the kale. “Yeah,” said Mark. “He uses it as an active flavor, not just a passive addiction like most American cooking.”
A duo of Prime beef short-ribs had, first of all, USDA Prime-grade beef. As I learned at George’s at the Cove a few years ago, even low-on-the-steer braising cuts are vastly better as Prime than as lower grades. The plate looked as dainty as an appetizer, with its two modest brown mounds, but with flavors as huge as Sydney Greenstreet’s suit size. Half the duo was a “shepherd’s pie” consisting of browned mashed potatoes fried in duck fat, topping a mix of chopped meat and root vegetables. This is, obviously, not at all what Brits eat at home, or even in pubs. The other half was a Napoleon-like layering of soft and juicy Syrah-braised meat over veggies. Somewhere on the plate was something called a “three-minute egg sauce,” but none of us could locate or identify it. Nobody cared.