Crispy Skin Loch Duart King Salmon offered Scottish salmon in a saffron-curry nage — the latter being a brothy, light sauce (from the French word for “swim”). Alongside the moist, tender fish (and yummy crisp skin) were fingerling potatoes, local organic chard, and, best of all, a swarmlet of tender, peeled whole garlic cloves lending their rooty sweetness.

Least exciting was Jidori chicken. It had tender breast meat cooked sous vide and a confit leg “terrine” that resembled Thanksgiving stuffing, plus brussels sprouts with bacon and some contribution (vaguely noted on the menu) from Meyer lemons. Maybe it’s time for chefs to stop treating Jidori chicken like the fowl Holy Grail. Even if it has a Japanese name and a refined upbringing, it’s still just chicken. Do something! Spice it up, stuff it, brine it, marinate it — do anything!

Finding “affordable” wines was not just challenging, it was painful. I’m on a budget here myself. My job is to come up with the best quaffs from the bottom realms of the list — from what you’ve told me in your emails, that’s what you want, and so does my Boss of Bosses. Best I could do for a white was “Le Secret Ivre” (“drunken secret”), a big delicious white Rhone Marsanne blend for $52. Reds were seriously hard, since even the Chilean and Argentine selections ran over $100. I finally settled for an over-$60 Stellenbosch Cab that didn’t thrill me at all. Other local sommeliers manage to provide delicious $30–$40 choices from South America, South Africa, Iberia, New Zealand, Australia, the Rhone, the Loire, the Minervois, and — yes, North County and Baja. Is the sommelier here living in some dream world in his very corporate hotel restaurant, cheek-to-cheek with bankers whooping it up on their bailouts? Oh, Mr. Marriott, who do you think you are…?

We weren’t happy with service, either — not a problem with our waiter, but with the service-management plan. The waiter was covering too many other tables, and we couldn’t get him back again when we needed him — just runners and busers with no power to initiate action. He wasn’t there often enough to refill our glasses with the white wine and was long delayed when we wanted to order a red for the entrée course and then again to deliver said red. Part of our discontent with the Cabernet was that it arrived far too late, when we were already down to seeds and stems on the food — had we realized how long it would take, we would probably have skipped it and just hoarded the last of our white and maybe (God forbid) sipped more San Diego water. (And while I’m at it: Why is Arterra still giving each table only one or two of the brilliant little corn muffins in the bread basket, even when there are four diners? That is so chintzy! We’re not spending enough on indulgence, you have to withhold everybody’s favorite signature dish? Grrr!)

All three desserts were highly accomplished, even if none quite hit my “D” (for Dessert) spot. The lightest consisted of three scoops of blood orange–tangelo sorbet, just right after all the red meat. Most exciting was a pastry called “roasted pineapple waukau,” filled with roasted pineapple chunks and accompanied by a rich cream-cheese ice cream. But I didn’t like the pastry — too dense and heavy. A “rocky-road brownie” was a reasonably delicate dark-chocolate confection accompanied by a frozen milk-chocolate mousse that seemed cloned from a Fudgsicle.

When Arterra first opened, celeb chef Bradley Ogden was in charge of the kitchen. At that time, I found the food a little too laid-back and “business dinner-ish” for my tastes (my frequent complaint with Brad’s style). And I’ve never liked the business-class vibe of the Carmel Valley Marriott. (Stayed there one night. Room windows are sealed. Corporate tyranny!) But with each successive chef, I’ve liked the cooking better, as the newcomers have each seized the reins and made the menu his own, within the admirable framework of a local-sustainable-organic farm-to-table ethos. Maitland makes the food not just good but fun — you want to stick around to see what he’ll do for his next act. The food costs, but you get actual value for your money when it tastes this pleasing.

The rich are different from you and me: they have more money to spend at good restaurants (unless they’ve been “Madoffed”). The rest of us, in these scary times, have to make our own deals with the devil. We can eat out rarely and well. We can eat out often, but often rather badly. (It’s not always slop, but it can feel that way if you know that, with a little time and energy, you can cook better yourself.) We can also seek out great, cheap ethnic mom ’n’ pops (and I found a corker for next week’s review). As the old-time carnies used to say, “Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.” Arterra remains a primo destination when your whole weary, frazzled being is crying out for a vacation, a house in the country — or at least the treat of a truly fine meal.

Arterra
****
(Excellent)
Marriott Hotel, 11966 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley, 858-369-6032, arterrarestaurant.com.
HOURS: Breakfast weekdays 6:30–10:30 a.m.; weekends 7:00–11:30 a.m. Lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Dinner Monday–Saturday 5:30–9:30 p.m. (Bar only on Sundays.) Outdoor lounge seven days, 11 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $9–$19; entrées, $28–$38. Tasting dinners, $59–$89, wine-pairings starting at $45; desserts, $11; cheese plates, $12–$16. Breakfast buffets, $14 and $18, plus à la carte.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Constantly changing seasonal menu of “farm to table” California cuisine, with top-grade fresh and sustainably raised ingredients, including Prime beef, heritage poultry and meat breeds, Chino Farms produce. International, wide-ranging but expensive wine list, few choices under $50. Corkage, $25 per bottle, $35 magnums; no wine opened that the house carries. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Cauliflower soup with braised beef, foie gras with blood orange, Prime beef short-ribs duo, crispy-skin salmon, Duroc pork chop with bacon-braised kale.
NEED TO KNOW: Ask for detailed travel directions when reserving, as route from freeway is tricky. Validated self-parking in garage. Vegetarians and vegans easily accommodated by request.

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