1540 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
I’ve got stripes, stripes around my shoulders, I’ve got chains, chains around my legs…
— Johnny Cash (based on Leadbelly’s “On a Monday”)
For months I’ve been meaning to eat at Kitchen 1540, formerly the more formal J. Taylor’s at L’Auberge Del Mar. Not only has it been renamed, it’s been renovated into a fresh and friendly environment — still helmed by the same fine chef, Paul McCabe. What finally spurred me to action was a novel circumstance: I was sold to the highest bidder.
A local nonprofit theater company decided to hold a fundraising auction, and somebody had the cockamamie idea of offering “a dinner with Naomi and her posse” as a prize. They cleared it first with my Big Boss (who probably enjoyed the thought of me chained to the block in tattered rags, lashed if I didn’t perform for my masters). I was, of course, too flattered to refuse.
My slavemasters proved to be a smart, charming pair of La Jollans, Gail and Bruce, whose last name I will disguise as “Crowe.” Obviously, after they’d spent real money for me, I wouldn’t take them to some high-risk, low-budget mom ’n’ pop, nor a chancy midrange joint. I offered several upscale new choices and, fortuitously, they picked Kitchen 1540.
The Lynnester had longtime dibs on this destination, to make up for a disaster we shared at this restaurant’s previous incarnation during Christmas season 2005. Chef McCabe, newly arrived, and his overwhelmed kitchen staff were catering seven private parties and also attending to a full house in the restaurant — while the servers were godawful seasonal temps. It took 25 minutes to get wine, 45 for bread, 50 before appetizers arrived. Among these was foie gras served on a hot rock clattering loose on a flat dining plate. Imagine Jim Carrey playing a temp waiter: “Whoops!” Well, we didn’t get burning stones in our laps, but I was elected to finish cooking the damned foie on one. The room was dim, we were ravenous, I couldn’t see the color of the meat and took it off the rock too soon. Blech! Raw liver! (Didn’t write a review. Too much craziness.)
In the redecorated dining room, you can see your food. It’s bright, modern, airy, with blond-wood tables and an open kitchen. There’s no view per se, but behind the hotel lobby next door, a new back terrace features an ocean panorama. My party of six (Ben and Mark joined us) was seated in our own tented, curtained “cabana” on a heated enclosed patio. The bread basket was full of house-baked fun, especially the sweet cranberry-topped focaccia and hearty olive bread.
We’d missed the grand-reopening star appetizer — a hefty four-ounce hunk of foie gras cooked on a stone (again!) and scattered with fruit-flavored Pop Rocks. PETA — which just berated our president for swatting a fly — has bullied the hotel management into taking this off the printed menu. It’s still available if you knock three times and whisper low. Personally, I’d rather have an expert cook this precious substance than play DIY with it, but just letting you know.…
The menu is highly seasonal, so what we ate will not necessarily be what you can eat, although some dishes have longer runs than others. The hit of the evening, still on menu, featured tenderly cooked, sweet day-boat scallops, plated with “popcorn purée,” roasted baby corn cobs, and BliS maple syrup. Many chefs use liquid nitrogen to make instant ice cream, and the more creative ones are exploring other exciting possibilities. McCabe freezes the popcorn in liquid nitrogen to “explode” it, then runs it through a juicer. “What comes out from that is the most spectacular, lightest purée, lighter than cornstarch,” says McCabe. “I’m wary of ‘molecular gastronomy’ — I use some molecular techniques, but I also make chorizo and soppressata from scratch. Basically, we’re using every technique that’s available to us today, without scaring the guests.” As for that BLiS maple, it’s a handcrafted organic syrup from Canada, aged in old whiskey barrels for several years, gaining oak and bourbon flavors — the ultimate maple syrup — and it’s merely a garnishing slick on the plate. Had I known its pedigree, I might’ve licked the plate (well, at least run my finger through the syrup to sample straight-up). All we knew is that everything in this array tasted terrific apart and together.
One of McCabe’s signature dishes combines tiny, delicate-skinned agnolotti filled with sweet peas, served in rich brown butter with a large, shelled Maine lobster claw and chanterelle mushrooms. It’s a perfect mix: veg sweetness and seafood sweetness, tender pasta and tender lobster, plus two touches of darker richness (mushrooms and brown butter) to ground it all. By now, the pasta filling has changed seasonally to sweet corn. No loss at all — I tasted this version at one of those charity eat-o-ramas a few summers ago and nearly burst out crying from sheer pleasure.
I ordered a wild-nettle-and- ramp risotto appetizer because, despite my indifference to the charms of risotto, I’d never tasted nettles. This was our culinary Susan Boyle, a frumpy-looking surprise star. The nettles, their sting cooked away, imbued the rice with a vibrant green flavor, with gentled-down sautéed ramps (wild scallions) providing a sweet backbeat. Favas and leeks contributed, and topping the array, spectacularly, were tempura-cooked morels, the finest mushrooms of them all, crinkly-textured and intense-flavored inside the airy batter. Ecstatic groans all around.
Other appetizers were subtly less satisfying. Bison tartare was pleasant, tender, meaty, unexpectedly mild-flavored, and came with brioche croutons and smoked bacon sabayon — but not enough sabayon! You want lots of “other stuff” to liven up any tartare, because raw meat is, finally, raw meat, only that and nothing more.
A deep-fried soft-shelled Maryland crab tasted slightly bitter, probably no fault of the kitchen, merely a grumpy crab who’d been reading Ann Coulter or Isaiah on death row just before he met his maker. His garnish of “compressed melon” (another liquid-nitrogen miracle) was a delight, though. The chef was on vacation that week, and sorry to say, the uni listed on the menu was apparently omitted.