5200 Grand Del Mar Way, Del Mar
Yes, I know. When I reviewed Addison in December 2006, shortly after its opening, I swore, “I wouldn’t go back there if somebody paid me — and somebody does.” Service conformed to some vulgar idea of “classy” (maybe that of real estate baron Doug Manchester, owner of this resort): rigid, graceless, excessive, and authoritarian. Sour was the flavor du jour at that meal, running all through the main menu after blasting off unforgettably with a sadistic “amuse” of a bowl of extra-sour yogurt dotted with unsweetened tart gooseberries and puckery quince. Later, Maria Hunt of the Union-Tribune ventured there, several times, and went to print nearly a year after I did, once the service was finally ready for prime time. Her review meals (which she mostly loved) had the opposite problem: an omnipresent “sweet profile” that grew wearisome before she reached dessert.
Since then, Addison has won numerous honors and awards, most recently a prestigious Relais et Chateaux Grand Chef award to chef William (“Wild Bill”) Bradley, plus numerous wine-list awards for its redoubtable master sommelier Jesse Rodriguez, an alumnus of the French Laundry. Plus five diamonds and five stars from travel specialists AAA and Forbes/Mobil.
What with the recession, I’ve reviewed few serious high-end restaurants this year or last, but if there’s any season for a splurge, the December holidays are it. I decided to go back to Addison in light of so much acclaim. Maybe my initial review was unjust; maybe I’d hit Chef Bradley at some bad juncture and he’d recovered, or he’d made a great leap forward.
Addison (named for old-time architect Addison Mizner) is hard to find, high in the wooded hills overlooking Carmel Valley, on a two-lane road with a “gatekeeper,” politely checking that you do have some business entering the Grand’s exalted realm, and then a series of speed bumps to impede your progress toward your hoped-for culinary nirvana. The restaurant isn’t in the hotel proper but several more minutes up the road in a splendid building of its own, with valet parking in its courtyard and a fireplace by the bench in front, where you can warmly await the rest of your party if you’re not up for lounging in the bar. The dining room is wheelchair-accessible but a bit of a walk over the lobby’s beautifully patterned slick marble if, say, your shiny new shoes pinch your toes. Most of the patrons we saw that Thursday night were not seriously dolled up, except for a volubly hebephrenic group in black suits and chic black cocktail dresses, incessantly shrieking their joy at somebody’s birthday.
The dining room, with comfortable leather banquettes in the corners, has well-spaced tables, handsome wood floors that peek out from thick carpeting, high ceilings with a large craftsmanly wooden chandelier, and awful faux-Cézanne still lifes here and there. And a whole passel of waiters and bussers, trying to be helpful. The atmosphere brings to mind a two-star provincial French restaurant striving strenuously for its third star in the Guide Michelin.
My dear friend Sam, a tablemate at the first dinner, volunteered for the retry. Once seated, we were offered a glass of champagne. I don’t know whether it’s free or not, but I get no kick from champagne; we passed. (When I called the next day to find out the price, if any, and to ask a few other questions, I got stuck for over ten minutes in hold-hell and gave up.) Then you can choose between still or sparkling bottled water (no charge).
You get not just one “amuse” but two. Our first was a tasty minimound of cold smoked-salmon rillettes wearing a top knot of citrus crème fraîche. A few minutes later came a small gougère, a light pastry shell bursting with a warm splash of mild melted cheese, perhaps loosened by crème fraîche or butter. The rather chilly waiter told us to eat it all in one bite. I disobeyed, enjoying it slowly in four well-savored bites. (It’s just gougère, after all, a standard French treat — not some high-tech gastro-experiment that might really require following the server’s orders.)
The menu is brief: four dishes each for first appetizer, second appetizer, entrée, and dessert. You can order three courses for $85 (plus small surcharges for some dishes, such as baby scallops) or four for $98. There are also chef’s tastings offering seven ($140) or ten ($225) courses for the whole table.
Both our first-course appetizers were ethereal, amazing, topped with “foams” as though to emphasize their airiness. Calamari “Grillé” (slices of squid bodies, no tentacles) was the best squid either Sam or I had ever tasted, astonishing us with their velvety tenderness. It was hard to believe they’d been grilled, since they were barely cooked. They were paired with lush black agnolotti colored with squid ink and filled with a deliciously salty purée of kalamata-style black olives and, perhaps, butter, with a few odd (very odd!) shreds of raw lettuce afloat in the engaging soi-disant “bouillabaisse” sauce — which is pinkish, salty, a little tart, and thickened with beurre monté, slowly beaten-in butter. It bears no clear resemblance to bouillabaisse fish-broth, except in the color and some distant connection with fish.
Foamier yet was the sauce crowning a quartet of baby sea scallops cooked to a barely done, melt-in-the-mouth stage, each one topped with a small green “tile,” apparently a baby spinach leaf that may have undergone some kitchen magic to create its unusual semifirm texture. Under that, two scallops bore a sprinkle of tiny black caviar; the other pair offered a trace of some sexy golden cream, totally mysterious. In the center-bottom of the plate was a thin layer of smooth, buttery spinach puree of a dark-jade color, surrounded by pale foam — presumably based on miso, because that’s what the menu says, but it neither looks nor tastes like the assertive Japanese soup.
So these are why Wild Bill wins all those awards. They’re among the very best dishes you’ll find in San Diego or probably anywhere else. But you get no sopping-bread to enjoy the last drops of the sauces. Instead, you’re served a crisp lemon-Parmesan bread stick (one per person). You do get a tablespoon — without which I might well have reverted to my time in South Asia and used my fingers to wipe out the bowls!