1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
Jason Maitland was the final chef at Arterra before the Marriott fired him and everybody else to remake the restaurant from scratch. (I haven’t been to the new incarnation and can’t say I’m eager: for Thanksgiving dinner they served chicken instead of turkey...an ill omen, perhaps?) Maitland has bounced back as chef at the new Flavor Del Mar. It’s on the former site of Epazote, which cooked Southwestern style until it finally tried to be a steakhouse; but it was always known mainly as a “meet market.”
Here, Maitland carries on the Arterra/Cal-cuisine tradition in a large, handsome space spread over several rooms, including a spacious glassed-in roofed patio with a sunset view of the sea. On the way in, you pass a packed, noisy bar that serves tapas and TV sports to a youngish crowd. Calling a day ahead, Samurai Jim secured a seating at 6:15 for a midweek evening (a little early, but such good seating on that scenic patio!). We were late: the creaky old elevator from the garage was broken, and we had to use a service elevator that took us to the back of the kitchen at Il Fornaio, about 20 miles across the plaza from Flavor with many a twist and turn en route.
Once we arrived, we found clean white-and-wood decor, airy, high ceilings, and a long, banistered ramp instead of stairs down to the patio. There was enough light to read the menu and even study our fellow diners. Officially, the restaurant is casual, but most patrons weren’t — prices, not exorbitant, but splurgy, ward off the hoi polloi. The erstwhile Epazote crowd of young singles has fallen away, except during happy hour at the bar, but a smattering of young couples were getting serious over dinner. Otherwise, the many older businessmen wore suits and starched shirts. Original wives dressed in expensive good taste, so many sporting camel-colored frocks you might imagine you’d stumbled into an oasis. The trophy wives wore black and bling.
The bread, sliced whole-wheat baguettes, comes with soft butter and four different gourmet salts to sprinkle on: a gentle ginger salt, smoked salt, kalamata olive–flavored salt, and spicy chipotle. Sampling the salts, and sometimes mixing them, kept us happy during the long wait for real food. It was better than a paper coloring menu and a pile of crayons.
The nonce requisite of pork belly came in a sweet-tart tamarind glaze (with baby carrots, cipollini onions, and black beans), but the meat was too tough and shreddy. A better choice: marrow bones. Suddenly, everybody’s starting to do marrow bones. An old American folksong cautions: “Eggs, eggs, and marleybones will make your old man blind…” Regardless of perilous egg garnish, I’d gladly eat marleybones till the cows come home, picketing to demand their shinbones back. But they can be cooked better or worse. Flavor has the technique down. Our marrows were slippery-tender, ideal. They come with toasted sourdough to spoon the marrow onto, if you like. Alongside are crispy veal sweetbreads with a truffle-aioli dip, the sweetbreads a gamier mirror to the marrow’s succulence. (You get one big split-open bone to a plate; for four eaters, we ordered two.)
In contrast to this rampant carnality are delicate ravioli filled with puréed sugar snap peas and spring onions, in a creamy sauce of celery-root purée — divinely delicate if a trifle underflavored. A tartare of Hawaiian ahi strove valiantly against the clichés of the dish, armed with a smattering of trendy black garlic and a tasty yuzu aioli, plus a wisp of “ghost chiles” (usually very hot, here merely ghosts). The accompanying salt-cured cucumber relish was unbearably salty. I loved the yuzu dip; the naked tuna cubes were silky but bland. (I might like them better as sliced sashimi with the aioli spooned over them.)
We tried two hefty entrées from vastly different culinary origins. The better one hints strongly of the American South. Braised veal cheeks come with sliced house-made sausage that resembles Southern pork breakfast sausage loaf — coarse-ground, uncased, and strongly seasoned.* The veal cheek, braised until yielding, enjoys the congenial company of reggiano cheese grits (what you might call American-Italian polenta), plus braised collards, a tall and terrific jalapeño-buttermilk biscuit, and good ol’ savory red-eye gravy.
The duck leg confit cassoulet tastes good at first bite, from a slick of foie gras butter, but gradually reveals itself as an incoherent mess of mismatched morsels. The confit (duck leg braised in duck fat) was none too tender and lacked the crackly crust which adorns it in the best French-style versions (e.g., Amy DiBiase’s at the late Roseville). The cranberry beans included an outlandish admixture of chopped green beans, like a mom trying to sneak fresh veggies into her kids’ junk food, plus various ill-mated scraps culled from the meat side of the menu. These included pork belly, the house-made sausage (no resemblance to the juicy, garlicky Toulouse sausage of French cassoulet), and worst of all, bits of beef short-rib, which went with the duck like dogs go with squirrels. If the kitchen wants to get rid of extra meats, better to just drop the duck, switch to black beans, and attempt a Brazilian feijoada.
Among lighter entrées, tender day-boat scallops, a bit oversalted, are gloriously accompanied by thin-skinned raviolis, adding the delicate flavor of their chanterelle mushroom filling, along with sweet, crisp-tender sugar snap peas. Cleverest yet is the thick cream sauce with a hint of vegetable flavor, which the menu identifies as truffled cauliflower purée. “How did he thicken this?” Jim wondered. I’d picked up a starchy undertone and guessed potatoes, plus a dash of cream or crème fraîche. (That’s probably the secret to the appetizer ravioli celeriac sauce, too.)
The menu offers fresh California halibut cooked sous-vide, that is, poached slowly in a sealed packet inside a temperature-controlled water bath. I wanted to see if sous-vide might change my mind about this lean, bland fish, which I typically only enjoy when it’s celebrated and totally disrespected with riotous extraneous flavors, e.g. Peohe’s macadamia crust and Frangelico liqueur sauce. “Last chance for pure halibut, all aboard!” I said, deciding that if sous-vide didn’t work, I’d probably stop ordering this species except when it’s disguised beyond recognition. It emerged from its bath as a virginal white block of slightly dry fillet, with the plate offering alternative bites of accompanying rock shrimp, Meyer lemon risotto, pancetta, pea tendrils, and saffron hollandaise on the side. Loved the garnishes. Maybe I should have requested extra hollandaise to pour over the fish to despoil its purity and give it some flavor.