Jay Allen Sanford 8 p.m., Jan. 18
There's a lot of competition along the main section of 101 through Encinitas. It seems like there's a restaurant in every other window. Barracuda Grill attracted my attention mostly because it wasn't an Italian restaurant. Sometimes, the decision making process comes down to little things like that.
The dining room's architecture was a little strange, though not unappealing. It evoked unplanned spaces and re-purposed buildings that became restaurants only after the initial concept went extinct. This probably isn't the case with Barracuda as everything seems fairly new, but the curving, wedge-shaped interior had been appointed in dark, classy tones and decorated in a reserved, but upscale fashion. I liked it.
According to my server, the chef is North African, by way of France, and he tries to incorporate those culinary traditions as much as possible in his cooking. A Napoleon salad ($8) featured slices of buttery eggplant and bell pepper layered together and broiled with fresh goat cheese. Lightly dressed arugula and a puree of what I can only assume was beets acted as accompaniment.
Another starter, vegetable samosas ($8), recalled memories of many a trip to Indian restaurants. The fried chickpea pockets, usually oily and satisfying, had a more sophisticated blend of spice and a delicate wrapping that was more like a wonton than the thicker dumpling typical of samosas. I liked the look of Lobster ceviche with strawberries ($10.95), or calamari with harissa (a spicy, North African chilli paste), but the vegetable dishes won out in the end.
The chef demonstrated his heritage with a dish of grilled salmon covered in a tagine sauce ($19.95). The rich, spicy sauce is endemic to Moroccan cooking but jazzed up the grilled salmon perfectly. Major kudos go out to the chef for including a generous portion of delightfully prepared vegetables alongside the fish. Allowing the side dish to shine on its own is a too frequently neglected touch.
The rest of the menu showed a tendency to cover food in rich sauces: filet mignon au poivre, braised duck with a port jus, and angel hair pasta with calamari and anchovy sauce (that hinted coyly at pasta alla puttanesca) all looked like filling dishes prepared with tried and true cooking techniques. Other dishes, like a linguine with Ahi tuna in a saffron broth, seemed somewhat lighter, but the overall feel of the menu was very substantial and seemed to justify the above average price point.
641 South Coast Highway 101
Open daily at 4:30