Pacific Coast Grill, nearly ten years old, is a restaurant that, until now, I've passed dozens of times without feeling the urge to eat there. Maybe what kept me away was the sense I had of a kitchen where chefs came and went like downtown bus riders. But four months ago, PCG finally acquired a well-known, proven chef, Hanis Cavin (formerly of Dakota Grill and A New Leaf), and gave him the freedom to choose ingredients, remake the menu, and reshape the kitchen staff.
Set at the southern edge of its mall, the restaurant boasts whimsical neo-Craftsman decor. The approach is via a long, vine-roofed dining patio decorated with twinkling lights. Inside, the curvy bar is shaped like a dog's bone (restaurant designer Georgia Goldberg's tribute to her Airedale, Harry). Even under muted evening illumination, the interior is striking, with yellow-tiled mosaic paths set into a red-brick floor -- follow a tiled snake down two steps to the dining room. The walls are hung with mood-setting B&W photos of sleek 1950s bathing beauties, the swimsuits (all one-piece, of course) brightly "colorized."
Lunch or dinner, the table bread is a grainy, hard-crusted round loaf from O'Brien Bakery in Del Mar Heights, baked that day and served with rosemary-garlic butter. The new menu emphasizes organic vegetables and free-range meats (wherever feasible); you can taste the difference between natural and factory-farmed products, even if they're not side-by-side. It's easy to overlook a simple "mixed greens salad" among the dozen-odd more elaborate starters, but you don't want to miss the tender organic greens with almonds and blue cheese, dressed in a sun-dried cranberry vinaigrette that rides a razor's edge between tangy and sweet. My friends and I devoured the salad like a pack of famished rabbits.
"Bag o' Bonz" is another hit. Chopped-short, house-smoked baby back (pork) ribs and French fries are served together in, literally, a brown paper bag. It's not every day you can eat a pun and have it taste so good. The tender meat is fruity and smoky from applewood, and the fries are served unsalted with a ramekin of house-made ketchup. (Natch, there's a saltshaker on the table. If the fries mark a new trend toward letting diners salt food to taste, I'm all for it.) The same combination, let out of the bag, is also available as an entrée.
"Coco-Mac Shrimp" make an appealing appetizer if you've got a sweet tooth. Butterflied shrimp, coated with a light batter and rolled in crushed macadamia nuts and coconut shreds, are deep-fried golden and crunchy. They're set atop a jalapeño plum-sauce glaze freshened with diced veggies (carrots, scallion greens, and bell pepper) and enough cilantro to buy off the sugar.
Less satisfying were the lump crab cakes. Although the croquettes had little filler or binder, the seafood tasted listless, and the black-bean purée beneath them didn't add much impact. A roasted corn salsa was the most distinctive member of the congregation. Shrimp dumplings, too, seemed shy of flavor: Four gyoza wraps shaped like swollen Hershey's Kisses were filled with a creamy-textured shrimp purée over a heavy port wine sauce. To my palate, the dumplings needed bolder seasoning to face up to the sweet gravy.
My favorite entrée was "Brick Grilled Chicken," a free-range half-chicken grilled under a flattening brick, which brought every part of the bird into direct contact with the heat. Fresh basil sauce (resembling cheese-free, nutless pesto) complemented this seriously good poultry's crisp skin and moist flesh. A green bean-and-tomato mélange also mated happily with the basil purée. Lean mashed potatoes chaperoned. "I never order chicken in restaurants," said my demanding tablemate, the Lynnester. "Usually, I just don't like it. But this I love!"
An order of "Cowboy Steak" brought a bone-in rib-eye of Certified Black Angus (the equivalent of USDA top-o'-the Choice). The grilled hunk was served even rarer than our order of "rare." That was fine with me (if not with all my tablemates). The slick of balsamic demi-glace was easy to overlook because -- unlike the "jarred beef-flavor" restaurant-supply demi-goop served at lesser steakhouses -- it tasted natural and honestly made. Alongside were blue cheese au gratin potatoes topped with crisp-fried leek shreds, plus a side of butter-sautéed asparagus.
The salmon currently served at PCG is farm-raised in the icy waters of eastern Canada by a small-scale aquaculturist who keeps 'em clean, cold, and free of most of the chemical cocktails fed to factory-farm fish in US waters. Never frozen, it's a fine piece of salmon and could credibly pass for wild. Chef Cavin buys the whole fish twice a week and fillets it himself as needed. In his Char-Grilled Salmon, the fillets are cooked through but still moist, topped with a "Hawaiian barbecue glaze" of pineapple juice and fine-minced pineapple cubes. "I like this; it doesn't have the greasy feel of a lot of salmon," said my pal Sang. Unfortunately, the accompaniments that evening were the same string-bean-tomato medley served with the chicken -- minus the alluring basil sauce -- and a mound of yucky, sticky white rice, resembling sushi rice, sans sushi seasonings.
"Spicy Free-Range Pork Tenderloin" offers quality pork, extra tender and pink inside, grilled in one piece and then cut into strips. The meat is charred on one side only. My group found the accompanying mustard barbecue sauce tangy but not terribly interesting. Everybody liked the dish, but nobody loved it. It came with mashed potatoes and, once more, the pestoless string-bean medley -- evidently the week's seasonal veggie.
Desserts are all house-made. Always worth a gamble is the "Fresh Fruit Creation." One satisfying creation was an apple-cinnamon crisp with a crunchy, nutty crust and firm apple slices, served in a four-inch soufflé dish. A dollop of vanilla gelato (from Bubbe's in Encinitas) was the fabulous final fillip. On the other hand, a trio of profiteroles (us Amurricans call 'em cream puffs) were crispy critters, hard as burned cookies. (Next day, the chef dumped the rest of them in the garbage and ordered the cook to bake a fresh batch -- but that was a day too late for us. "Our profiteroles are awesome, and those were awful!" he said.) They were drizzled with dark chocolate syrup and filled with cappuccino-chip gelato.
As the cream-puff story shows, PCG hasn't yet reached its height. There's work to be done, but now there's also every reason to believe that this restaurant is finding its way up again.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Hanis Cavin is a big, friendly huggy-bear, the perfect choice to bring a formerly fractured kitchen together. When he had to interrupt our phone interview to handle a momentary kitchen crisis, I overheard him giving a staffer directions in lucid, rapid-fire Spanish. "Spanish is mandatory here -- in most kitchens, actually," he says. "Every day, if I'm not sure of a word, they help me. I think it's my job to be able to explain and teach, whether in English or Spanish. I bought these CDs at Costco for learning the language, and that's helping. A lot of people don't take the time to teach their cooks, or even to deal with them. I work the line five or six nights a week -- I expedite, I fill in for anybody who's out, I work the broiler or the grill -- and that's fine, and the staff sees it and respects it. It's up to me to try to blend the flavors correctly, and to educate them -- 'It needs a taste, like mustard' -- and if the cooks know what the end result should taste like, that's what we're going for here. I guess that's called being a chef -- and why I'm losing my hair at 38."
Before coming to Pacific Coast Grill, Hanis was a fixture at Dakota Grill in the Gaslamp Quarter, and then he moved to A New Leaf in the Gaslamp Hilton. I asked him why he'd left Dakota Grill after so many years and A New Leaf after so short a time. "Well, if you look at the style of food they're doing at Dakota now, it really isn't the kind of food I was doing when I was there. That was a big reason I left. You've got to understand that all owners have priorities, and I think they really wanted to focus on food costs. They wanted the costs lower than they had set for me, and to get it lower, you have to use a lot of frozen ingredients. Here, my freezer is not much bigger than what I have at home. Everything's fresh. It makes it more of a challenge, knowing you've got three or four days to use it up or lose it, but you're starting out with a better product. Here I have a 30 percent food cost [i.e., 30 percent of the restaurant's total expenses]. Over there, they're trying to keep it to 25 percent, and that's really hard.
"When I went to the Hilton they told me, 'Oh, yeah, you'll be able to do whatever you want.' But I found they had more input into it than I thought. All owners want to have some say; that's realistic. But if they aren't present on a daily basis, it's harder for them to understand why decisions are being made. So around that point, Jeffrey Strauss over at Pamplemousse told the owner here to give me a call. That's all it took. I was ready. Here, I can do what I want, and I think that's what a chef needs. They trust me. I do samples and feed everybody on the staff, and they really listen to what the servers say. They [the owners] come in and say, 'I hear you did a great special last night. Why don't we see about running that again, and if it works out, let's put it on the menu.' That makes it fun for me.
"I have to stay with a 'Pacific Coast' theme, but I can do anything within that. If the Pacific Ocean touches it, I can do food from that area. A lot of what we're doing includes food from south of the border, and a lot of Hawaiian stuff, and a little Asian -- we're not wasabi-oriented, but Hawaiian has an Asian-fusion aspect to it, and we use some of those flavors -- soy, sweet soy, sweet chili sauce. And we're trying to develop some local organic sources for our produce -- not Chino, but some of the struggling smaller farms.
"I've been trying to clean out the menu and put on items that set a little better. When I got here, the sauté guy did pretty much everything. Now it's divided evenly between him and the grill guy. There's a really good group of cooks here. We've got a lot of prep guys who could be line cooks, but they stay prep cooks because they work two jobs. They're a little better skilled than most, and that pays off for me. They're having to learn with me, too. There's just been so many chefs here in the last year, it's been a nice challenge for me to get everybody on the same page. I'm happy and I feel like we're making some progress."
I asked him about the smoker he uses for the "Bag o' Bonz." "We have a beautiful Southern-style digital electronic smoker. You punch in how hot you want it and how much smoke you want. I can even do a cold smoke. We save all the trimmings from our salmon and do different things with them -- for instance, my sous chef makes a really good salmon burger -- but the trims we don't use right away, we freeze and then cold smoke them. We had that for Easter, and we're hoping to have it again on Mother's Day. With a digital smoker, you can turn end-pieces into centerpieces!"