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Pacifica Del Mar

1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar

"Pacifica Del Mar, seafood is our passion! How can I help you?" are the first words you hear when you phone this restaurant. And phone you must. This place is a-hoppin' -- especially now that the San Diego County Fair has opened and racing season is racing up. Reservations are a must.

The restaurant's dinner menu is seafood-swathed indeed, with 9 of a dozen entrées, and all but 1 of 11 starters, rising from the sea. Lunches are more eclectic, with sandwiches, burgers, salads, and seafood pastas. For a more casual lunch or a creative breakfast, the adjunct Pacifica Breeze Café, one floor below on the mezzanine of the mall, serves similar fare (e.g., grilled salmon sandwich, seafood pasta) at modest prices on an outdoor patio. (Evenings, it's available for catered parties.) The main kitchen provides all the Café's recipes and most of the hot entrées, while the Café's kitchen makes casual cold dishes -- sandwiches, wraps, etc. -- on-premises. (One lunchtime, when I wasn't even hungry, I fell in love with their overstuffed "BLTA" burrito wrapped in a spinach tortilla, served with hot, house-made yam chips.)

The upstairs restaurant attracts locals and tourists alike -- sometimes becoming victim to its own popularity. Crowds keep a restaurant alive and prospering, which means the chef can purchase prime ingredients. But cooking can slip when the slamming kitchen is stretched past capacity, attempting to feed three or four hundred diners, not to mention whatever's happening in the private banquet room.

This is a tale of two dinners. When first I arrived at prime time with the stalwarts of the crew (Sam, Lynne, and my partner), the joint was jumping. For mysterious reasons, the entire mall was packed, with cars lined up, waiting to get into the garages -- a human grunion run. Our reservation bought us a seat in Dining Room #1, separated by an aquarium from the howling bar. Immediately, we envied the patrons who'd snagged Room #2, between #1 and the outdoor patio, which was a little quieter and had softer lighting. It was a Thursday, "half-price wine night," but that wasn't the issue. "Most of these people don't even know about 'wine night,' " said our waitress. "The crowds are totally unpredictable. Some weeknights, we have a small kitchen staff and a full house. Other nights, we have a full staff and a half-full house. You just never know when or why."

We started with a terrific bottle of citrusy New Zealander Kathy Linskey Chardonnay, and a round of Puget Sound oysters on the half shell -- fresh and juicy, served with a mild vinaigrette based on mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) and a wasabi cocktail sauce, which happily proved less fierce than it sounded.

Tender house-smoked salmon slices were dressed with olive oil and Moroccan-style preserved lemon and came with a quartet of crisp, hollow "beignets" -- closer to deep-fried biscuits or cream puffs than New Orleans' famous donuts -- filled with melted cream cheese, inviting you to assemble a gourmet version of bagels and lox. I loved the combination, but Sam and Lynne found the salmon greasy. Just goes to show, one woman's meat is another's poisson.

Our sentiments toward the Dungeness crabcakes ran in the opposite direction. The two crunchy-seared cakes, with minimal filler, were smeared with a pungent green wasabi rémoulade and garnished with puddles of apple-fennel purée. My friends loved the dish, while I felt that the rémoulade overwhelmed the crab's natural sweetness.

You get a soup or salad when you order an entrée, and we were all happy with both. A hearty Yukon Gold potato-leek bisque gained smokiness and character from bacon cracklings and spring garlic greens. We left not one drop behind. The house salad of organic mixed greens with dried cranberries, caramelized walnuts, and blue cheese is a crowd-pleaser in its cider-mustard vinaigrette. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lightly herbed sourdough bread with bits of dried black currant, a product of nearby O'Brien's Bakery.

By then, every table was full and the din was growing painful. The architecture and sheer size of the restaurant amplify sound, but so does the Very Del Mar crowd: On one side were five Masters of the Universe -- well-dressed businessmen with booming, confident voices. On the other side was a "girls' night out" sextet of pretty young things in low-cut dresses, periodically emitting choruses of yips and squeals. "Is there a pack of Chihuahuas in the house?" asked the Lynnester.

The kitchen, too, was having a hard time with the ravening crowd. In a signature entrée called "Pacifica's Barbecued Sugar-Spiced Salmon," the fillet was overcooked, so dry and salmony-tasting that it overpowered its sweet mustard sauce. But the accompanying mound of garlic-mashed potatoes was sublime, closer to a gratin than a mash with its crunchy exterior and creamy center. The spuds were topped with firm Chinese long beans. I'd gladly order this dish again on a quieter evening, when the grill chef doesn't have to play the whirling dervish. Meanwhile, alas, a plate of herb-crusted Great Lakes whitefish seemed to have left its flavor back in Michigan; all we could taste was herbage. It came with doughy spinach gnocchi and a beurre blanc mixed with strips of Asian wild mushrooms (whose precise species neither we nor our waitress could identify).

Chef Idso always includes an entrée of pristine Atlantic scallops on the menu, recipes changed according to seasonal inspiration. Some of these are better than others. The important thing is that he takes chances and focuses on local produce. This time the result was debatable: the precious bivalves were plated atop Chino Farms fresh peas of variable quality -- some young and sweet, others old and mealy. (The weather this spring was awful for growing peas; I had a similarly distressing backyard harvest.) Also involved is a green-olive butter sauce dotted with chewy wheatberries and edamame, a combination hedging awfully close to health food. To my tastes, if you crave scallops, the clean-flavored appetizer "Seared Scallops on the Half-Shell" (with cucumber, pea sprouts, and a spicy yuzu vinaigrette) is a better bet.

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