There's a new blossom unfolding at the Flower Hill mall. Barely six months old, Paradise Grille brings fresh fragrances and flavors to Del Mar as chef Justin Hoehn hones his mixture of Caribbean, Polynesian, and California coastal cuisines.
Hoehn made a splash a few years ago at California Cuisine in Hillcrest, where I enjoyed some memorable meals. Then the chef vanished. (He'd quietly gone to Greystone, to toil in the realm of high-priced meat and mash.) When I discovered his reappearance in Del Mar, I recruited foodie friends Marty and Dave, who'd eaten with us at Cal Cuisine and were delighted to cross the Merge of Death in a pilgrimage to Paradise.
The airy restaurant is the first new structure to rise in the mall in ages. Planned at a cost of $2 million, construction expenses blew up to $3.5 million. Things took longer as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which caused a shortage of lumber, drywall, baseboards, and other materials. The owners, Conor and Shana Adair, had to pay carpenters artisan prices to create basic items that they could have bought ready-made at any home-improvement store a few months earlier.
Across the parking lot from Milton's Deli, Paradise occupies its own stand-alone building. A comfortable bar-lounge off the entrance is a hopping scene after dark. The hostess led us to a handsome dining room, where at one end an open kitchen afforded interesting views of chefs slaving over hot stoves. We were seated in one of the comfortable semicircular booths lining the walls; there are tables in the center (clothed in white linen, like the booth tables) for either very small or large parties.
Squinting at the menu in the dim romantic lighting, we selected an appetizer of grilled skewered shrimp, marinated in lemongrass and ginger. The skewers were thrust into large chunks of grilled watermelon, like flags at Iwo Jima. The monument was surrounded by an irresistible finely diced watermelon salsa sparked by grilled pineapple bits. "Look at this," said Dave, laughing. "The coating is made of -- Rice Krispies!" ("We wanted the crunch but not the same old coconut shrimp," chef Justin later told me. "A sous-chef came up with it.") This dish was an exercise in food-as-fun.
Another edible witticism gave fresh life to a bowl of calamari tempura misto. At first, it looked like standard restaurant calamari. But the light panko-fried squid mixture included onions, young green beans, and thin, mysterious-looking mandalas. These turned out, on tasting, to be batter-fried lemon slices, a surprise substitute for the standard lemon wedges. Once you try one and unmask its identity, you can use them to supply needed bitterness and citric acid -- bite by bite. The dish is also sprinkled with chili oil, which sinks to the bottom, leaving the food in the nether reaches of the bowl a tad greasy as well as spicy. Our waitpersons didn't alert us to its presence, and the hot stuff came as a surprise -- a pleasant one for me, but I hate to think how a Del Mar blue-hair might react. A side of mild, herbal basil aioli was pretty much ignored at our table. Nothing wrong with it, just no need.
Hoehn's signature, here and at California Cuisine, is his creative house-made flatbread, which serves as a canvas for a wide range of imaginative toppings. We tried the vegetable flatbread, resembling cracker-crust dish-sized pizza topped with roasted red pepper strips, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, and balsamic gastrique, plus melted buffalo mozzarella. The gastrique made the bread soggy, but not unpleasantly so. "You can fold it like a New York pizza," said Marty, demonstrating the technique. "You think we can talk Luigi's into making this topping?" I asked my partner.
Guava-glazed pork ribs are small riblets, simmered until fall-off-the-bone tender before undergoing a glaze of house-made barbecue sauce, finished with guava purée and a spin on the grill. The guava lent crispness but barely a hint of flavor. Both the men at our table liked the ribs for their moist texture, but Marty and I both craved a more intense fruit flavor. The side was a pleasant slaw of Napa cabbage, carrot, and daikon.
When we ordered the pistachio-coated salmon entrée, I realized that I just couldn't stand to eat another tourist-pleasing overcooked dead fish. "Listen," I told the server right off, "we're not Yuman. We don't want our fish as dry as the desert, we want it moist and full of life." Our fish arrived cooked precisely to order. We were fascinated by the combination of pistachio and salmon flavors, the contrast of crispness over tenderness, and the skinny mustache of avocado cream running down the center of the plate. (Of course, we'd have preferred a full Groucho Marx or Wilfred Brimley rather than the Little Richard model.) The plate included undercooked fingerling potatoes with a refreshing pickled onion and cucumber relish.
In the horseradish-seared ahi tuna, the fish was an excellent grade, treated to the standard raw-with-cooked-edges restaurant cliché. Alas, the fresh-
grated horseradish that was supposed to edge the fish had fallen off -- a technical problem evidently yet to be solved. (Elmer's glue just will not do.) The vanished horseradish made the superb accompaniments stand out even more: tiny, naturally sweet red beets touched with ginger and garlic, and astonishing quinoa "couscous." Quinoa is a nutritious but bland grain from the Peruvian Andes that's absolutely "good for you" but too often tastes like it -- even in Peru. Here, it was cooked as a pilaf with garlic, onions, lots of butter, and chicken stock, finished off with roast tomato vinaigrette and chives. The vinaigrette provided the acidity that few home cooks would think of adding, and the neutral-tasting grain sang with such vibrant flavors you'd never guess it was related to mamacita's boring old quinoa.
Short ribs braised in plum wine were ultra-tender and beefy but too bashful in plum flavor for my tastes -- I guess I wanted real plum, not just its wine. Again, the accompaniments starred: garlic mash and very sweet corn kernels. Thick, tamarind-brined Niman pork chops arrived cooked to our order of "rosy inside," with a tangy glaze and a topping of braised peach halves. Alongside were substantial onion gnocchi. "These are not airy or pillowy," said Marty, frowning. But Dave loved the contrast of the sweet peaches with the tamarind glaze, and the fine quality of the pork. I liked the dish a lot myself but was glad to have an enthusiastic taker for the very thick chop as I ran out of appetite.
The wine list is long and eclectic, full of boutique bottlings and interesting imports at relative "bargain" prices, because the markups are mainly 200 percent (versus most restaurants' 300 percent). There are some good choices around $30, and in the $40--$50 range, I found two mouth-filling French beauties from respected bottlers. A lively Olivier LeFlaive Puligny Montrachet complemented our appetizers and seafood, while a juicy Chateauneuf du Pape went with the meats.
For dessert, we relocated to Paradise's nicest dining area. Glossy wooden steps take you downstairs to a large, tropical-looking outdoor patio. In addition to the usual weather-resistant tables and chairs, the patio has thickly pillowed lounge seats and low tables set near the bar, along with cozy chairs around a natural gas firepit.
Most desserts come from Opera Bakery, and they're quite good for outsourced sweets. A raspberry-mascarpone cheesecake mousse was airy and not oversweet, with raspberry coulis cleverly surrounded by a thin line of dark chocolate (a refinement added in-house). Pineapple upside-down cake was also light. On the side sat an intense floret of pineapple spiced with clove (perhaps) -- or a close relative. It came with coconut sorbet that vanished under four speeding spoons.
When a restaurant with as entertaining a menu as Paradise Grille's offers brunch, only a chronic layabed would resist. This time, we enticed the Lynnester to drive north by noon.
The brunch menu is long and painfully tempting -- I wanted a half-dozen dishes from it. We finally zeroed in on three. French-toasted brioche soaked in a Tahitian vanilla batter was light and rich, served with a foamy white honey-whipped butter sauce and fresh-cooked peach and mango confit. The pitcher of maple syrup was an option we not only ignored but shunned, not wanting to spoil the near-floral flavor of the vanilla and the subtle sweetness of the butter.
Brunch also provided another opportunity to enjoy the flatbread -- that cracker-crust pizza bread. Ours came topped with a thin slick of cream cheese, slices of house-cured salmon, and pickled onions and capers. Alas, somebody in the kitchen decided to heat the gravlax (this shouldn't have happened, the chef told me), which dried it into near-tough curls rather than lush slices. You could still infer the fineness of the fish, and we loved the combination of ingredients.
Crabcakes Benedict were an odd mixture of perfect technique and originality gone a bit awry. The poached eggs were flawless and the hollandaise exquisite (clearly made from scratch). "But this crabcake is -- weird," said Lynne. "Taste it, am I wrong?" We passed bites around, chewed, and everyone said, "Hmm, strange." The crab is spicy with cayenne, but that's not a problem -- the over-minced, grainy texture of frozen stone crab and a lump crab mixture (with the usual bindings) beggars description. But on the side was a spicy mélange of crispy home fries and slivered peppers and onions that got three thumbs up. If I went back for another brunch, I'd choose the low-risk Florentine Benedict, and my partner would jump on the jerk chicken sandwich.
At Paradise Grille, chef Justin is in charge of the menu -- creating the dishes and selecting and purchasing ingredients -- but in such a huge restaurant he can no longer personally control every dish. Hence, the menu choices are more cautious and simple than at California Cuisine; even so, some dishes may be imperfectly executed. Then, too, the restaurant's vast size and upscale location require pleasing a wider range of tastes, so Paradise can't be a cultish little foodie secret. It's not exactly heaven, then, but it's an enjoyable stop-off en route.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I'm working at a new restaurant, I just got married, and I'm adopting a dog today -- it's a Katrina dog, a mutt. So it's been an exciting time," says chef Justin X. Hoehn.
"I'm a native San Diegan, born and raised in the Ocean Beach--Point Loma area. One reason I have a passion for food is that my mother is an incredible gourmet chef. She grew up in postwar Germany and learned all the old methods of cooking. I started out cooking at Brigantine Shelter Island and then switched to bartending and managing for several years. Then I decided to get back into cooking and went to San Francisco to the California Culinary Academy." While studying, Hoehn cooked at the famed Hayes Street Grill and the Blue Plate, a faux-diner for San Francisco foodies. "But I'm a surfer, so I missed OB and came back as quickly as I could. I worked at La Valencia under executive chef Luke Patterson and then worked under chef Jason Schaeffer at Laurel and the Wine Sellar Group for over a year and a half. He was a really good influence for me."
His first job as top toque was at California Cuisine, a 60-seat restaurant in Hillcrest. After that, climbing the chef ladder, he wanted to prove he could handle a larger restaurant with more responsibilities. He landed at Greystone, a conventioneer-heavy Gaslamp steakhouse. "I needed to show I could manage a crew of 15 people in a $4 million-a-year operation. So I did my year and a half of steak and mashed potatoes...."
This stint qualified him to take on Paradise Grille, a brand-new restaurant where he could train a staff from scratch and make the place his own. Staffing, however, proved difficult. "Most kitchen crews are incredibly hardworking guys who cook because they can do it, not because they love it -- so teaching the subtleties is really hard," he says. "You almost have to design your menu to be bulletproof, unless you can be on top of every move. The hardest part of going from a place like California Cuisine to this -- there, I cooked every plate. There were only three cooks in the kitchen, and everything came past me. When you have a bigger operation like this, you start losing that ability to control every situation. From the git-go we had 200 plates a night. Here I have an AM and a PM sous-chef, and both of them are great. My PM sous-chef is Matt Smith, who I worked with at Laurel. He left Laurel to go to the Cordon Bleu in France and worked at Taillevent in Paris, and when he came back he was a line cook at 910. My AM sous-chef...was at the Mission, downtown. On busy nights, I'll be on the line as well as my sous-chefs, and we have eight cooks, in addition. We have 240 seats, including all the bar seats.
"The owners and I are always on the same page of what we want and what we think the diners want. But it's 100 percent under my and my sous-chefs' creative control. And I have control over food purchasing. We use Manning Ranch for beef; they're naturally raised animals. Our pork is all Niman, our chicken is free-range. In San Diego, most of the time there's either fine dining or else there's Chevy's. What we wanted to do was shoot a little higher, but not so high that you're uncomfortable. Somebody can come in and order a $400 bottle of wine and find food that will match it, but somebody else can come in wearing shorts and flip-flops and buy a $30 bottle and order chicken, and that'll be fine too."