110 West Washington Street, Hillcrest
Market occupies an odd location way out in the boonies. If you're driving east on Via de la Valle and think you missed it somewhere around the last mall, keep going. Some of the signs out front still say Blackhorse Grill, the site's previous occupant, but you'll recognize that this is Market by the hot and cold running valets juggling incoming cars in the small parking lot.
Arriving early for dinner, we waited at the bar while our table was prepared. We eavesdropped on a guy next to us, who was talking about a mutual acquaintance who desperately wanted to buy into Market, "like a lot of people did. Carl said no. Which is good, because she'd have been a difficult partner. She likes to have her fingers in the pie -- and Carl likes everything his own way."
The "Carl" he referred to is chef-owner Carl Schroeder, who, after a long stint at Arterra, bought Blackhorse and, even now, is still remaking it "his own way." With design input from partner Terryl Gavre (owner-chef of Cafe 222 downtown), it's become a comfortable, warm-feeling restaurant, its light wooden walls casting a sunny glow on the diners. A mantelpiece displays seasonal foods and flora, and "hatbox" lamps hang from the baffled shadow-box ceiling. Taking a negative lesson from raucous Arterra, Schroeder put up a glass wall between the bar and the dining room -- always a good move. Not only are there carpets on the floors, but carpeting tacked on the upper walls also absorbs noise. And the glass dividers that section off the room let you see other diners without hearing every detail of their lives. White linen tablecloths help maintain the ideal sound level for a restaurant -- convivial, lively, painless. People are having a good time; so will you. We were seated at a banquette with cushy chocolate leather padding, and our server was considerate and knowledgeable. Before the first bite, we knew we'd entered a restaurant designed for pleasure.
The restaurant's name is a hint that it specializes in "market-driven cuisine" -- meaning that the menu, which changes daily, is inspired by whatever seasonal foodstuffs the chef finds at the local produce market and from the nearby seas. In this case, the nearest produce market happens to be the farm stand of fabled Chino Farm -- America's most celebrated grower of exquisite, sustainably raised veggies -- about a mile up the road.
First bite? An amuse-bouche, of course. A Chino beet slice, topped with a slab of shrimp cut to fit, was garnished with a ravishing yuzu aioli, the sharp citrus playing against the sweetness of the root. "This is an amuse that grabs your attention and awakens your appetite, like it should," said the Lynnester. "It's not just there to tame your hunger, like most of the amuses I've run into lately."
We began in earnest with a celery-root soup from the starters -- a thick purée encapsulating the odd, sophisticated flavor of celeriac, touched with lemon juice and topped with "porcini foam" -- a cloud of mushroom and spices (including a soupçon of hot chili flakes) bound in a froth of milk. Lurking on the bottom of the bowl like a manta ray was a large, thin-skinned raviolo filled with sautéed wild mushrooms, spouting treasure with every spoon cut. "I love this so much that I'm ready to shoot it up intravenously," said Samurai Jim. "Oh, don't!" I hastened to say. "You couldn't taste it then!"
I ordered a Maine lobster salad with a touch of skepticism, because Atlantic lobster is so good, a chef only has to avoid ruining it. This one had a little pile of perfect lobster meat next to a horizontal lineup of organic citrus sections of great sweetness and intensity, plus avocado slices, all united by a light Meyer lemon sabayon. I found the combination enchanting, much better than I'd bargained for.
A blue cheese soufflé was a bit sour (but pleasantly so, to my taste), a characteristic of Maytag blue, and the texture was a tad heavy. With it came caramel-coated Empire apple slices from Julian, roasted in Calvados (apple brandy), topped with walnuts -- hot, sticky, irresistible kid-food to contrast with the adult pleasures of consuming moldy cheese. A small salad of crisp julienned celery root dressed with aioli played backup.
A strudel of forest mushrooms and artichokes proved food for thought. It wasn't a true strudel by any means (i.e., layers of thin, crisp pastry between and surrounding tiers of filling). Instead, strata of thinly sliced, earthy mushrooms and lemony artichoke (plus picholine olives, for depth) were surrounded by a thin coating of potato purée (a substitute for flour dough), which crisped up like tempura in the oven. Fennel root and sweet pepper salad came too, as did a demitasse of porcini mushroom soup with a strong lacing of cumin -- edgy, that, but enjoyable once your mouth grew attuned to the spice.
Somewhere in the midst of the appetizers, a basket of breads appeared, in which the stars were warm oval corncakes the size of sturdy thumbs. These are similar to the corncakes served at all Bradley Ogden restaurants (of which Arterra is one), but with a big difference. At every Ogden restaurant I've been to (four so far), you get only one per person (if that) and no refills -- it seems to be some kind of sadistic corporate policy (as in, "If you want another corncake, you have to come back for another meal!"). Schroeder is much more generous: We received two each for openers and a refill during the entrée course.
Would the main courses equal the starters, or were we in for the usual letdown? Our first entrée easily passed the test. There before us was a plate full of surprise Christmas presents: boneless beef shortribs, tender and meaty, enclosed in a dark-green wrapper of choy sum, and sitting in a crimson Cabernet jus. The meat was garnished with cipollini onions, also individually gift-wrapped in crisped potato purée (like the earlier strudel).