North Atlantic monkfish was a tall, thick-cut fillet, more like a steak than the usual skinny restaurant slice, and that made all the difference. Carl only buys it, he says, when the fishmonger offers an extra-large fish with fillets this substantial. "People always say that monkfish is the 'poor man's lobster,' but it's nearly always disappointed me," said my partner. "This time, with the thick slice and the freshness, it really does taste like lobster." The fish was set atop a forest mushroom ragout, next to an island of spicy artichoke heart chunks.
Blue-nose bass was perfectly cooked, too -- and notice, we didn't even have to beg for our fish medium-rare. Flaky-moist and pearly is the default here. Although we enjoyed the bass immensely, what really caught our eye on the menu was its accompaniment -- a soufflé of crab, cheddar, and broccoli. It fulfilled our hopes with large, juicy pieces of crab and not too much broccoli. A sweet-pepper ragout side was nice, nothing special (in fact it was the one garnish in the whole dinner that seemed ordinary), while a jalapeño hollandaise made a cameo appearance as a slick of sauce near the edge of the plate.
A venison chop of Australian-farmed red deer came rare to our order, albeit a bit tame-tasting, brightened by the zestiness of a mustard crust. A house-made sausage came, too. Coarse and lean, it was seasoned with cumin and a touch of hot pepper. I found the spicing heavy going, but the texture reminded my partner nostalgically of the German sausages his grandparents made back in Minnesota. A blast of hearty flavors accompanied the meats: sage pappardelle dressed with bacon, blue cheese, bitter wild arugula, and plenty of black pepper.
The verdict? "For once, the appetizers and entrées are equally good," said Lynne, "with no let-down." In the midst of our oohing and aahing at each new taste, she observed that, though Market's prices were about the same as at Thee Bungalow, the food was not only more imaginative, but the ingredients were better. "That's partly because the portions here are smaller," my partner responded. "Oho, price point!" said Lynne. "I like it better this way. It's just the right amount of food to eat. You get one excellent meal, and that's all I want -- instead of having to take home a whole second night of just-pretty-good."
We chose two of the least expensive wines of their type. For the appetizers and fish entrées, a Stag's Leap Viognier wasn't one of those California fruit-bombs, but a cool customer, balanced and serious. Much as I like huge French Burgundies with game, I can't afford them, least of all at restaurant markups. A good Côte de Rhône, Syrah, or even Zin does nearly as well at matching dark meat, so I found a reasonable French Rhone, Tardieu-Laurent. It was perfect with the venison and fine with the short ribs.
With some red wine left in our glasses, we had an excuse for a cheese course and enjoyed a rich, complex, truffled Brie served at peak ripeness. We had just enough appetite to handle one -- just one -- of the venturesome desserts by pastry chef Jim Foran (who came with Carl from Arterra). We chose a spiced toffee date cake with roasted autumn fruits, topped by velvety, non-sweet mascarpone mousse (in place of the expected whipped cream). Next to it, an amusing contrast, was a chunk of pecan-black pepper praline. The cake was moist and rich but light for a pastry with dates. "It tastes like the holidays," said Lynne. That taste was a hint of fresh ginger, a favorite flavor in Thanksgiving and Christmas pastries.
We were all delighted that the chef at Market has struck out on his own. Schroeder's cuisine has developed a wonderful playfulness, with ever-changing combinations that are harmonious, if occasionally startling. What goes on the plate enhances that plate. "Would you come back here?" Jim asked. "In a New York minute," I said. In fact, we're all planning on returning, and that's the best compliment a chef can get.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Carl Schroeder was born and raised in La Jolla. "I got my degree in business, but then I realized that cooking was my passion," he says. He went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Upon graduating, he landed a gig at San Francisco's cutting-edge Aqua and then at the renowned Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley. Then he became Bradley Ogden's sous-chef at Lark Creek Inn in Marin County for three years, followed by a year in Nantucket. Carl returned to his home town as executive chef at Bertrand at Mr. A's, and when Ogden contracted with the Marriott to open Arterra in its Sorrento Valley hotel, he chose Schroeder as its opening chef. "My style definitely evolved while I was there," Schroeder says. "I was experimenting all the time, going to New York and San Francisco to eat and bringing back new ideas." He remained there for over four years before setting off on his own to open Market, investing his last penny in his new venture.
"I wanted to make the decisions," he explains. "I like to be in charge. I'm a control freak. Sometimes, in the trenches, I see things that could be made better, and I wanted to have more control over what happens in my business. I've always taken ownership, even at the Marriott, but I was feeling sort of shackled. Opening my own place gives me a lot of say over how my business is run.
"I take more chances here -- in a good way. I don't want to be a super-expensive restaurant. I want people to dine here Monday, Tuesday, the whole week long. I want to keep my entrée prices mid-twenties. I don't want to be another Blanca, Addison, Mille Fleurs -- I want to do food of the same quality but in a somewhat casual atmosphere, where people can just drop by and eat.