1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
"A cat may look at a king," wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland -- and a scuffling writer could look at the Prince of Wales. That's what I told myself when, some years ago, I was invited to do a travel story on the Hotel del Coronado for the Washington Post. Although I couldn't remotely afford to eat there on the paper's budget, or my own, the hotel's press department was delighted to provide two nights of cut-rate lodging in a room at the top (up 3 stories -- or maybe 17), Sunday brunch in the Crown Room, and a charming personal tour guide.
The Prince was hidden in a dingy basement. His royal interior was furnished in dark woods, crystal chandeliers, red-tufted leather-upholstered chairs, bone china, heavy silver -- all as stuffy, masculine, and high-maintenance as the dining room at Camelot, although almost certainly warmer in winter. The menu was no less luxuriously gout-inducing: Beef Wellington, Prime-grade steaks, Dover sole boned at table, Caesar salad.
Last winter, the Del's newest owners (a hotel compendium) hired one of America's top restaurant and food consultants, Clark Wolf, to start all over with the Prince. Following his advice, the Del's management decided to knock out the wall to let in sunshine, sand-dune views, and sea breezes. They changed the restaurant's name to 1500 Ocean and hired renowned chef Jason Schaeffer to create a sprightly new menu for the 21st Century, centering on a Southern California identity, showcasing ingredients raised or caught from Santa Barbara to the tip of Baja, delivered fresh six days a week. Since reopening at the beginning of May, the food now epitomizes the current lighter, cleaner style of luxury cuisine, with superb ingredients in flavor combinations that enhance rather than mask each other.
Setting the stage for the new menu, Marin County designer Jennifer Johansen renovated the newly opened space to match the "green cuisine." She combined neutrals and blues to accent the "ocean palate" and replaced the wall behind the bar with glass colored the fiery reds and oranges of a sunset over the sea. If you sit inside (why, I don't know, unless it's pouring out), you'll be ensconced on a wooden throne upholstered in teal leather. Outside, you'll relax on the shaded dining patio in a captain's chair, watching little birds snacking at the feeders posted on the palms and people tossing Frisbees on the beach. Between the updated decor and fresh culinary concepts, the old Prince has shed his ermines and taken holiday on the Riviera.
As you look over the menu, a bread plate appears, with fresh-baked drop cheese biscuits (resembling your mom's Bisquick creations) and crusty sourdough torpedoes catered by Compane, a small bakery in Point Loma. We ate early, and the premium, lightly salted Straus Family butter arrived ice cold, alas -- but the table setting includes a salt saucer with a yin-yang design of red Hawaiian sea salt and lavender-tinted French fleur du sel, both so scrumptious they're worth their weight in sodium. The waiters are attentive, friendly, and craftsmanly but don't hover like news helicopters -- they're there only when you want them.
The bill of fare opens with the chef's tasting, then moves as you'd expect to beginnings, mains, and "accents" -- additional vegetable dishes, although all entrées, even steaks, come with veggies here, since the chef likes to control the combinations on each plate.
I ordered the tasting, including matched wines, while my partner chose from the regular menu. Our waiter pointed out that we wouldn't be eating in sync, since the taster has numerous small plates -- but nobody objects if you share a mix 'n' match dinner. In fact, our waiter seemed pleased: "More people should eat like that," he said.
The tasting menu offered two appetizers, starting with an optional Sonoma foie gras terrine (for a $15 surcharge) -- a silky, ethereal mousse to spread like butter on the accompanying toasted brioche bread. It came with local Crow's Pass Farm strawberry marmalade and purée (peaches are now replacing the out-of-season berries). The wine pairing was Thornton Brut from Temecula, which proved an instant education for me. I've never cozied up to real Champagne -- too steely and bubbly for me -- but the Thornton tasted mellow and a bit oaky, with bubbles as gentle as a Prosecco or a naturally sparkling Vouvray. This and all other pours were generous.
"Bubalus Bubalis buffalo ricotta gnudi" arrived next on the taster. "Bubalus" is Latin for water buffalo, the source of the California cheese enclosed in the gnudi -- thin-skinned dumplings resembling ricotta-filled dim sum. This isn't my first taste of gnudi, but it's the best I can remember. The ricotta tastes fresh and sunny, and the Meyer lemon sauce that robed the spheres was so flawless a match that I wanted to lick the plate. This dish came with a vina nora albariño, a steely, straightforward Spanish white that cleansed the palate like Evian water.
My partner began with an appetizer of lime- and honey-cured yellowtail, a type of jackfish that sushi-lovers know as hamachi. The firm, tasty fish arrives sliced like sashimi, along with avocado mousse, jicama and radish slices, and a daub of mild jalapeño jelly. "Taste them all at once, all the flavors will come together in harmony," said our waiter. We followed his instructions, making a jellyroll of all the garnishes on a slice of fish. We found this combination too sweet for our tastes. On the second round, we omitted the jam and much preferred the result. You can choose from eight other starter choices, including grilled hearts of romaine with smoked paprika-marinated calamari and Spanish piquillo peppers, and "toad in the hole": an organic poached egg in a nest of brioche with wild mushrooms and asparagus tips.
The tasting selection includes both a fish and a meat entrée chosen by the chef. The herb-crusted Pacific halibut recreates a popular dish that chef Shaeffer cooked at Laurel. A thick chunk of flaky halibut (some sections more tender than others) came with haricots verts (young green beans), pickled radish, braised scallions, and a light cream sauce studded with black Italian truffle shavings (at my visit they were canned; by now, expect fresh summer truffles). The truffles filled out the flavor, which might otherwise have been pallid. (That's halibut for you.) The wine that normally comes with this entrée is Zaca Mesa Chardonnay -- a big, firm, leggy classic from the Central Coast. But since that was the same wine I'd enjoyed for my aperitif, the sommelier substituted a glass of Talbott (which costs $2 more by the glass when ordered à la carte). If ZM is straight-ahead and zesty, the Talbott is rich and eccentric, with a nose of flowers growing in well-aged horse manure and legs like Nicole Kidman. It was a treat, and I appreciated the sommelier's consideration in providing a fresh taste treat.
The second main course was a natural certified Angus beef rib coulotte, the top strip of a prime rib that usually gets roasted well-done but is delicious anyway. I ordered it very rare, and so it arrived. It came with a tiny pastry filled with sinful, fatty beef marrow and a heap of golden potato mousseline (mash plus whipped cream) dotted with fresh morels and moistened with a splash of jus. It's a dish fit for a king. With it, the wine was a Curtis "Crossroads Block" Syrah -- mouth-friendly, food-friendly, slightly sweet. Even my beer-dedicated partner enjoyed a sip.
Before I could take two bites, my partner's entrée of farm-raised Baja mano de león scallops arrived, mingling with Maine lobster meat, bacon, and succotash. Baja scallops don't taste the same as Gloucester scallops: they're full of flavor but a tad tougher and saltier than their Atlantic cousins. They're also more consistent, and usually fresher (which is why local star chefs like George's at the Cove's Trey Foshee and Asia Vous's Riko Bartolomei have been favoring them). They were beautifully seared, translucent at the center, and garnished with thick slices of applewood-smoked slab bacon from Neuske's Smokery in Wisconsin, hunks of genuine lobster (not cheap processed knuckle meat but the flesh of whole "culls," blanched and shelled in-house), and a succotash of fresh corn and baby fava beans moistened by the salty cooking juices. (The other nine entrée choices include roasted Shelton Farms free-range chicken, Kurabata pork short rib and loin, pan-roasted sea bass, and California lamb porterhouse.)
I saved a bit of Syrah wine for the last course, a choice of one cheese or a selection of fruit with crème fraîche. I chose a goat cheese, served with dates, walnuts, and walnut bread. It arrived fridge-cold, so I took most of it home for a midnight snack. Trying it later at room temperature, I found it mellow on the exterior but grainy at the center, needing further aging. (This works for American tastes but would be frowned on in France, where cheeses are served mature and warm, running all over the plate like melting ice cream.)
My partner leaped at the chance to try a white peach tarte Tatin, devised by Del pastry chef Daphne Higa and plated by 1500's Pam Averkamp. This proved a charming rendition, with a single paper-thin pastry layer as the foundation for a fruity, not-too-sweet edifice of peach slices -- natural, unspiced, some pieces unpeeled. With it came a "peach soup," a thick, intense nectar seasoned with allspice and clove. On a cooler night, we might have chosen the Medjool date and almond tart with blue cheese mousse, or the warm mango rice pudding. A few degrees hotter out, and the fruit sorbet vacherin would have tempted us sorely.
With its new view, chef, and menu, 1500 is a restaurant I'd revisit anytime, and one where I'd be happy to invite my out-of-town guests. The Del may be one of our most stately monuments, but there's life in the old girl yet.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My mother cooks, and her mom, Grandmother Myers, cooked a lot," says Jason Shaeffer, raised in a tight-knit family in North Carolina. "I remember helping out as a little kid. I don't want to say it was a farm, but we raised chickens for eggs, and we had a huge garden, so I was always weeding and helping out there. I remember going down in spring with old-school serrated steak knives and cutting asparagus for that night's dinner. I started working as a dishwasher in the summer when I was 15, to get money for a car when I turned 16. I was bussing tables, too. It was a seasonal place, and at the end of the season all the cooks were leaving, and they asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook. I had done some pizza-making, sandwich-making, that kind of stuff, so I learned how to cook there and fell in love with it. I've been with it ever since. I learned on the job for about a year and a half, and then I went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island.
"I came to San Diego for a job that fell through. I was at Laurel for three years, and I moved from there to New York for two years, working as sous-chef under Thomas Keller [of the French Laundry] at Per Se and under Terrence Brennan at Artisinal Cheese Center. It was a great experience.... But I decided I wanted to come back to San Diego so I moved back here about a year ago, worked odd jobs, and then this job came up. I started here in February and was in on the whole project.
"At Per Se I learned a lot of things about discipline, about the way to do things, that I brought here. We have respect for each other and the food, and I learned techniques and technology. We train our staff here the same way. We had seminars and training sessions six, seven days of the week before we opened, to get as much knowledge out there as we possibly could. And instead of just calling in an order, I went out to the farms, shook hands, spent some time in the dirt. Met people in the seafood industry in Santa Barbara. Met the cheesemakers we use, watched them make their cheese. And I put people in touch, like, the Bubalus Bubalis cheesemakers were looking for a distributor, and I helped them find one, so you may find that cheese at other local restaurants in the future.
"The philosophy of Southern California cuisine, which we're outlining as Santa Barbara down to Cabo San Lucas, is in terms of what is available here as our base of a true regional cooking style with a kind of whimsical approach -- using things that are produced locally, things that are fresh and seasonal (although it's hard to say 'seasonal' here because the seasons go on and on). This concept was in place when I got here. They hired Clark Wolf, an entertainment consultant from Clark Wolf Company, for this whole project. He came up with the concept and hired the Engstrom Group from the San Francisco Bay Area. They did the design of the restaurant -- so this is a Clark Wolf brainchild. He works out of New York, but he's originally from the L.A. area, and he's done some pretty big stuff.
"I'm gonna change the menu every two and a half to three months, to follow the produce that's in season. At the end of each season we're going to preserve and pickle and jar the ingredients so we can keep them a little longer than that season."