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When I ate at Molly’s during June “Restaurant Week,” the place should have been at least as packed as Ruth’s Chris was the previous night. The food was vastly better, the wine list more interesting and sophisticated, with smarter choices for less money. Yet barely half the tables were occupied, all (judging from overheard conversations) by hard-core foodies and winies (not “winos,” nor a “nation of whiners” plunging into mental recession; from what I heard, everyone sounded pretty bright). So, just like the last time I reviewed Molly’s, it’s time to sound the trumpets in another wake-up call: Molly’s may be a restaurant in a hotel, but it’s a chef’s restaurant first. Don’t let the conventioneers keep it for themselves. Yes, it’s a bit pricey, but no more so than is the norm in the Gaslamp, and you get a much better payoff in food quality, craftsmanship, and professional service — not to mention free parking.

Unlike most chains, the Marriott’s local restaurants (another is Arterra in Del Mar, and another Roy’s is about to open here on Harbor Drive) put the chefs and not the suits in charge of the food. (You can thank a food-forward manager named Steve Pagano, who ran the Del Mar location and was promoted to a higher slot in this one.) In fact, the Marriott is hip enough that instead of advancing some corporate drone, they appointed Molly’s distinguished sommelier, Lisa Redwine, as the restaurant’s general manager. (Only Amy Winehouse could beat that for an apt sommelier name, but Lisa was a more appropriate person for the job.) Lisa left a few weeks ago for the Shores — you can still read her legacy in the smart wine list — and now chef Timothy Au is in charge. This mode of operation is incredibly rare at American hotel chains. You may find it at a boutique chain like the Kimpton’s or at a Euro-style luxury chain like the Ritz Carlton, but — wow — at a middle-class Marriott, where even I have occasionally stayed? Obviously, somebody at the top understands the distinction between the important pleasures versus the class-based snobberies.

Chef Brian Sinnott put Molly’s on the map. After he moved on to 1500 Ocean nine months ago, the equally experienced chef Timothy Au took the helm. But the restaurant seemed to lose some of its local cachet, as if foodies didn’t quite trust another chef to please them as much. If there were any initial problems with the transition, however, they’re no longer evident. Everything we ate was totally “au-some.”

Molly’s menu is seasonal and local, changing constantly. (The menu posted on the website is more an overall sample than a precise depiction of what’s coming from the kitchen in a particular week.) The generous Restaurant Week menu covered many of the dishes on that week’s seasonal à la carte menu (although not the most expensive choices). But tempted beyond endurance, my posse and I strayed to the regular menu, to start with a round of oysters on the half shell. That told us plenty about the new chef. The species were kumamoto and hama hama, which are as good as oysters get. They arrived with an array of garnishes: lemon wedges, semi-hot Hungarian paprika, and an unconventional mignonette consisting of chopped shallots and herbs with only the barest touch of vinegar. As someone who learned to love oysters in New Orleans (land of do-it-yourself oyster sauces), I was overjoyed to avoid the vinegar OD of standard mignonettes. Sam and Mary Jo drank the grit-free juices from the shells as eagerly as I did.

There were three choices for every course, and coincidentally we were a threesome. (Sometimes life gives you a little break.) A terrine of house-cured, cold-smoked salmon and house-made Boursin cheese featured the rich, profound flavors of thin slices of cold-smoked lox layered with creamy cheese. Perfectly complementing the terrine was a salad of spring greens dotted with cubes of smoky bacon and capers with a preserved-lemon vinaigrette that tasted faintly like anchovy (not from the fish, it turned out, but from the spicing of the lemon).

Citrus and herb-cured ahi offered another intense raw fish, an essence of ahi, accompanied by lolla rosso (a hearty Italian red lettuce) with pancetta and sweet red onion slices in a cardamom-spiked lime-juice dressing. The flavors produced the whole-body satisfaction of a hot bath on a cool night or a Caribbean swim on a hot day.

Caramelized local peach made the most of the season: Instead of boring old melon with prosciutto, here was fresh, local stone-fruit with pancetta, pine nuts, aged balsamic, and a single, pristine glazed leaf of Genovese basil for deep-dark greenness flashed with sweetness. This, too, combined physical impact with an intellectual one: What a smart new combination of tastes!

We’d gone happily for the “wine pairings” offered with the menu, and for the first courses Ms. Redwine chose an interesting dry Riesling from Kim Crawford (Marlborough, NZ). I’m not normally a great Riesling fan, but this one was just right.

Our main courses covered sea, air, and land. Diver scallops, ultra tender in a warm coriander vinaigrette, benefited from accompaniments of shaved artichoke, braised fennel, with its subtle licorice flavor, and potato purée discreetly touched with orange and more fennel.

Roasted prime-grade tri-tip beef offered thin, rare slices bathed in a subtle sauce (egg-yolk Gribiche vinaigrette mellowed with a red wine–veal demiglace) with huge, grilled slices of heirloom tomatoes and pancetta-wrapped romaine, also grilled (but not quite enough — Piatti in La Jolla grills the lettuce longer and hotter, and it comes out better). After the prime filets at Ruth’s Chris and Cowboy Star, how did this beef stack up? It was tougher — tri-tip is not a melt-in-your-mouth “gourmet” cut, it’s the stuff (eaten with pinquito beans) of the famed Santa Maria annual community barbecue. But after its careful treatment, it gave an illusion of tenderness. The flavor was truly beefy, and the sauce civilized it and made it more interesting than mere meat.

[2009 Editor's Note: Molly's has since closed.]

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