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11966 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley

I’d been eating in low-down dives for months. Some were high-rent dives, with coastside views that give them an exaggerated sense of their own value, and I was tired of swallowing slop at any price. I needed a treat. I needed a lot of health insurance. I needed a vacation and a home in the country and a new car wouldn’t hurt. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a credit card. (My gun was gone — my ex got custody.) I put my hat and coat on and headed for Arterra.

The last time I ate at Arterra, it’s then nearly new head chef lammed it out the back door and ran home to Pittsburgh a few days after the review came out. Don’t blame me, I liked his food fine. Ever since the original chef de cuisine, Carl Schroeder, left to open Market a few miles north, Arterra’s been a revolving door, spinning chefs through at mad speed for no reason that I can fathom. Even Philip Marlowe might be stumped by this mystery.

This time, the “new” near-new (since 2007) executive chef, Jason Maitland, has been cooking, in one capacity or another, in that same open kitchen since its opening day. Son of a gourmet-cook doctor, and himself a graduate of the New England Culinary School in Vermont, he moved west looking for sunshine and found it in San Diego. He took a job at Arterra as junior sous chef in January 2002 and has risen through the ranks to the top toque position. Maybe he’ll stick around awhile. I hope so. He’s good.

I kicked myself for missing the bold fall menu, where Maitland challenged San Diego’s native food-fear with dishes such as seared beef tongue, roasted bone marrow, and truffled popcorn sweetbreads. Unfortunately, I was otherwise engaged, questing for manna on the meaner streets and mainly failing to find it. I finally got to the restaurant during January Restaurant Week, hoping for a little mercy to my wallet along with my palate. Instead of just three choices per course like most restaurants, Arterra’s $40 prix fixe offered a menu with six appetizers and six entrées, several of the most desirable choices carrying surcharges of up to $15. The wine list — remarkably thin at the low end — wiped out any other savings, since I’m not about to turn teetotaler anytime soon. I’ve heard about a country that tried that, about 80 years ago. It didn’t work out.

I was eating with Lynne and Mark and Ben. We told the waiter it’d be family style. He knew what we meant. Following the dictum “age before beauty,” he delivered the seared duck foie gras to me for first bites. I’ve eaten enough foie gras that I’m almost inured to its divinity, but I was taken with this astute treatment. A tart “salad” of local blood-orange slices complemented its unctuousness, while an intensely citrusy chutney-like marmalade offered bittersweet notes. Best of all, delicate, crackly soft flakes of black “lava salt” from Hawaii, placed alongside for the diner to add at will, brought all the flavors into focus with their gentle mineral undertones. This wasn’t salt for saltiness’s sake but a distinctive flavor of its own. (It also wasn’t one of those sulfurous Joe Versus the Volcano pricey black salts that stink like a blowhole on Kilauea or the mouth of hell.)

Local organic cauliflower soup sounded humble but outshone the foie. It had a darker, richer flavor than any mere cruciferous vegetable can ever confer, reminiscent of black truffles: cumin oil and coriander, per the menu. Floating in the soup were bits of rich braised beef and nameless sautéed root vegetables. “I want that again for dessert,” said Ben, who started the bowl and longed to bogart it. “I want it for my last meal,” I said. Only January when eaten, and it’s already a shoo-in for the year’s “best dishes” list.

After that high point, a salad of braised Chino Farms baby beets (both red and gold) was bound to be anticlimactic. Is there any California cuisine restaurant in the entire state that does not offer a beet salad? And of all the beet salads in all of California, how many of them don’t include melted goat cheese? This one was still lovable due to a few fresh seasonal twists, with organic blood orange and tangelo segments over shaved fennel and arugula dressed with curry vinaigrette, and chevre puffs coated in earthy whole-wheat flour. If we must have more beet salads, then let them be like this one.

The one semi-flop starter was a smallish, not-moist-enough pan-seared blue crab cake. If beet salads are now as common as dirt, crab cakes are as ubiquitous as ants. This one was plated over a hash of roasted chestnuts and butternut squash with “melted” cipollini onions and sage butter. “We’re here for our big scene with the duck,” said the squash cubes and onions. “Hey, I thought we were booked to back up the heritage pork,” the chestnuts and sage grumbled. However clever they were, these garnishes by nature seemed to rebel against lending support to wimpy crab cakes. I’m surprised they didn’t call a strike and walk off the plate.

The entrées weren’t quite up to the cauliflower soup, but few things are. The best was grilled natural Duroc pork — you may know it better by its Japanese name, Kurobuta. We chose the eight-ounce bone-in chop. (You could get a bigger chop or a “New York” cut for even higher surcharges.) It was cooked longer than requested but was still savory, surrounded by kale festooned with bits of salty, smoky bacon and topped with sweet-tart huckleberry compote and, for a final touch, served with a slick of creamy cauliflower purée. “This chef is so good with salt,” the Lynnester said, eating the kale. “Yeah,” said Mark. “He uses it as an active flavor, not just a passive addiction like most American cooking.”

A duo of Prime beef short-ribs had, first of all, USDA Prime-grade beef. As I learned at George’s at the Cove a few years ago, even low-on-the-steer braising cuts are vastly better as Prime than as lower grades. The plate looked as dainty as an appetizer, with its two modest brown mounds, but with flavors as huge as Sydney Greenstreet’s suit size. Half the duo was a “shepherd’s pie” consisting of browned mashed potatoes fried in duck fat, topping a mix of chopped meat and root vegetables. This is, obviously, not at all what Brits eat at home, or even in pubs. The other half was a Napoleon-like layering of soft and juicy Syrah-braised meat over veggies. Somewhere on the plate was something called a “three-minute egg sauce,” but none of us could locate or identify it. Nobody cared.

Crispy Skin Loch Duart King Salmon offered Scottish salmon in a saffron-curry nage — the latter being a brothy, light sauce (from the French word for “swim”). Alongside the moist, tender fish (and yummy crisp skin) were fingerling potatoes, local organic chard, and, best of all, a swarmlet of tender, peeled whole garlic cloves lending their rooty sweetness.

Least exciting was Jidori chicken. It had tender breast meat cooked sous vide and a confit leg “terrine” that resembled Thanksgiving stuffing, plus brussels sprouts with bacon and some contribution (vaguely noted on the menu) from Meyer lemons. Maybe it’s time for chefs to stop treating Jidori chicken like the fowl Holy Grail. Even if it has a Japanese name and a refined upbringing, it’s still just chicken. Do something! Spice it up, stuff it, brine it, marinate it — do anything!

Finding “affordable” wines was not just challenging, it was painful. I’m on a budget here myself. My job is to come up with the best quaffs from the bottom realms of the list — from what you’ve told me in your emails, that’s what you want, and so does my Boss of Bosses. Best I could do for a white was “Le Secret Ivre” (“drunken secret”), a big delicious white Rhone Marsanne blend for $52. Reds were seriously hard, since even the Chilean and Argentine selections ran over $100. I finally settled for an over-$60 Stellenbosch Cab that didn’t thrill me at all. Other local sommeliers manage to provide delicious $30–$40 choices from South America, South Africa, Iberia, New Zealand, Australia, the Rhone, the Loire, the Minervois, and — yes, North County and Baja. Is the sommelier here living in some dream world in his very corporate hotel restaurant, cheek-to-cheek with bankers whooping it up on their bailouts? Oh, Mr. Marriott, who do you think you are…?

We weren’t happy with service, either — not a problem with our waiter, but with the service-management plan. The waiter was covering too many other tables, and we couldn’t get him back again when we needed him — just runners and busers with no power to initiate action. He wasn’t there often enough to refill our glasses with the white wine and was long delayed when we wanted to order a red for the entrée course and then again to deliver said red. Part of our discontent with the Cabernet was that it arrived far too late, when we were already down to seeds and stems on the food — had we realized how long it would take, we would probably have skipped it and just hoarded the last of our white and maybe (God forbid) sipped more San Diego water. (And while I’m at it: Why is Arterra still giving each table only one or two of the brilliant little corn muffins in the bread basket, even when there are four diners? That is so chintzy! We’re not spending enough on indulgence, you have to withhold everybody’s favorite signature dish? Grrr!)

All three desserts were highly accomplished, even if none quite hit my “D” (for Dessert) spot. The lightest consisted of three scoops of blood orange–tangelo sorbet, just right after all the red meat. Most exciting was a pastry called “roasted pineapple waukau,” filled with roasted pineapple chunks and accompanied by a rich cream-cheese ice cream. But I didn’t like the pastry — too dense and heavy. A “rocky-road brownie” was a reasonably delicate dark-chocolate confection accompanied by a frozen milk-chocolate mousse that seemed cloned from a Fudgsicle.

When Arterra first opened, celeb chef Bradley Ogden was in charge of the kitchen. At that time, I found the food a little too laid-back and “business dinner-ish” for my tastes (my frequent complaint with Brad’s style). And I’ve never liked the business-class vibe of the Carmel Valley Marriott. (Stayed there one night. Room windows are sealed. Corporate tyranny!) But with each successive chef, I’ve liked the cooking better, as the newcomers have each seized the reins and made the menu his own, within the admirable framework of a local-sustainable-organic farm-to-table ethos. Maitland makes the food not just good but fun — you want to stick around to see what he’ll do for his next act. The food costs, but you get actual value for your money when it tastes this pleasing.

The rich are different from you and me: they have more money to spend at good restaurants (unless they’ve been “Madoffed”). The rest of us, in these scary times, have to make our own deals with the devil. We can eat out rarely and well. We can eat out often, but often rather badly. (It’s not always slop, but it can feel that way if you know that, with a little time and energy, you can cook better yourself.) We can also seek out great, cheap ethnic mom ’n’ pops (and I found a corker for next week’s review). As the old-time carnies used to say, “Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.” Arterra remains a primo destination when your whole weary, frazzled being is crying out for a vacation, a house in the country — or at least the treat of a truly fine meal.

Marriott Hotel, 11966 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley, 858-369-6032, arterrarestaurant.com.
HOURS: Breakfast weekdays 6:30–10:30 a.m.; weekends 7:00–11:30 a.m. Lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Dinner Monday–Saturday 5:30–9:30 p.m. (Bar only on Sundays.) Outdoor lounge seven days, 11 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $9–$19; entrées, $28–$38. Tasting dinners, $59–$89, wine-pairings starting at $45; desserts, $11; cheese plates, $12–$16. Breakfast buffets, $14 and $18, plus à la carte.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Constantly changing seasonal menu of “farm to table” California cuisine, with top-grade fresh and sustainably raised ingredients, including Prime beef, heritage poultry and meat breeds, Chino Farms produce. International, wide-ranging but expensive wine list, few choices under $50. Corkage, $25 per bottle, $35 magnums; no wine opened that the house carries. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Cauliflower soup with braised beef, foie gras with blood orange, Prime beef short-ribs duo, crispy-skin salmon, Duroc pork chop with bacon-braised kale.
NEED TO KNOW: Ask for detailed travel directions when reserving, as route from freeway is tricky. Validated self-parking in garage. Vegetarians and vegans easily accommodated by request.

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