1540 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
I’ve got stripes, stripes around my shoulders, I’ve got chains, chains around my legs…
— Johnny Cash (based on Leadbelly’s “On a Monday”)
For months I’ve been meaning to eat at Kitchen 1540, formerly the more formal J. Taylor’s at L’Auberge Del Mar. Not only has it been renamed, it’s been renovated into a fresh and friendly environment — still helmed by the same fine chef, Paul McCabe. What finally spurred me to action was a novel circumstance: I was sold to the highest bidder.
A local nonprofit theater company decided to hold a fundraising auction, and somebody had the cockamamie idea of offering “a dinner with Naomi and her posse” as a prize. They cleared it first with my Big Boss (who probably enjoyed the thought of me chained to the block in tattered rags, lashed if I didn’t perform for my masters). I was, of course, too flattered to refuse.
My slavemasters proved to be a smart, charming pair of La Jollans, Gail and Bruce, whose last name I will disguise as “Crowe.” Obviously, after they’d spent real money for me, I wouldn’t take them to some high-risk, low-budget mom ’n’ pop, nor a chancy midrange joint. I offered several upscale new choices and, fortuitously, they picked Kitchen 1540.
The Lynnester had longtime dibs on this destination, to make up for a disaster we shared at this restaurant’s previous incarnation during Christmas season 2005. Chef McCabe, newly arrived, and his overwhelmed kitchen staff were catering seven private parties and also attending to a full house in the restaurant — while the servers were godawful seasonal temps. It took 25 minutes to get wine, 45 for bread, 50 before appetizers arrived. Among these was foie gras served on a hot rock clattering loose on a flat dining plate. Imagine Jim Carrey playing a temp waiter: “Whoops!” Well, we didn’t get burning stones in our laps, but I was elected to finish cooking the damned foie on one. The room was dim, we were ravenous, I couldn’t see the color of the meat and took it off the rock too soon. Blech! Raw liver! (Didn’t write a review. Too much craziness.)
In the redecorated dining room, you can see your food. It’s bright, modern, airy, with blond-wood tables and an open kitchen. There’s no view per se, but behind the hotel lobby next door, a new back terrace features an ocean panorama. My party of six (Ben and Mark joined us) was seated in our own tented, curtained “cabana” on a heated enclosed patio. The bread basket was full of house-baked fun, especially the sweet cranberry-topped focaccia and hearty olive bread.
We’d missed the grand-reopening star appetizer — a hefty four-ounce hunk of foie gras cooked on a stone (again!) and scattered with fruit-flavored Pop Rocks. PETA — which just berated our president for swatting a fly — has bullied the hotel management into taking this off the printed menu. It’s still available if you knock three times and whisper low. Personally, I’d rather have an expert cook this precious substance than play DIY with it, but just letting you know.…
The menu is highly seasonal, so what we ate will not necessarily be what you can eat, although some dishes have longer runs than others. The hit of the evening, still on menu, featured tenderly cooked, sweet day-boat scallops, plated with “popcorn purée,” roasted baby corn cobs, and BliS maple syrup. Many chefs use liquid nitrogen to make instant ice cream, and the more creative ones are exploring other exciting possibilities. McCabe freezes the popcorn in liquid nitrogen to “explode” it, then runs it through a juicer. “What comes out from that is the most spectacular, lightest purée, lighter than cornstarch,” says McCabe. “I’m wary of ‘molecular gastronomy’ — I use some molecular techniques, but I also make chorizo and soppressata from scratch. Basically, we’re using every technique that’s available to us today, without scaring the guests.” As for that BLiS maple, it’s a handcrafted organic syrup from Canada, aged in old whiskey barrels for several years, gaining oak and bourbon flavors — the ultimate maple syrup — and it’s merely a garnishing slick on the plate. Had I known its pedigree, I might’ve licked the plate (well, at least run my finger through the syrup to sample straight-up). All we knew is that everything in this array tasted terrific apart and together.
One of McCabe’s signature dishes combines tiny, delicate-skinned agnolotti filled with sweet peas, served in rich brown butter with a large, shelled Maine lobster claw and chanterelle mushrooms. It’s a perfect mix: veg sweetness and seafood sweetness, tender pasta and tender lobster, plus two touches of darker richness (mushrooms and brown butter) to ground it all. By now, the pasta filling has changed seasonally to sweet corn. No loss at all — I tasted this version at one of those charity eat-o-ramas a few summers ago and nearly burst out crying from sheer pleasure.
I ordered a wild-nettle-and- ramp risotto appetizer because, despite my indifference to the charms of risotto, I’d never tasted nettles. This was our culinary Susan Boyle, a frumpy-looking surprise star. The nettles, their sting cooked away, imbued the rice with a vibrant green flavor, with gentled-down sautéed ramps (wild scallions) providing a sweet backbeat. Favas and leeks contributed, and topping the array, spectacularly, were tempura-cooked morels, the finest mushrooms of them all, crinkly-textured and intense-flavored inside the airy batter. Ecstatic groans all around.
Other appetizers were subtly less satisfying. Bison tartare was pleasant, tender, meaty, unexpectedly mild-flavored, and came with brioche croutons and smoked bacon sabayon — but not enough sabayon! You want lots of “other stuff” to liven up any tartare, because raw meat is, finally, raw meat, only that and nothing more.
A deep-fried soft-shelled Maryland crab tasted slightly bitter, probably no fault of the kitchen, merely a grumpy crab who’d been reading Ann Coulter or Isaiah on death row just before he met his maker. His garnish of “compressed melon” (another liquid-nitrogen miracle) was a delight, though. The chef was on vacation that week, and sorry to say, the uni listed on the menu was apparently omitted.
I was the sole fan of the intense salad of organic beets (and other veggies) with Valdeón blue cheese, plated over thick, concentrated “caramelized yogurt.” My tablemates found the cheese — or maybe the yogurt — too overwhelming, overmastering the beets. (It certainly wasn’t yet another boring beet–goat cheese salad.) A crudo (lightly cured raw fish) of a rich-fleshed species named Hiramasa — an Australian kingfish, similar to hamachi — was served with compressed fennel, duck cracklings, and steelhead roe. We all found it unfocused, with random-seeming good ingredients at loose ends.
Between courses, we got to know each other. Serendipitously, Lynne, Gail, and I had all dressed alike (“cute” tops, comfortable slacks and flats — just right for this restaurant’s new incarnation), and as we got acquainted, it turned out that Lynne had several mutual acquaintances and professional links with both Crowes, while Mark and Bruce had similar ties, and soon we were a family, eating family-style.
The wine list is loaded with painfully tempting bottles: e.g., Duckhorn Merlot, $90, or a half for $45, but I have to live within my expense strictures. There’s little under $35. We began with a southern French Viognier, Domaine Triennes ($38). A little young, it was still “closed”; good but not yet generous. We had a long wait for appetizers again, possibly because we were so obviously having a good time running our mouths. The waiter astutely steered me away from a South African Sauvignon (“You’ll hate it; it has that green pepper undertone”) toward a same-priced Frog’s Leap ($40) — clean and crisp, perfect with our appetizers. There are some bargain Italian and Spanish reds under a “Fun Reds” listing, but not knowing them, and hoping to please my new owners, I went with the tried-and-true Byron Santa Maria Pinot Noir ($47), light and food-friendly.
I’m not normally a halibut fan, but here it was my favorite entrée, its blandness turned into a virtue. Cooked opalescent-tender, it was served in a delicate, lemony broth of condensed mussel juices and preserved Meyer lemon, emulsified with butter and fresh herbs, surrounded by mussels, favas, diced tomatoes, and crisp-tender pieces of baby artichokes, with a few bits of the lemon hiding at the bottom. Every mouthful held a new treat.
A whole roasted branzino (bass) fared less well: it was cooked too dry to our tastes. Mark thought it tasted like trout, Lynne found it “too fishy.” But everyone delighted in the garnish of crisp, tempuraed “sea beans” (a salty edible succulent plant, shaped like green beans, found on many California beaches).
Colorado lamb loin and braised leg had only a little moist, shreddy, deep-flavored leg meat and a lot of beautiful rosy grilled loin. (At most restaurants, they’d give you more leg, less of the pricey loin.) The meats were plated over farro, the low-yielding emmer wheat eaten in the Middle East since ancient Egypt but now cultivated mainly in Italy (popularized here by Mario Battali). It tastes like bulgur (made of a modern wheat variety) but is firmer, denser, intensely “wheaty” in flavor. Here it’s touched with cinnamon and spiced up with a pepper jam. The array of seasonal veggies included pea shoots and that brief springtime miracle, fiddlehead ferns, edible for only a few days while coiled, before unfolding into ornamental greenery. They taste something like okra, minus the slime.
Natural beef tenderloin, rare as ordered and utterly tender, came with more divine morels (sautéed, this time), spring onions, a tomato-Cabernet reduction sauce, and upscale Tater Tots — smoked potato croquettes (though not smoky enough; I’d hoped for the more intense level of smoke Trey Foshee does with mash at George’s). Kurobuta pork short-ribs were meaty and full-flavored over a sensuous potato–goat cheese purée, with multicolor baby carrots and whole braised ramps. I really like this side of McCabe’s cuisine — cooking up all these potentially delicious weeds that gardeners pull up and trash. Chef’s got a good head on his shoulders, and a good palate, too.
The sole flop was a burger! The meat was a marvel — grass-fed, locally raised organic Palomar Mountain beef (see review of November 5, 2008, “Live Butchers, Live”). The meat’s deeply beefy and flavorful but “too lean for good burgers,” said Lynne, a burger-and-fries freak. It came topped with an aged artisan Cheddar so dense it didn’t melt, merely turned sludgy. A milder, lighter, more melty unpedigreed cheese would be better — you want it gooey to buy off the leanness. (I’d love to try this muscular-tasting meat in a tartare or in Texas beanless chili or mixed with fruits and veggies and stuffed into a poblano for chiles en nogada. Or Tibetan momos, Ethiopian Kitfo, or any dish that normally involves minced water buffalo — but I’m not sure about a burger.)
For dessert, our sextet split three sweets. My favorite was strawberry shortcake. It was simple and fresh, accompanied with a killer crème fraîche ice cream of amazingly rich texture. Lavender crème brûlée was subtly flavored with the floral herb (I prefer a stronger hit). We loved the tiny, intense lemon cookies alongside. A root-beer trilogy is a gala production number — a root-beer float, a brittle, and white and brown mousses, cuddled together, yin-yang. “Is there really enough root-beer flavor in the white mousse?” asked Mark. This was debated at length but never resolved. The espresso was competent — not much crema but decent coffee flavor.
This is by no means a “bargain restaurant,” but it’s not exorbitant — it’s about right for a splurge dinner, unless it’s your final splurge before declaring Chapter 11. Our meal came to about $45 per person for food, $20 each for lower-end wines, plus tip and tax. It’s a fair price for what you get. And, for me, the dinner also brought new friends — there’s nothing like passing plates around “family style” to create a new family. This is probably not the last you’ll hear of Bruce and Gail.
A BRIEF DISSERTATION UPON FATTED GOOSE
Is foie gras cruel? My friend Lois did a stage at a foie gras farm in Perigourd. (Her report was echoed recently by a near-identical reminiscence from Mille Fleurs restaurateur Bertrand Hug, about his grandparents’ foie gras farm.) Lois said that the geese, far from hating gavage, would crowd noisily around Mamère (Grandma) at feeding time, each trying to be first up into her lap. And geese, God knows, are not cuddly critters. But the real Mother Goose feeds her young by shoving her beak down their little throats and vomiting half-digested food straight down their gullets — mighty like gavage. So to her fowls, Mamère was Maman Oie, and gavage recreated babyhood comfort food. Veterinarians consistently refuse to condemn foie gras because it turns out to be natural in other respects as well: migratory waterfowl (wild geese and ducks) semiannually stuff themselves into fat-livered little blimps just before flying south for winter or north for summer.
Depending on the specific conditions of the farm, foie gras fowl are not mistreated, except that we eventually eat them; most enjoy far better lives than normal factory-raised chickens and mammals and egg-laying hens. (It’s the workers on large foie gras farms who may suffer — gavage-fed poultry relate to just one person to feed them — their personal Mother Goose — which puts their human feeders on a relentless round-the-clock schedule.)
PETA’s focus on foie gras is not because the feeding method is actually “inhumane” but because of the easy target it presents. Not only does the feeding-tube look ugly and scary to humans (because we have a gag reflex and the birds don’t) but — obese geese? Yuck! Nobody likes a fatty — so PETA has succeeded in turning foie gras into forbidden food by playing on societal prejudices about body shapes. It has little to do with natural reality, much less the fowls’ own viewpoint, which they express with their behavior both in the wild and on the farm. Me? I’m eating foie gras as long as I can get it, preferring science and sensuality over Disneyesque sentimentality and vegan-evangelist puritanism. I’m so evil, I eat Bambi and Thumper and even Donald and Daffy — so long as they’re humanely and organically raised.
L’Auberge Del Mar, 1540 Camino Del Mar, 858-793-6460, laubergedelmar.com/kitchen1540/.
HOURS: Three meals daily, including Sunday brunch; dinner 6:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Hot starters and raw plates, $8–$18; cured meats and artisan cheeses, $6 each; entrées, $16–$32; sides, $7; desserts, $3–$8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Clean, imaginative seasonal California “farm to plate” cuisine with local produce, sustainable seafood, natural meats, and house-cured charcuterie, utilizing both the latest and the most classic cooking techniques to bring out the flavors.
PICK HITS: Day-boat scallops with popcorn purée, wild nettle and ramp risotto with tempura-fried morels, corn agnolotti, Alaskan halibut with preserved Meyer lemon, beef tenderloin, Colorado lamb loin and braised leg, strawberry shortcake. Chef’s picks: scallops, Farm House Salad.
NEED TO KNOW: Resort-casual garb. Validated parking. Heated patio dining with tented cabanas for groups of six and up. Numerous lacto-vegetarian and several vegan appetizers, one veg entrée. Foie gras off-menu but available by request ($18).