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International Smoke and a $29 lunch

Giving in to celebrity chef culture and hoping the bang’s worth the buck

Korean inspired, smoked brisket, served with cucumber kimchi and furikake seasoned rice
Korean inspired, smoked brisket, served with cucumber kimchi and furikake seasoned rice

Alongside death and taxes, there’s at least one more certainty in this life: accumulate a few of food writing bylines, and publicist emails will find you. I receive dozens per day, occasionally duplicates finding me in three separate email accounts. They offer such tidbits as restaurant openings, chef hirings, or seasonal menu updates. Less useful are emails about about restaurants opening in cities on the East Coast. Less interesting are repeated emails offering to share the same unremarkable thing. Like, I see you already, Dunkin Donuts; there’s no need to reach out two or three times a month.

Place

International Smoke Del Mar

3387 Del Mar Heights Rd Building 1, Del Mar

Point is, I was made well aware of the 2019 opening of One Paseo — a self-contained development in Carmel Valley, where it’s possible to live, work, shop, and dine, all without leaving the same 24-acre mall. At first, I ignored it, because I’m not a big mall guy. Then, once I recognized the trend — that malls have maybe for the first time become home to legitimate, non-food-court restaurants, I begrudgingly decided to check it out. But I put it off. Long enough, it turned out, that Covid eventually absolved me of any pressure to visit.

Once that happened, emails about the massive mixed-use complex slowed, and I might have forgotten about the existence of One Paseo altogether. Except the PR emails for one restaurant in particular have kept coming, and show no signs of stopping.

A first course of summer stone fruit salad, with miso-vinaigrette: on its own, well worth a visit

International Smoke has virtually been living in my inbox, and I’ve done my best to ignore it. The restaurant represents a partnership between celebrity chef Michael Mina and the wife of the NBA’s all-time greatest three-point shooter, Ayesha Curry.

Mrs. Curry has authored cookbooks, hosted TV cooking shows, and launched a line of cookware. So in a very 21st century way, I guess it makes sense that she’d partner with Mina, whose many accolades include a collection of James Beard medals dating back to 1997. Mina has since leveraged his hardware to create a hospitality group more than 40 restaurants strong (if you include corresponding ghost kitchens dedicated to burgers, hot chicken, and mac & cheese).

The stylish interior of celebrity restaurant International Smoke Del Mar

If I’m being honest, this litany of businesses and the somewhat tabloid nature of the partnership turned me off. Neither of the owners live in San Diego, a market that was clearly not deemed important to the Michael Mina Restaurant Group when it launched in 2002. I might love smoked foods, but why rush out to try, or write about, International Smoke when it means going to a mall in outer Del Mar and spending about fifty bucks per person for appetizers, entrées, and drinks?

It was snarky of me, perhaps, but remained true til a couple weeks ago, when I got a new email. International Smoke had introduced something it called the Express Lunch Menu. From 11:30 am-3 pm, this menu offers a choice of appetizer and entrée for $29.

Now, $29 may be more than I’d usually spend on lunch. However, it gave me a chance to try the place out, while capping the amount I might spend. Besides, a glance at the menu showed appetizers including a Baja-style sea bass ceviche and a Thai-style soup with coconut and crab. Entrees included a salmon and truffle Caesar salad. These things sound way better than the average lunch items.

And the dishes I opted for proved even better. A stone fruit salad featured slices of plum and what I believe was the green, Honeydew nectarine; plus candied pecans, thinly-shaved goat cheese, and lomo: cured pork loin from Spain. I can’t recall ever eating a salad so fast. It was just about perfect. And it’s seasonal, so try it soon if you plan to.

Despite that “Express” in the menu’s name, it should not be confused with fast food. This was a sit-down order, and the two courses are served separately, with several minutes between them. In that meantime after the salad, I developed high hopes for my chosen entrée: a Korean-styled smoked brisket. Served with furikake rice (seaweed, sesame seeds, and fish flakes) and cucumber kimchi, the smokey and tender beef, met every expectation, glazed with a light interplay of sweetness and spice that brought out rather than obscured the savor.

Thanks to the unexpected and nuanced directions taken by this lunch special, I’m finally willing to get past my own bias and admit that this beautifully constructed celebrity restaurant, which happens to sit on the outside edge of One Paseo, makes outstanding food. I might actually be willing to make the drive with my wife and spend that 50 bucks per person.

Hear that, International Smoke? There’s no need for further emails. Consider me hooked.

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Korean inspired, smoked brisket, served with cucumber kimchi and furikake seasoned rice
Korean inspired, smoked brisket, served with cucumber kimchi and furikake seasoned rice

Alongside death and taxes, there’s at least one more certainty in this life: accumulate a few of food writing bylines, and publicist emails will find you. I receive dozens per day, occasionally duplicates finding me in three separate email accounts. They offer such tidbits as restaurant openings, chef hirings, or seasonal menu updates. Less useful are emails about about restaurants opening in cities on the East Coast. Less interesting are repeated emails offering to share the same unremarkable thing. Like, I see you already, Dunkin Donuts; there’s no need to reach out two or three times a month.

Place

International Smoke Del Mar

3387 Del Mar Heights Rd Building 1, Del Mar

Point is, I was made well aware of the 2019 opening of One Paseo — a self-contained development in Carmel Valley, where it’s possible to live, work, shop, and dine, all without leaving the same 24-acre mall. At first, I ignored it, because I’m not a big mall guy. Then, once I recognized the trend — that malls have maybe for the first time become home to legitimate, non-food-court restaurants, I begrudgingly decided to check it out. But I put it off. Long enough, it turned out, that Covid eventually absolved me of any pressure to visit.

Once that happened, emails about the massive mixed-use complex slowed, and I might have forgotten about the existence of One Paseo altogether. Except the PR emails for one restaurant in particular have kept coming, and show no signs of stopping.

A first course of summer stone fruit salad, with miso-vinaigrette: on its own, well worth a visit

International Smoke has virtually been living in my inbox, and I’ve done my best to ignore it. The restaurant represents a partnership between celebrity chef Michael Mina and the wife of the NBA’s all-time greatest three-point shooter, Ayesha Curry.

Mrs. Curry has authored cookbooks, hosted TV cooking shows, and launched a line of cookware. So in a very 21st century way, I guess it makes sense that she’d partner with Mina, whose many accolades include a collection of James Beard medals dating back to 1997. Mina has since leveraged his hardware to create a hospitality group more than 40 restaurants strong (if you include corresponding ghost kitchens dedicated to burgers, hot chicken, and mac & cheese).

The stylish interior of celebrity restaurant International Smoke Del Mar

If I’m being honest, this litany of businesses and the somewhat tabloid nature of the partnership turned me off. Neither of the owners live in San Diego, a market that was clearly not deemed important to the Michael Mina Restaurant Group when it launched in 2002. I might love smoked foods, but why rush out to try, or write about, International Smoke when it means going to a mall in outer Del Mar and spending about fifty bucks per person for appetizers, entrées, and drinks?

It was snarky of me, perhaps, but remained true til a couple weeks ago, when I got a new email. International Smoke had introduced something it called the Express Lunch Menu. From 11:30 am-3 pm, this menu offers a choice of appetizer and entrée for $29.

Now, $29 may be more than I’d usually spend on lunch. However, it gave me a chance to try the place out, while capping the amount I might spend. Besides, a glance at the menu showed appetizers including a Baja-style sea bass ceviche and a Thai-style soup with coconut and crab. Entrees included a salmon and truffle Caesar salad. These things sound way better than the average lunch items.

And the dishes I opted for proved even better. A stone fruit salad featured slices of plum and what I believe was the green, Honeydew nectarine; plus candied pecans, thinly-shaved goat cheese, and lomo: cured pork loin from Spain. I can’t recall ever eating a salad so fast. It was just about perfect. And it’s seasonal, so try it soon if you plan to.

Despite that “Express” in the menu’s name, it should not be confused with fast food. This was a sit-down order, and the two courses are served separately, with several minutes between them. In that meantime after the salad, I developed high hopes for my chosen entrée: a Korean-styled smoked brisket. Served with furikake rice (seaweed, sesame seeds, and fish flakes) and cucumber kimchi, the smokey and tender beef, met every expectation, glazed with a light interplay of sweetness and spice that brought out rather than obscured the savor.

Thanks to the unexpected and nuanced directions taken by this lunch special, I’m finally willing to get past my own bias and admit that this beautifully constructed celebrity restaurant, which happens to sit on the outside edge of One Paseo, makes outstanding food. I might actually be willing to make the drive with my wife and spend that 50 bucks per person.

Hear that, International Smoke? There’s no need for further emails. Consider me hooked.

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