Joseph O'Brien 9 a.m., July 19
Davanti Del Mar
I live within a long walk's distance to Davanti Little Italy, but somehow I managed to make my way almost 20 miles away to Davanti Del Mar first. Of course, I was catching a flick at the new only-movie-theater-I'll-go-to, Cinepolis, which is two doors down from the restaurant in the very clean and always crowded Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
The Shopping Center Christmas Tree
We were a group of three: Me, David (of course David, when do I ever go anywhere without my better half?) and our friend Leslee.
Me and Leslee, enjoying a cocktail at the theater right before the movie
We went to an early showing, so we were out around 8 p.m., at which point Davanti (one of a handful of restaurants side by side) was packed. I left my name with the hostess and we nabbed three (the only ones left open) seats at the bar to get a drink while we waited for a table.
Long communal tables throughout the space added to the cozy, friendly feel of the restaurant. We so enjoyed the bartender's knowledgeable and helpful explanations and recommendations in response to our menu inquiries that when a table did become available, we gave it up to stay and eat at the bar.
I was in one of those super annoying, indecisive moods. I had no idea what I felt like for dinner, so our server behind the bar had a tough time tailoring his recommendations -- but that didn't stop him from trying. In the end, it was his suggestions over the other dishes that turned out to be our favorite.
The first dish to come out was a warm salad with a well-balanced and mouth-pleasing mixture of textures and flavors: sweet roasted squash, chewy farro, tangy smooth goat cheese, crunchy hazelnuts, all topped with peppery cool watercress.
Next was a take on the traditional "toad in the hole" dish: two eggs baked into toast, but I'd never had it in bread so tall, soft, and tasty. Melted over the bread was fontina, and beneath it, cuts of cooked asparagus. On the menu, it's called "truffle egg toast," but I asked for the truffle oil on the side. Though Leslee enjoyed dipping nearly everything into the oil, I couldn't help but wonder how long I had to wait for the truffle trend to subside. The only thing I wanted to add to the rich egg yolk and soft bread, the funky nut flavor of fontina, and the lightly bitter freshness of the asparagus, was a pinch of salt.
We had to order the Cacio e Pepe (spaghetti, pecorino cheese, and black pepper) because it was a dish of this title and ingredients that had surprised and delighted us few years ago at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants in New York City. We were happy the portion was small, because the sauce on this was a little too thick and a bit too rich for much enjoyment after a few bites. David was disappointed, as Lupa's version had been as light as it was flavor-packed, despite the few and simple seasonings used.
The next dish to arrive was the Prosciutto Pizza, with mozzarella, fontina, and arugula. Again, I enjoyed the contrast of a peppery cool green atop warmer savory flavors (a good balance to the salt of the prosciutto), but the thin crispy crust paled in comparison to those of many local pizza purveyors (such as Isola, Pizzaria Bruno, Cucina Urbana, and so on).
Leslee had her heart on the chicken. She was brilliant to request a substitution of the "romaine salad" for the "brussel sprouts and balsamic" she spotted being served with the swordfish. They were delicious. The chicken was tender and meaty, and the "chili pepper paste" could have easily been called "barbecue sauce." Tasty, but not very exciting.
We decided that when a movie next pulls us north to the luxury cinema, we'll dine at Davanti again, but this time we'll order only from the strongest parts of the menu: small plates, salads, cheese, and meats. And wine, of course. Always wine.