Kitchen 15401540 Camino Del MarDel Mar858-793-6460www.laubergedelmar.com/kitchen1540
I'm a big fan of restaurant matchbooks. When I was a little boy, I used to marvel at my father's massive collection, part of which he'd acquired during his travels abroad on a tugboat. He kept the matchbooks in a large fishbowl, and I'd study ones from the U.S.S.R. and Hong Kong, trying to guess what my father ate at the various restaurants. They seemed to me a much cooler, more dangerous equivalent to a passport stamp. But now, with smoking scorned, the restaurant matchbook is a bit of a dying accessory, often replaced by business cards or mints.
So imagine my delight when I walked into Kitchen 1540 on a weeknight and found not a flimsy little book, but a rather sizable box emblazoned with the restaurant's logo. I don't blame the hostess for looking at me like I was a nutter when I started marveling at the matches. This, I thought, is definitely one I'd have pulled out of the bowl.
And like the restaurant matchbook, finding an affordable North County eatery that isn't a greasy bro-hang or pizza pub is also a bit of a score. It strikes me as odd that there isn't some kind of dining middle-ground north of La Jolla. Something casual, yet elegant, a nice place that you wouldn't have to take out a second mortgage to pay the bill. I'd heard that Kitchen 1540 fit this description.
The dining room was dimly lit with wood and green-suede accents, which might be intimidating if not for the beaming light emanating from the open kitchen. The drink and wine menu is sizable, and a cocktail like the lavender vodka and lemonade "Purple Rain" was refreshing enough, if not stereotypically pricey at $10.
The food, however, was a delight and reasonably priced (there's only one entrée on the menu over $30), considering chef Paul McCabe's commitment to using only seasonable produce and sustainable, hormone-free meats. Upon the server's recommendation, we ordered the foie gras, which is served sizzling upon a hot stone with black pepper financier and-no shit-blood-orange Pop Rocks. While I didn't partake due to my protestation of the cruel way foie gras is produced, my date put on her best SNL-Jersey accent and exclaimed, "It's like butta!" (Translation: It's delicious). I just sat there wondering where the hell one finds blood-orange Pop Rocks.
My roasted wild prawns were a bit underwhelming in the chili oil they were served with, but one of the night's biggest surprises was how much I enjoyed the beet salad. Now, I love beets; here, they're served with caramelized yogurt (that's cool), pistachio brittle (yum) and (horror) Valdeon blue cheese. Usually, when I accidentally have blue cheese, I'll come across as if I'm reenacting that scene from Big in which Tom Hanks tries caviar for the first time and ends up spitting it out and wiping his tongue with cocktail napkins. Not this time. The salad was a perfect balance of tastes, and the cheese was mild enough to be complementary, not overwhelming.
We shared the seafood stew, which included roasted monkfish, lobster, shrimp, kaffir and mussels and was served in a light broth that resembled the better Thai Tom Yum soups I've had. Spicy, sweet, but not bitter, we ate it all and dipped our bread in it. Savory enough to can up and sell in bulk.
Overall, I left feeling that Kitchen 1540 may, indeed, be everything to everybody-something that appeals to affluent Del Martians as well as the more casual diner. It boasts a quirky uniqueness that is matched and complemented by a hint of elegance. I imagine that once race season starts back up, Kitchen will be packed to the rafters. But until then, anyone looking for that middle ground, that place a mere tugboater with a predilection for matchbooks could afford, it's finally time to head north.