Matt Gordon knows what he's doing. There's been plenty of eager anticipation for the food at his latest restaurant, and rightly so. Urban Solace in North Park and Solace & Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas are on many a favorite list, and his kitchens' approach to food (local, socially conscious, nothing artificial) is thoughtful and creative.
The dining room at Sea & Smoke (2690 Via De La Valle) is beautiful—warm woods, a clean black-and-white palate, and I can't stop thinking about the deep, peacock-blue wainscoted walls. This is the most grownup of Gordon's restaurants. The elegant and inviting atmosphere is marred only by a crummy view of the Flowerhill Mall parking lot out the windows. No matter, just enjoy your surroundings and the beautiful food to come.
As the menu will explain, Sea & Smoke is trying to encourage family-style dining. Apparently, they've seen my family negotiate "what's everybody ordering" deals while eating out (sealed with over-dramatic handshakes). Gordon and his Sea & Smoke team get that. Most entrées are à la carte, letting you then pick and choose from a substantial array of sides.
I never turn down a hot, cheesy dip, and I wasn't about to start once faced with the prospect of cauliflower cheese dip, a blazing-hot dish of cauliflower, Dijon mustard and goat cheese, served with crusty charred bread. This was a crowd-pleaser at our table.
Our group also gave a big thumbs-up to the fresh and bright vanilla-scented beet salad. Peppery arugula, tangy grapefruit, garlicky goat cheese and the earthy, bold beets made for a completely satisfying veggie offering.
For pure flavor, my favorite entrée was the vegetarian slow-baked sweet onion. Considering the humble onion is usually just a hard-working flavor base, it was refreshing to try something where the onion was the star of the show. The menu said it was served with a sweet corn pudding, but it didn't quite match my expectation. The "pudding" was really just a delicate, creamy sauce—a light partner for the soft and tender onion. Puffed farro is sprinkled all over the dish for the occasional bit of pop in your mouth. This dish is not for everyone—but I really enjoyed the creativity and simplicity.
Dessert was polarizing; we were warned it would be. The signature Sea & Smoke is a pale and creamy bowl of tobacco-smoked goat cheese "crémeux" (French for "Would you like some cream with your cream?"), Armagnac citrus soup, black-pepper whipped cream and candied orange peel. Yes, a dessert with tobacco, booze and black pepper did not win a table full of fans. But I totally dug it. I thought the tobacco was incredibly subtle, not overpowering the delicate and creamy mouthfeel of the goat cheese. The citrus soup reminded me of a former co-worker—sweet at first but with a bitter finish. I've had enough flourless chocolate cakes at restaurants; it was refreshing to try something so forehead-wrinkling.
Gordon knows how to plan a menu, run a restaurant and give you a memorable dining experience—no smoke and mirrors needed.