I recently received an e-mail from a guy asking where to take his sweetie for a special dinner. He knew of a few upscale places but wanted to know if he'd missed any of San Diego's handful of fine-dining establishments. A special occasion can be anything from a birthday or business meeting to time with out-of-town guests or even dining by yourself. Really, doesn't such an evening warrant a bit more thought than, say, tacos at your favorite taqueria-even if you love the food? Two new dinner-only restaurants, at opposite ends of the county, 1500 Ocean at the Hotel Del Coronado and Blanca in Solana Beach, fit the bill for something unique when it comes to a night out.
Before you get wiggy and think for even a nanosecond that fine dining equates to stuffy, attitudinal service or dishes with names you can't pronounce, read on.
Both of these restaurants have a lot going: contemporary, understated décor and ambience; impeccably fresh, familiar ingredients, much of it seasonal and local; creative, yet approachable, dishes both in taste and presentation and service by knowledgeable wait staff. But if you want to see for yourself, an easy way to try either restaurant is with drinks and appetizers-a couple of them might equal the price of one entrée.
There is something very cool about sitting on the heated patio and hearing the ocean waves at 1500 Ocean. The restaurant's food and the experience of dining in a classic beach resort hotel make this a great destination. Free valet parking for the restaurant is a plus. From the valet, walk along the outside path facing the ocean where you find yourself gazing at the sand and sea, swaying palm trees and people having a good time.
From the pathway to the entrance you'll find an outdoor fireplace and tables for drinks, then the heated patio where I like to sit to watch the sunset and hear the surf. Inside, the restaurant occupies the redone space of the former very formal Prince of Wales Room.
And redone it is, in contemporary, simple beige and brown with wood accents. Seating comprises a good mix of tables, booths and banquettes and a bar area at the back of the room with a lit sunset on the wall. Gone are the days of coat and tie for men, as anything goes now. On my visits, most men were casually dressed in sport shirts.
I confess that I came to know the cooking of head chef Jason Shaeffer when he was at the original Laurel Restaurant & Bar in Bankers Hill. After a few years cooking in New York, he returned to San Diego, and I was delighted to see him at 1500 Ocean. Local purveyors and farmers from Santa Barbara to Mexico supply the seasonal ingredients for Shaeffer's classic-with a twist-menu. A couple of my favorites: Gnudi (fresh ricotta dumplings) with fresh peas and morels, barely sauced with the mushroom juices makes an outstanding appetizer. Yellowtail, cured with lime and honey, comes with avocado mousse, shaved jicama and radish and a sweet jalapeno jelly, all melding into mouthfuls of subtle flavors and textures, the fish not overpowered by the other flavors. A childhood favorite, toad in the hole, comes to life with an organic egg cooked with its yolk still runny, in the hole of a slice of rich, buttery brioche, surrounded by mushrooms and asparagus tips and some unfortunately soggy hash browns under the bread. It's a fabulous dish (without the potatoes).
Picky kids (adults, too) will appreciate the classic side dish of mac 'n' cheese with spiral pasta and aged cheddar-nothing frou frou here. Finish the evening with a stroll nearby on the ocean boardwalk-it's spectacular. Appetizers from $12 to $20. Dinner only from 5:30 p.m. 1500 Ocean Ave., Coronado, 619-522-8490, www.hoteldel.com.
Up the coast, Seth Baas (nephew of Padres owner John Moores) and his mom created Blanca, a new venue for North County diners. No view, no waves, but a contemporary-yet-cozy restaurant with interesting food and good service. The dining room features booths, tables and banquettes in understated, soothing monochromatic colors. With chef Wade Hageman's innovative use of ingredients, it's a place I suspect will be busy all the time.
Here you'll find a sofa-lined lounge with barstools worth sitting on for drinks as you munch on a bowl of Wisconsin heirloom black popcorn dusted with Parmesan, toasted black pepper and a hint of truffle oil. Now, before you flip over the idea of anything over and above Orville Redenbacher's microwavable popcorn, you really have to try this unassuming-yet-addictive dish. The black kernels pop white and work well with a glass of bubbly.
A sensational Oregon morel soup comes richly finished with leeks, slow cooked until they melt, and crème fraiche (a French version of sour cream). For the more adventurous, wild king salmon tartare (raw and finely chopped) comes topped with a tiny quail egg you mix in with dill oil and eat with brioche toast points. Lounge food prices from $6 to $22, and appetizers from $11 to $25. Open at 5 p.m., 437 S. Highway 101, Solana Beach, 858-792-0072.
While we're on the subject of chefs, 27-year-old Gavin Kaysen, head chef at Rancho Bernardo Inn's Il Bizcocho, will represent the U.S. in Lyon, France in January. He'll compete for top honors against chefs from 22 countries to be the first American to win the Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine top honor.
Write to marcie[at]5dollarchef[dot]com and editor[at]sdcitybeat[dot]com.