Friday, January 20, 2006

Arterra: Challenging Preconceptions

11966 El Camino Real
San Diego, CA 92130
Chef Carl Schroeder and Sous Chef Brian Pekarcik
Lunch weekdays
Dinner daily from 5:30-9:30pm

Arterra on Urbanspoon

Tried: January 2006

Until I encountered Arterra, I was convinced that fine dining and beach towns were mutually exclusive and that most hotel restaurants tend to turn out bland yet expensive fare. Arterra shattered these prejudices, in addition to revitalizing my faded enthusiasm for Bradley Ogden restaurants.

As I entered the San Diego Marriott Del Mar, my expectations were mixed. I knew that Chef Schroeder had gotten considerable local acclaim for his cuisine and that he was a stickler about fresh ingredients, getting all of his produce from local farms, including the famous Chino Farms. Yet the decor of the restaurant was very ... Marriott Hotel, and as we were getting seated, we passed a group of diners who had decided to move to the bar area in order to get the burgers that were not available in the main dining room. Not a good sign. Then as I perused the wine list, I remembered that Bradley Ogden always serves exclusively American wines in his restaurants. Sigh. Why neglect all of the beautiful and interesting wines all over the world? (Not to mention, this always struck me as suggesting that American wines cannot compete against their counterparts in France, Italy, Spain, etc.)

But as the food began descending on the table, whatever anxiety or hesitation I had been feeling up to that point washed away. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the chef's seven-course tasting menu, although required to be ordered by the table as is standard, involved different dishes for each person. The only other restaurants I can recall doing that are French Laundry in Yountville and the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in San Francisco. Arterra also offers a vegetarian tasting menu.

Upon tasting the crab ravioli with meyer lemon essence bathed in cream of celery root soup, garnished with micro cilantro, and the souffle of Point Reyes blue cheese accompanied by a salad of microgreens, thin sekai ichi apple slices, mandarin oranges, and candied walnuts, I found myself quite happily bouncing from one luscious flavor to another, alternating between the elegant richness of the crab and soup, the crunch of the farm fresh salad, and the pleasingly pungent flavors of the fluffy blue cheese souffle. With a glass of Schramsberg sparkling wine, all was right with the world, and I did not even mind that I was still damp from the deluge of rain that greeted us when we arrived in San Diego earlier that afternoon.

The Maine Lobster Tasting, consisting of a crispy lobster cake with panko breading and pernod aioli, and a butter poached lobster salad with a banyuls vinaigrette and an olive-sweet pepper relish, were interesting twists on familiar dishes, using top shelf ingredients. While both variations were delicious, I could not help but feel that the lobster was lost in the midst of such surplus creativity. A glass of 2002 Cotes de Tablas Blanc from Paso Robles, an interesting wine on its own, played up all of the different elements in this lobster duet.

The Asian trio-- tuna tartare with sesame chili aioli and quail egg, soba noodles with matsutake mushroom and vegetable maki, with cucumber, carrots, and lettuce-- was a solid execution that was also visually pleasing. The tandoori spiced scallops and monkfish with cumin-carrot puree and Mediterranean pearl pasta (slightly bigger and chewier than couscous) with curry emulsion added different flavor dimensions to these standard seafood items. The miso glazed mero with a salad of soba noodles, julienned daikon, and cilantro, was familiar but nonetheless tasty. The standout, however, was the Asian taco accompaniment to the mero. A thin rice pancake, similar to what one would get in a Chinese restaurants with mu-shu pork, was wrapped around bay shrimp and shitake mushrooms marinated in a mild hoisin sauce, resulting in something that tasted like a lighter version of Peking duck without missing any of its explosive rich and sweet flavors, just by virtue of how the sauce and the shitake mushrooms had been prepared. Combined with a glass of Riesling from Oregon's Willamette Valley, it was a savory delight.

Next came roasted chicken with potato raisin chutney and cinnamon creme fraiche, accompanied by red mustard greens with a red wine garlic dressing. The chicken was very tender and the surrounding elements added so much flavor that I forgot to gripe about having chicken as part of a chef's tasting menu. The crab stuffed Tasmanian ocean trout with bacon, lemon hollandaise sauce, and red wine balsamic reduction, however, was just too much of everything. I wished that I could taste all of these lovely ingredients separately, as together, they mushed into a heavy heap with only a vague suggestion of seafood flavors hiding underneath.

Before the last series of savory courses, the kitchen sent over a palate cleanser of lemon ginger sorbet with julienned pear and topped with icewine gelee. The fresh, tangy, and sweet elements of this intermezzo came together so elegantly that I would have been happy to have it as dessert and finish the meal on that note.

Except then, I would have missed the best part of the tasting menu. The pancetta wrapped lamb shank with roasted brussel sprouts and forest mushroom strudel was the apex of the meal. The lamb was prepared exactly medium rare, with juices dripping down the meat with every knife slice, and had none of the gaminess that usually turns me away from lamb while still retaining the earthy aroma that pairs so well with Rhone wines. Next to that lamb, even the delectable Kobe New York steak paled. (The Kobe steak was everything one would expect from Kobe beef-- juicy, flavorful, meaty, and delightful. The braised short rib on the side was a tender and tasty bonus.)

To close, we had a cheese plate, followed by dessert: molten chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream on the side topped by a crispy praline; and a brulee of tapioca pudding with pear and huckleberries.

A side note: I almost never take up the offer of bottled water, as I generally find it to be an unnecessary expense. But the water in San Diego tastes pretty metallic. I recommend splurging on bottled water. Speaking of beverages, Arterra's wine list includes bottles priced anywhere from $30 to over $300, and a large selection of wines by the glass ranging from about $7 to $15.

While a bit rough in some spots, it seemed a shame that so few diners seemed interested in trying what Arterra has to offer, and I wondered what motivated the kitchen to keep innovating and producing. On the other hand, not long after 9pm on a Saturday night, the staff was already breaking down their set up and cleaning up for the night. If you can create this kind of food and still have a life outside the restaurant on Saturday night, I can see the attraction for a kitchen crew with this much potential.


FoodLover said...

Excellent use of food descriptions! If you didnt already mention that you were a lawyer I would have thought you were a food writer. I enjoyed reading your blog, I must go now I want to read more of your posts.

Anonymous said...

Your comment made my week! (Becoming a food writer is actually my not-so-secret dream.) Hope you enjoy my other posts and come visit again soon.

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