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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

California Dreamin': Knox's Summer Sojourn To Southern California

Usually I hate to take trips during Canadian summers.  What's the point? Summertime is one of only two bearable seasons in this sometimes grim nation and a guy might as well stick around for it in my view. That has been my traditional view.  This year however, I was compelled to embark on a summer journey. A journey to sunny (usually) Southern California.  San Diego to be precise.  Promises were made to me involving great beaches, good food and drink, and a host of family amusement parks that while not usually my style, were said to provide countless hours of surefire delight for the little people making the trip with me - children that is.  Not the Roloffs of TV fame.  Sounded like some good 'ol family fun.  The kind that conjured up visions of Clark W. Griswold and his ill-fated trip to Wallyworld.  How could I resist?  

Flights to San Diego are reasonable and are short, if you live in Western Canada.  That is indeed a plus. The beaches, as promised, are nice - at least those such as Moonlight Beach in Encinitas or the various state beaches in Del Mar and Solana Beach.  The sand is soft and fine and apart from the typical North American bans on open-liquor, they provided a nice setting for a sunny afternoon.  Sure, the water is colder than in Hawaii or the Caribbean, but it's warm enough.  Beaches are packed, but not body to body like Waikiki.

The food and drink however, was surprisingly average.  In anticipation of my trip to California, I dreamt of endless restaurants serving the now well-known "California cuisine", centered around fresh, local ingredients and fantastic California wines, served by fantastic waiters under the watchful eye of a skilled sommelier.  Man, was I disappointed.  Much of the greater San Diego area, like much of the United States, is the land of box stores and franchise, fast food outlets (McDonalds to Chili's to Pizza Hut).  My first couple of days had me wondering whether it was possible that "California cuisine" was nothing more than a sham (like North American "Chinese food") and that Californians really lived off of burgers, pizza and mexican food.  Then however, I decided to try harder, and my efforts were rewarded.......sometimes.

The first legitimate restaurant we tried was Blanca in Solana Beach.  The attraction was that it was close to our hotel, but also that it was specifically said by some to represent "California cuisine".  Could this be it? Had I found it? Kind of.  Blanca features new chef, Gavin Schmidt, formerly of San Francisco's Coi, which is, or at least was, a Michelin two-star restaurant.  Promising.  It also features a nice room, adorned with a ceiling full of lanterns and cozy, yet fancy, booths, that an obviously "new" couple was making full use of.  I digress.  For dinner, I started with the Burratta Agnolotti, a pasta (ravioli) dish featuring smoked corn, guanciale, and epazote according to the menu.  I have to admit that I have no idea what those last two things are, but damn was the dish good.  Bursting with balanced flavour,  A great start.  My dinner mate started with the Albacore Tuna Sashimi, which I sampled.  Fantastic.  Ultra-fresh ingredients (the pickled radish was unreal) made the dish.  Then things went a little sideways.  My entree, the Willis Ranch Pork - A Day At The Farm was, again, well-prepared, but was overly fatty (just the particular cuts of meat) and was enshrined in an overly French style of preparation.  Well-prepared, good ingredients, but not my thing.  My dinner mate had the Crab Porridge, which she described as "ok".  Well-prepared, but just not her thing.  All in all, great ingredients, great cooking, in a great room, but not consistently a mind blower.  Maybe Chef Schmidt is still finding his way in his new environs.  Great service by the way.  Should have mentioned that.

Our second attempt at finding a great restaurant on the San Diego coast was aimed at Market - San Diego chef Carl Schroder's Del Mar outpost, said to be a "contemporary American bistro".  Now this is a cool room.  Half sushi bar and half bistro and full of beautiful people.  We got right at it upon arriving.  For me, the Organic Local Corn Soup.  Probably one of the Top 3 soups of my life.  Unbelievable.  Fresh, fresh, fresh.  Delicate, yet full of corny goodness.  My dinner mate had an equally good soup and followed it up with a King Salmon and Asian Noodle dish that was featured that night.  She loved it.  Despite my pro-Alberta beef bias, I had a dynamite beef dish with a great glass of Washington Cabernet suggested by Market's amazingly friendly and talented sommelier, Elias.  All in all, a great night, a great meal and a great expression of California cuisine.

Finally, we hit Kitchen 1540 at the L'Auberge Del Mar resort in Del Mar.  A lot of hype about this one.  As it turns out, undeserved hype.  A room full of trendoid people desperate to be seen, a terribly paced meal (3 courses in 40 minutes), terrible wine service (glasses of wine took forever, such that they missed their intended courses - strange given the overall duration of the meal, but true nonetheless), a clueless waiter and cold, seemingly pre-prepared food (at the pace it was whisked out of the kitchen, it couldn't have been made to order - could it?) made for a disappointing last meal.  Avoid this one and don't be sucked in by false praise.

Oh, before I forget, it might be worth airfare just to hit the Leucadia Donut Shoppe in Encinitas.   Simply put, apart from a now closed donut shack run by a couple of Mennonite kids who lived across from the Pheasant Release Site in Millicent, Alberta, these were the best donuts of my life.  Fresh and tasty enough to run naked through Encintas for.  1000 times better than the freezer burned "donuts" that Tim's is selling these days (more on Tim's later).

Speaking of Encinitas, if you were once a hardcore, old school skate punk like I was, check out old school skateboard legend Mike McGill's skate shop in Encinitas.  Great shop.

In closing - the amusement parks.  Apart from the San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Park outside of San Diego, don't waste your time.  $80 per person to enter and unparalleled lameness once inside.  The only highlight was the beer everywhere at Seaworld, driven by Anheuser-Busch's ownership of the park I presume. Damn, I love those new aluminum beer bottles. 

Moral of the story? If you're Canadian, stay home in the summer, and don't waste your time visiting San Diego - even in the winter.  There are many better places in this big old world of ours.  Knox out.

Posted by Knox Harrington on August 10, 2010 in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink


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