Entrées are great, but a combination of things—the rise of tapas-style dining, the lower risk and greater cost effectiveness of rolling out more out-there ingredients via smaller dishes—has led to the appetizer and small plate sections of menus garnering much more of my attention these days. It seems these are the playgrounds for creative chefs who have more trouble getting outside the boxy parameters of the mains column, which almost dictates dishes include a protein, starch, veg, and condiment.
The offerings under the headings “medium” (essentially large appetizers) and “large” (entrées) at Delicias (6106 Paseo Delicias) mostly adhere to that formula, but still incorporate interesting elements in the form of sauces, condiments, and garnishes. This is nothing new for the restaurant’s chef/partner, Paul McCabe. He’s been turning seasonal ingredients on their heads for years. One dish was so interesting, he brought it over from his old digs at KITCHEN 1540. That stunner is foie gras with pop rocks. It’s a dish I almost didn’t mention, because it’s no longer available due to the recent ban on the production of foie gras in California, but it’s such a signature plate for him and so exemplary of his style, that it merits mention.
Before being forcibly removed from the menu, the dish would come to the table sizzling loudly over dining room chatter (and kicking off numerous conversations). McCabe placed the seared foie on a scalding hot river rock perched atop and smoldering the lemony-green aroma out of fresh thyme branches. To the right, he placed a baton of orange-flavored French toast topped with Crow’s Pass strawberries compressed four times over to pack them with naturally sweet strawberry juice. To the left, a miniature pitcher filled with a sweet and altogether decadent foie-and-orange reduction. It was sensory overload made even more overwhelming and smile-inducing by those explosive pop rocks.
A much more PC dish of black cod was served with artichokes shaved and fried like potato chips. Terra Chips has nothing on those warm, crispy hearts and parts. Further elevating the dish was a lobster emulsion as rich as the Rancho Santa Fe denizens seated in Delicias’ dining room. Well, almost as rich. Good fish tastes delicious, but I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to making certain fish dishes as vibrant as beef, duck, lamb, and the like, a powerful accoutrement like this is needed to tastefully help that solid oceanic product out.
Several condiments find their way onto a scallop dish, though I was left wondering how many of them helped and how many of them muddied up what had the potential to be an outstanding dish. The description reads “diver scallops, uni, white chocolate dashi, coconut.” I’m always up for a dish that has intriguing, seemingly incongruous flavors on it. There are few things as cool as experiencing something that sounds so odd when it’s been made to taste harmonious and delicious. I was psyched to feel that rush with this dish, but it never came. The scallops were seared a beautiful golden brown and topped with plump filets of sea urchin. That alone was outstanding, but when everything was consumed together, the brininess of the uni defied the dashi and sweet, gooey coconut, both of which were nice as individual components. I tried combination after combination, but couldn’t make things jibe.
Meat dishes I sampled included beef tenderloin with a ramp kimchi and a Madeira wine reduction that was a refreshing change of pace from the more-expected sticky red vino sauces that typically accompany steaks. The big winner for me, however, was lamb, cooked nice and pink in the middle and served with a tantalizing, unabashedly spicy yogurt flavored with harissa (a Tunisian hot pepper sauce). Sour pickled shallots, salty dried olive shrapnel, and palate-cleansing compressed cucumber brought together all of the contrasting and complementing flavors one could desire in a dish. This was easily one of the most complete plates I’ve enjoyed in the past year.
McCabe’s skills and style are at a high and on display, but feel a little less at home in his new surroundings than they did at KITCHEN 1540. But that’s a good thing. Rancho Santa Fe can use—and afford—the shot of gastronomic innovation he’s injected into the heart of the community. The funny thing is, people who miss the old school fare of the original Delicias take a glance at a menu sporting compressed fruit, bacon sabayon, cured egg yolks, and gochujang reductions; shake their heads, wring their fists, and head to the familiar likes of Mille Fleurs. It’s as if they don’t see the gift that’s landed in their backyard for what it is. To them, I say, take it from a guy living in a community where our Chuck E. Cheese's can legitimately vie for a spot on the top local restaurants list—there are worse things than having one of the county’s best chefs move into your ‘hood. If you don’t want him, we’ll take him!