Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino del Mar, Suite 102, Del Mar
Del Mar Rendezvous promises "Originality with a New Style" and "to put some ZING into Chinese dining." This rendezvous between Eastern and Western cuisines favors the Asian side of the equation, and given the menu of contemporary Asian tapas and Chinese entrées (made over with prime ingredients), I expected to find some culinary hipster lurking behind the kitchen door. But toward the end of dinner, my friends Marty and Dave glanced at the staff table and spotted a familiar face, chef Mark Sun, among the tunic-wearing diners. Sun used to run their favorite East County Chinese restaurant, Szechuan-Mandarin. In 2002, though still in his mid-forties, chef Sun closed the restaurant and retired. Obviously, "retirement" didn't stick. And his presence here does explain the promise of creative Chinese cuisine: "I came out of retirement to give it one more try and see if my new concept works," he said.
Within the overall ambiance of upscale Del Mar, Rendezvous's decor is pleasant but plain, with pastel colors, a carpeted floor, acoustic ceilings, and a long streetside window. Mirrors and framed lithographs decorate the walls. We arrived as the proverbial Chinese-restaurant "family" of six ("with six you get eggroll"), and lucked out on seating -- the hostess gave us a side room to ourselves, with a large table and banquette.
Our party included three omnivores, two devout vegetarians, and one dieter who came along to smell, converse, and nibble. So -- where to start? With a communal bowl of low-fat vegetarian soup, of course. In the seaweed tofu egg flower soup, silky slices of tofu floated among plentiful dark-green nori sheets, which infused the broth with herbal-ocean flavor. The dish tasted very Japanese.
Next, we ordered tapas to suit our various diets and palates. A chilled seaweed cucumber salad, our veggie guests' choice, offered a sampling of textures from diced cucumbers and several types of seaweed, including one with the springy crunchiness of jellyfish. (That's a good thing.) A toasted-sesame vinaigrette brought the tastes into harmony. It was like Hawaiian poke, hold the ahi.
The greaseless vegetable spring rolls met with universal acclaim. Their clean-tasting filling included soft shiitake shreds, carrot threads, and crisp-tender Napa cabbage. Chef Sun dries the blanched cabbage shreds before stir-fying, so there's no residual moisture to turn the wrapper (and the cabbage) soggy. Cheese-filled rangoon (fried wontons, minus the customary crab shreds in cream-cheese filling) were delicately brittle, touched with unexpected sweetness from a sprinkle of powdered sugar. They came in two shapes -- four crescent moons surrounding a four-pointed star. Everybody seems to be doing rangoons nowadays; only a few restaurants manage to make them look this pretty.
Among the omnivores, the favorite tapa was boiled dumplings in hot sauce -- thin noodle wrappers filled with ground pork and chopped chives. They came robed in a complex red chili sauce, redolent of dark sesame oil, scallion, and ginger. More sauce comes in a ramekin on the side (but you'd best taste before adding, or you may spark a Chinese fire drill).
In the crispy duck wrap, it's the duck that's crispy, not the wrap, which is a flour tortilla smeared with Hoisin sauce -- a Chino-Latino touch -- enclosing chopped skinless duck meat cooked to a hard exterior and still-moist center. Iceberg lettuce leaves and scallion shreds add mouth-pleasing crunchiness. Containing just a quarter-bird, this tasty starter gives diners a chance to enjoy duck without committing to an entire dinner. A crabmeat mango salad, however, looked and tasted like a 1950s mayo-Jell-O mold (aagh!), inverted onto a plateful of salad greens.
Entrées are served on individual dishes, à la carte, with steamed rice on the side. You can ask for extra plates (at no extra charge) if you want to eat family-style -- or you can really eat family style, chopsticks being devilishly designed implements that extend one's "boarding-house reach."
Among our best entrées was lemon chicken -- sans chicken. One of the veg-girls ordered it with tofu substituted for poultry. The lemon sauce, done Hong Kong-style, displayed a flawless balance of citrus and sweetness, with goop-making cornstarch held to the barest minimum. The tofu cubes were deep-fried to a roasted-marshmallow consistency, but given the intense sauce, chicken would definitely be better.
Duck breast à la Mandarin is an entrée that anyone (except a vegetarian) might enjoy -- slices of duck breast cooked pinky-brown in a "citrus soy marmalade." The syrupy, caramelized sauce is based on reduced orange juice, but it's hard to tell because the flavors blend seamlessly. As with the crispy duck wrap, chef Sun placed this streamlined cut of poultry on the menu instead of offering a roast duck entrée, because "if you get a half or a whole roast duck, you don't have room to eat anything else."
Braised pork shank is a Szechuanese version of Germany's Schweinhax'n -- a hunk of lower pork leg. The Germans leave the skin on; the Szechuanese peel the rind off but leave the copious lard-layer intact. Chef Sun keeps only the thinnest translucent coating of sinful, delicious fat overlaying the pork. He wraps preserved mustard greens around the meat to keep the surface from browning and toughening. The fork-tender flesh arrives as a green cylinder rising from a brown moat of porky, slightly spicy soy-based braising sauce. We all agreed that the sauce could use more zing; a touch of the hot chili sauce from our dumplings did the trick.
The most deluxe dish on the menu is "velvet lobster tail." In Chinese culinary terms, "velveting" consists of briefly marinating a protein (usually seafood or poultry) in lightly beaten egg white and seasonings before stir-frying it, which results in a fuzzy surface texture. Here, the egg white is more than a coating -- it's a fluffy meringue surrounding cubes of lobster meat removed from the shell, stir-fried with garlic and a touch of sharp, sweet Shao Hsing Chiew (China's sherry-like rice wine). The meat is served in the tail-shell, decorated with snow peas, baby corn, and red bell pepper. It sounds gala, but our lobster, however tender, offered little taste, while the accompanying vegetables only exacerbated the blandness. One obvious culprit is that lobster tails are sold frozen, and the deep-freeze is often a vampire of flavor. If you're looking for a festive dish, you'd do better with the Mongolian rack of New Zealand lamb, one of chef Sun's favorites, where he replaces traditional lower-grade lamb with a high-on-the-sheep premium cut.
Our other two entrées both suffered a flaw in common (and it's a common flaw in San Diego Chinese restaurants): an excess of bland, brown sauce. Shanghai-style noodles offered an interesting texture, with some noodles pan-fried crisp, others soft -- much like hash-browned potatoes, and quite unlike traditional (soft-fried) Shanghai recipes. "Moo goo tofu pan" was a vegetarian version of the old-fashioned moo goo gai pan (chicken and vegetable stir-fry). "You don't see this often on Chinese menus anymore," said Marty. Now we know why.
All but one of the desserts are purchased from dessert companies in Long Beach and Los Angeles. The sole house-made choice is a goofy treat. "Caramelized banana cheese Xango" has a fried flour tortilla wrapped around banana and melted, sweetened cream cheese in a modicum of caramel sauce, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon, and served in slices. We loved it. China meets Brazil, Mexico, and Philadelphia in one dish, a good ending for a mixed group of foodies enjoying their rendezvous.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Mark Sun is the third generation of a Hong Kong-based restaurant family (originally from Shandong, in northeast China) with branches in many parts of the world. "A lot of my family in Shandong were cooks for the emperor in the late 18th and 19th Century, and that's why my family became restaurant people," he says. "My father had a restaurant in Hong Kong, and he sent me to Scotland to go to high school [where I stayed] with my cousin, who has a restaurant in Edinburgh. So I finished my apprenticeship as a chef at my cousin's restaurant as I was going through high school. Edinburgh Rendezvous is the name of his restaurant, which is still operating. That tells you why I called this restaurant Rendezvous.
"I came to the US in 1975 to enroll in the University of Maryland. I was doing the Chinatown shift while going to school, until my father opened a restaurant in Lynchburg, Virginia, and sent me down there in 1976. No more college after that. I was going to major in computer science, before there was a [personal] computer. The computer was the size of a building then.
"I opened up a little place in Silver Spring, Maryland, and worked there for two years. Then my cousin from Scotland, who was actually the master chef, wanted to come to America and join me. I decided that the restaurant was too small for the both of us -- let's go west. So we looked around in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and finally landed in San Diego."
The restaurant they founded was Szechuan-Mandarin on Mission Gorge Road. Sun and his family expanded to open Dumpling Inn on Convoy Street (which his brother now runs), China Fun Noodle House in Carmel Valley (where Sun was head chef before opening Rendezvous), and Michael's Grill, which many East County residents consider the best restaurant in Santee. "That was my toy, started back in 1989, called Chic'n'Pick," he says. "It was a little barbecue place serving ribs and chicken. But over the years, Santee has come a long way. The place burned down, and when it was rebuilt, we decided to double the size and make it more like a Pacific Rim grill, and we gave it a new name, Michael's Grill, after the chef there.
"I ran Szechuan-Mandarin for 23 years. I finally got out of there in 2002, thinking I'm done with it. But this business gets into your system, and you can't get rid of it. So the Del Mar location came up, and I was game to try something a little different. Right now, most of the Chinese restaurants here are Pick Up Stix, Panda, or P.F. Chang's. There's almost nothing left [of real Chinese food]. What I'm trying to do is take the old recipes and be a little more creative with them -- change the presentation, use a better cut of meat, that sort of thing. I use rib-eye steak, I use lamb rack for my Mongolian lamb. There's no rule why the old recipes can't apply to these kinds of ingredients.
"I've been eating in a lot of fancy restaurants in Del Mar and La Jolla, but I don't see the Asian influence in the dishes. There's a lot of 'fusion,' but the problem is, they start with the Culinary Institute techniques but without understanding the Asian ingredients. Sometimes they make fusion a lot of confusion. So I'm doing a little fusion from the Asian side -- I understand how black beans work with fish, how five-spice blend works with meat. The concept is new here in Del Mar. So far, I'm doing pretty good. I'm going through a lot of wine and desserts, which people don't expect in Chinese restaurants. That shows that people here are accepting what I'm doing."