Whole New World

The Shores Restaurant

8110 Camino del Oro, La Jolla

It’s summer-movie time, bringing all those boyish action flicks, indefatigable heroes with glam starlets breathing heavily all over them. This story, however, features a heroine, a dynamic brunette with more energy than Lara Cross, a sommelier with the improbable name of Lisa Redwine. (It’s not her original surname, and I can’t help wondering whether she married Mr. Redwine to acquire his and whether she became a sommelier before or after their union.) I first encountered her at the delightful, now-dead Molly’s downtown, where she rose swiftly to house manager and chief wine maven. Now she occupies the same double position at the Shores.

When I reviewed the Shores three years ago, before her arrival, you would never have guessed that top chef Bernard Guillas of next-door’s Marine Room was also executive chef here. For all the beauty of the up-close-and-personal beach views out the windows, the food was so lackluster that the review was titled “A Motel 6 of the Mouth.” Now all is changed utterly and a terrific beauty is born — in the menu, the cooking, the service. Ms. Redwine conspired with chef Bernie and bonded with chef de cuisine Augie Saucedo and transformed the place from a seaside culinary sinkhole to a charming restaurant at which one can eat very well, with only a modest dent in the wallet.

My longtime email friends Bobbie and Roy live just a couple of blocks from the Shores. They used to hate it as much as I did but have become regular customers since Lisa’s arrival — I’ll call her by her first name, as everyone else seems to do so — and they’ve been keeping me up to date on the transformation my heroine has wrought. With summer coming in, the time was right to seek out undiscovered coastal-view restaurants, so last week I met Bobbie and Roy in person for the first time. Joining us were posse regulars Lynne, Mark, and Ben.

Lisa, running the front of the house, greeted us from the hostess station. (She’s all over the place.) The decor at the Shores hasn’t changed significantly since previous visits — there are several large, quiet, adjoining dining rooms in gray and white, with white linens on the tables and great window-views of the beach — but now the color scheme seems elegant rather than depressive, with a brighter spirit pervading the rooms. As for the menu, what a difference a year makes! This time, I wanted to try almost everything on it (and if I lived just two blocks away, I would do just that).

Every appetizer we tried was appealing. I was especially taken by the Forest Mushroom Bisque, a deep-flavored and creamy mixture amended, according to the menu, by “potato relish, Emmental, pumpkin-seed essence.” To translate: it was complex in flavor, deep but a little tangy, and texturally interesting, with firm-tender bites of potatoes and scallions from the “relish,” richness from the bit of melted cheese and minced green herbs afloat. A wholly different vision of mushrooms appeared in a rich, dark sauté of mushrooms and artichokes with candied shallots, smoked almonds for texture and contrast, and slightly sweet Marsala jus. (Marsala is the wine used to sauce your classic veal scallopine.) The cast included creminis and shiitakes, and I believe I snagged a few plump, tender oyster mushrooms, too. Didn’t catch a lot of recognizable artichoke in there, and didn’t care.

A huge bowl of local Carlsbad black mussels arrived, steamed in dark beer with occasional bits of cremini mushrooms and linguiça sausage, with grilled sourdough slices on the side. Hearty and tasty, indeed, but we were even more enchanted with several other seafood appetizers of greater delicacy.

The Orange Ahi Tuna Poke includes sesame seaweed salad and wasabi cream, with paper-thin taro chips on the side — festive and satisfactory. (Okay, it’s not as sublime as the poke that chef Timothy Au made at Molly’s, but what is?) Lightly battered Baja shrimp fritters are ethereal, barely anchored to earth by sides of sweet crunchy jicama slaw and slender slices of spicy roasted-chili eggplant, which hit the “oh, yum!” button. It’s a risky party on that plate, but somehow, the varied guests do converse.

A halved Hass avocado is heaped high with a stuffing of blue-crab shreds, hearts of palm, red-bell-pepper jam, and watercress cream. But oh, dear! Everybody was being very considerate of each other with nobody Hoovering up anything, but we were six people, after all, and I didn’t get quite enough of that dish to figure out how the various elements in it worked together. All I can say is that it’s very good, if perhaps less wonderful than the poke or fritters. I’m not sure the crab is optimally dressed for its turn at center stage; it seemed a bit austere, where more indulgence might better match the lushness of the avocado.

Most of our entrées lived up to the appetizer preludes, a rarity. In the “Sea” portion of the menu, Pan-Roasted Diver Sea Scallops were sublimely tender and flavorful with the gentle sweetness of a tangerine reduction, accompanied by a three-grain risotto and buttery young brussels sprouts. Firm, assertive monkfish wrapped in Duroc bacon (from a heritage American pork breed) had a bold apple-cider sauce — an interesting way to treat a hearty fish, as though it were a pork chop. It came with red potatoes and a riot of mixed vegetables. It wasn’t divine, but it was fun, a different take on a pricey fish too often treated as a sacred cow requiring some sort of Mediterranean treatment. (Before being “discovered,” it was considered a trash fish because it’s ugly-looking; it used to be a staple of bouillabaisse, a fishwife’s stew devised to use up unsold seafoods.)

From “Land,” the Herb Roasted Rack of Lamb is not to miss. We requested it rare, as it’s typically served in France, and so it arrived, as rich and juicy as you could ask for, and whatever lamb they’re using, it’s a winner. The first thing everybody wants from a restaurant is food that is delicious, and this dish couldn’t be tastier. (It will not be as blissful if you order it medium or well, believe me.) The meat was lightly sauced with a Shiraz wine and thyme reduction that enhanced its herbal rub. It was served with pecans and sweet-potato gratin, for a dose of sweet, Southern indulgence, and almost-crunchy fresh asparagus spears. I’m not sure that sweet potatoes are the best choice to go with herby lamb: I’d rather exchange them for the pork dish’s mascarpone polenta, or the sirloin steak’s whipped Boursin potatoes, flavors that are earthy and savory rather than sweet.

On the more delicate side of the “Land,” Lemon Verbena Ricotta Ravioli are thinly rolled green-colored stuffed pasta with bashful shreds of leeks, bright red splashes of tomato confit, and a rich tarragon-vermouth cream sauce — another winner in the easy-deliciousness contest. It’s maximal comfort food. The green color of the pasta comes from lemon verbena, a sweet and fragrant old-timey herb that’s nearly forgotten nowadays but shouldn’t be. (Only problem with growing it yourself: in about two years it can become a big, disorderly shrub. But just give it space and prune it back yearly. Smells great and is fun to cook with.)

What didn’t we like so much? Two items that were slightly overcooked. Potato-Thyme−Crusted Local Halibut is — crust or no, local or no — still halibut, chicken breast of the sea. It’s lean white-meat diet food, and I only like it swamped in rich, fattening sauces. Potato-crusted fish were a big trend in the ’80s and ’90s, but they typically involved richer species, such as John Dory, with the potato decoratively applied like fish scales and then sautéed to crisp, like hash browns. Here the coating was pale, soft, and herbed. The fish was only a tad overcooked, but with halibut I’m unforgiving because it has so little to offer but tenderness and neutrality.

Also, sadly, the Vande Rose Farm Apricot Glazed Pork Chop was overcooked. We asked for rosy medium-rare. It came a pinky-brown medium-well. Vande Rose is one of the highest-quality hog farms in America, and its meat does not need to be cooked brown. (Once again, the litany: there’s no trichinosis in American commercial pork. It’s ideally cooked to 130–135 degrees Fahrenheit, then set aside for five minutes to rest, to complete internal heating to the rosy pink of about 140 degrees.) Everybody ate a few bites of the pork but gave up soon. The sides were good, though. I loved the mascarpone polenta, minty carrots, onion jam, and sage-flavored jus.

For our appetizers, I chose a pleasing Paso Robles Bootjack Ranch Sauvignon Blanc. Good enough. Luckily, Lisa showed up at our table in time to relieve me of the stress of choosing wine for a combination of seafood and meat entrées. From the half-carafe list, she brought a rosé (Mi Sueño from Napa) and, for the meaty entrées, a new, almost undiscovered Argentine grape, Bonarda from Ichanka. It was plummy, velvety, deep, and passionate, but, unlike Argentina’s more typical Malbec variety, not too tannic — a graceful tango-dancer of a wine, memorable, and worth remembering for future imbibing.

I’m not all that fond of sweets right after a meal, and this was a big meal. We were only mildly tempted by the Carlsbad strawberry shortcake, key lime pie, passion fruit brûlée, and several dreamy-sounding but heavier concoctions. What I hated to miss was the cheese plate with its four superb California artisanal cheeses, plus fig jam and crostini. But the body has its limits, even if mental appetites are infinite.

With all the changes, I now envy Bobbie and Roy their neighborhood restaurant. In fact, the prices are really about the same as most of the better neighborhood places in areas like Kensington, Little Italy, Banker's Hill, et al. The food at the Shore rivals any of them and is better than many. Do we believe in change? Yes, we do!

Hot Specials in Foodland
I love the artisanal cuisine of Christian Graves at J-Six, and right now there’s a special, daily from 5:30–6:00 p.m. and 9:00–9:30 p.m.: half-size portions of entrées for half price. From now until Labor Day, you can get free corkage when you BYO wine to dinner. Time to whip out those aged Bordeaux in your closet before they turn brown!

Meanwhile, at the Prado (that ever-so-pretty place in the park to take your visitors in summer), there’s an art-and-food bargain: for $80 per couple, you get a three-course prix-fixe meal and a bottle of wine (with a few choices for the wine, and for all the courses), plus tickets to the Museum of Photographic Arts’ rockin’ ’n’ rollin’ Taking Aim exhibition. This event runs Thursday nights only, June 17–September 2. ■

The Shores
★★★½ (Very Good to Excellent)
La Jolla Shores Hotel, 8110 Camino del Oro, La Jolla, 866-644-2630; theshoresrestaurant.com

HOURS: Breakfast daily 7:00–11:30 a.m.; à la carte Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; lunch Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly 5:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, soups, salad, $6–$11; entrées, $17–$26; sides, $5; desserts and cheese plate, $9–$10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seasonal “Neighborhood American Cuisine” with Mediterranean and global influences. Adventurous, intelligent wine list, mainly under $50, plenty by the glass and by the generous ½-bottle carafe. Classic and creative cocktails; beers include three local brews on draft.
PICK HITS: Forest Mushroom Bisque; Carlsbad mussels in beer; Baja shrimp fritters; ahi poke; diver sea scallops; bacon-wrapped monkfish; roast rack of lamb; Lemon Verbena Ricotta Ravioli. Good bet: cheese platter.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated parking in underground hotel garage. One lacto-vegetarian entrée, but chefs can put together interesting veggie plates upon request. Trustworthy sommelier. Resort-casual dress.

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I am so happy to read this review. The Shores always had the advantage of the great view (and maybe a walk on the beach after the meal), but when I last dined there--about 2 years ago--nothing on my plate was particularly good. Edible yes--memorable, no. But now, the bisque, the mussels, the rack of lamb, the stuffed avocado, the wine possibilities--it all sounds great: just in time for late summer sunsets. Thanks, Naomi (and I hope to thanks the chef in person).

I am so happy to read this review. The Shores always had the advantage of the great view (and maybe a walk on the beach after the meal), but when I last dined there--about 2 years ago--nothing on my plate was particularly good. Edible, yes--memorable, no. But now, the bisque, the mussels, the rack of lamb, the stuffed avocado, the wine possibilities--it all sounds great: just in time for late summer sunsets. Thanks, Naomi (and I hope to thanks the chef in person).

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