Brunch at Solace and the Moonlight

There’s nothing better than a weekend getaway complete with really good food. However, you don’t even need to actually “get away” to drive to Encinitas for weekend brunch. From the center of Orange County, it should only take about an hour before you’ll be in this quaint little town dotted with thrift stores and coffee houses.

The restaurant is a little hard to see sitting almost right on the train tracks between Coast Hwy and Vulcan along E Street. I circled around several times before finding a spot on the street two blocks away. Once inside, you’ll be sitting on the deck of Chef Matt Gordon’s Solace and the Moonlight enjoying a leisurely meal while basking in the sun.

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We started our Sunday brunch (it is also offered on Saturdays) with some Warm Cheddar & Chive Biscuits ($7), made in-house and served with a fragrant orange honey butter, and a piquant smoked tomato jam.

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I am so happy to see non-traditional brunch items featured as well. Fried Green Tomatoes ($11) are perfectly crispy on the outside with a lovely corn meal crust. The slices sit on top of a thick-chop chimichurri topped with salsa fresca and drizzled with a creamy ancho chile aioli. We enjoy it tremendously and agree it is a great plate for the table to share.

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I will most often than not order mussels when I see them. The menu’s Steamed Black Mussels ($14) comes in a smoked tomato butter, however, it is rather deceiving because even though there might be butter in the sauce, it is not a butter. In fact, it is a luscious smoked tomato soup which we eat with a spoon, after we’ve finished off the plump meaty mussels. Not to waste any of it, we then soaked up the remainder with the toasted baguette slices from one of San Diego’s premier bakeries, Bread & Cie.

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There were two soups available: Clam Chowder ($4 cup/$5.50 bowl) with bacon, clams, potatoes and topped with a crispy house-made oyster cracker garnish is decent, however, it was the Creamy Tomato-Fennel Soup ($3.50 cup/$5 bowl) which won me over. The Aleppo pepper crema drizzled on top adds a slight kick to the beautifully tart soup.

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What I love about Solace and the Moonlight is that there is something for everyone. If you’re wanting a hefty meal, or trying to nurse that hangover with something incredibly substantial, then their signature Kitchen Sink ($14.50) is definitely your choice. The sausage gravy is infused with smoked paprika, cayenne, ancho chile and chipotle, giving it layers of flavor, without adding too much heat. There is only a hint from the cayenne at the end which is good news for those who aren’t fans. If you don’t order the cheddar biscuits, then you’ll enjoy it on this plate along with runny fried eggs, Niman Ranch pork sausage and brown sugar slab bacon.

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Pescatarians can choose Wild Sockeye Salmon Benny ($16) served on cheddar biscuits with poached Eben-Haezer eggs, sauteed spinach, ancho chile Hollandaise and breakfast potatoes. I loved everything about this dish except the skin left on the salmon. It is not seared, therefore, does not impart a crispy element to the dish, and adds fishiness to the final product.

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Your server will tell you to order the Best Darn Buttermilk Cinnamon Roll ($3.75) because they run out, usually by noon. The cream cheese icing is ample and the Butter Pecan Sauce ($1) sweet. I suggest asking to have it on the side.

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But it is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($10.50) which blows this non-sweet palate away. Fluffy, light pancakes are hinted with lemon and moreso enhanced by the strips of candied lemon zest tossed on top. Fresh raspberries are always the best pairing for lemon and there are a few thrown in for good measure. I did not even need the maple syrup to enjoy these absolutely delightful pancakes.

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Regardless how big or large your group is, there is something for everyone, including various areas to sit in. We loved the “spool” table on the patio and I would like to sit on the large community table on a future visit with a group of friends. Service is great and the atmosphere inviting. Now, I’ll have to come back and try the dinner menu!

Solace and the Moonlight
25 E East Street
Encinitas, CA 92024
Tel: 760-753-2433

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Mesa’s new chef delivers a respectable menu

The last time I dined at Mesa was about three years ago — maybe more — when a group of us came here for dinner and drinks after the OC Auto Show. The only thing I took away from that experience was, well not much, seeing I never returned again.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to dinner at Mesa and I’d be lying if I said I was excited. However, that soon changed when I find out that the new chef, Niki Starr, is from the same school — maybe “family” is a better word — as some of my favorite young chefs in OC, including Aron Habinger and Joshua Han.

(photo below courtesy of Mesa)

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We were presented first with an amuse bouche of steak tartare. After the first bite, I already knew this meal would go in a very positive direction. It was perfectly seasoned, and there were inclusions of ingredients which made it a little different from all the other steak tartares out there. Besides chives, there was watermelon radish to give the tartare both color and texture. The minute I tasted the mayo, I knew it was Japanese Kewpie mayo — the only mayo I have in my home — and a sprinkling of togarishi added a touch of heat to the finish.

(all food photos courtesy of Bobby Navarro)

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Our first course of Beet Salad ($10) comprised roasted gold and red beets, nice chunks of Humbolt Fog blue to give it an element of saltiness, and an array of citrus which cleansed my palate between each bite. The orange and grapefruit were expected, but the one meyer lemon segment was definitely a surprise, making us giggle as the tartness surprised both my friend and I simultaneously. The prosecco vinaigrette is light and does not overwhelm, while the pistachio dust added a textural component to the dish.

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If you only order one dish at Mesa, make it Chef’s Spanish Style Mussels ($16). It was fun to watch as the sizzling hot plate makes its way from the kitchen to you. Black Prince Edward Island mussels with slivers of bilbao chorizo, tossed in a white wine sauce possess hints of smoked paprika, and is not to be missed. The flavors were intoxicating and you’ll want to soak up the juices with the grilled bread from OC Baking Company served on the side.

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But perhaps, the simplest of all items is always the best. Holiday Sliders ($12/2pcs) were created in the spirit of Thanksgiving, but instead of turkey, Chef Niki uses shredded duck confit. A smear of potato puree on the mini potato bun serves as a base for the duck and then, it is topped with a festive cranberry orange compote. The sandwich brings the spirit of the holidays closer, but it is the gravy dipping sauce that’s really to-die-for!

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Steelhead Salmon ($20) arrives with flaky fish under the crispy skin, and seasoned to perfection. Fire-roasted cauliflower and confit carrots accompany, with a spoonful of  stone ground mustard seed beurre blanc, and finished off with micro dijon.

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I would have been happy after the salmon, but there was one more course to eat. Kurobota Grilled Pork Chop ($22) is drizzled with a smoked blackberry jus prepared using the pork belly braising liquid, and seasoned with a touch of blackberry liqueur. Sweet potato puree and flash fried Brussels sprouts are good accoutrements, adding a hint of sweetness to the pork.

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Although dessert isn’t always on my dining agenda, I accept a taste of my friends’ Bread Pudding ($8). Vanilla maple bacon adds a touch of saltiness to balance out the dulce de leche on the plate. I love the variety of textures Chef Niki features on every plate and here, cashew bits add crunch to the softness of the pudding and ice cream.

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Mesa’s reputation of its menu being an after-thought to its libations will soon be a thing of the past if Chef Niki continues at the helm. The food is simple, but packed with appealing flavor profiles which even the fussiest of palates will appreciate. I, for one, was highly impressed by her ability to season her proteins perfectly. In time, the late night gourmands will find their way here and hopefully, change the perception that Mesa is only good as a drinking spot.

Mesa
725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-6700

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esquire — Brisbane, Australia

I am searching for a restaurant to have a family get-together while in Brisbane, but I also want it to be something different, something special. I do research and think hard about it, but am not able to make a decision. One evening, I am watching TV in my parents’ living room and this food show features a segment on Chef Ryan Squires’ esquire. I make up my mind immediately when I hear The French Laundry and El Bulli, being part of Squires’ resume.

On the day of our visit, my whole family make our way into the city. I choose lunch mainly because I want good lighting for my photos, but also, my niece and nephew are younger and I am not sure they are good candidates for a relatively upscale meal during dinner time.

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We arrive to an empty spot, having the dining room pretty much all to ourselves. Our server Joanna is pleasant and patient with all of my questions and inquiries and hurries away in search of answers to those she is unable to fulfill.

Although the restaurant generally recommends the entire table partake in prix fixe menus, I ask if we are able to order from both. There are several dishes not available from the a la care and I am eager to try as many of the selections as possible. This piece will be a tad discombobulated since we order two of the 5-course prix fixe lunch menu (AUD75/$69.50) and then off the a la carte menu to complete our meal.

The set menu begins with Rye Bread, pickles and cultured butter, as well as Beef Tendon with peanut and lime. The presentation is interesting but pleasing.

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Second course is Sashimi Grade Yellow Eye with a green mustard sauce and air-dried brassica (from the turnip family which includes rutabaga and kohlrabi) leaves. I love the crispiness of the leaves!

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Holmbrea Chicken Breast, the third course, is a perfectly executed piece of meat. The chicken is first braised, then poached, making it moist, tender and very flavorful. Toasted buckwheat adds a textural dimension while the roast bone sauce is rich without being cloying. I want more of the roasted chestnut puree, as well as the preserved fig “sheet” enveloping the chicken breast. A hint of thyme finishes the dish off perfectly!

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The fourth course is Pastrami Wagyu Beef, my least favorite dish of the entire meal. The wagyu is bland even with the onion bouillon it is draped with. The mustard cream, pickles and spicy ketchup are delightful additions, as is the finely diced gherkins, however, the accoutrements are not enough to save the under-seasoned wagyu for it to be a mouth-popping experience.

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The prix fixe ends with Campari, an ice cream comprising mandarin orange segments, as well as curds and whey. It is quite delicious really, being so simple, and mouth teasing. Unfortunately, I am only afforded a bite as the kids monopolize both bowls and are not interested in giving us another taste.

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The rest of us continue on with the rest of the a la carte menu. Since I am busy taking photos, I miss out on the first course so I order Rye Bread (AUD10/$9.30) so I am able to taste it. The pickles are lackluster, but the butter is lovely — not quite the one at Walter Manzke’s Republique — but still, delicious!

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The tendon is presented as Fried Beef Puffs (AUD12/$11.15) on the a la carte which the kids gleefully chomp away on thinking it is a cracker. I don’t tell them what it is seeing they are enjoying it so very much. I absolutely adore the dusting of peanut and lime seasoning the chicharron-like crisps.

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Of course, we are not able to sit through a meal without vegetables. I order Radicchio Leaves (AUD15/$13.90) which is a bigger portion than I expect. Balsamic, olive fried onion and shredded goats cheese are tossed with the brightly hued leaves. So simple, so tasty.

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Roasted Beetroot (AUD12/$11.15) is a vision when it hits the table. While my dad is not a fan of beets, I convince him to try a piece. The goats curd, apple gastrique and hazelnut combine together nicely giving the whole composition a sweet, tart, salty and crunchy finish.

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Everyone agrees Oak Smoked Rainbow King Trout (AUD15/$13.90) is their favorite. The melt-in-your-mouth trout is perfectly smoked and comes with half a soft boiled egg and a dollop of horseradish yogurt. The other intriguing ingredient is fried dill root. It not only gives a crispy element to the dish but also, an aromatic one. Each element combines together for the perfect mouthful. Sublime!

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The next three dishes are all from the “charcoal” section of the menu meaning everything is charcoal-grilled. Being an octopus fiend, my eyes automatically hone on to Baby Octopus (AUD15/$13.90) with olive oil and parsley. My brother, son and I love this dish and order another.

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Southern Calamari (AUD22/$20.40) is embraced by all. My mother prefers this over the baby octopus as it is so very tender. A spritz of lemon and garlic are all it needs.

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Whole Side of Murray Cod (AUD32/$29.70) is smaller than expected but flaky and moist. Garlic and a sprinkling of finely chopped herbs top the fish. A lemon wedge accompanies.

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Our last dish is Buttermilk Fried Chicken (AUD18/$16.70). A ramekin of creme fraiche and chive puree accompanies for dipping. We end up ordering two of these as my brother and son want more. The chicken is juicy and moist, albeit the second order sees the skin not rendered completely. Still, the seasoning penetrates deep into the chicken which makes for an perfectly executed offering.

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At the meal’s end, each diner receives a bar of chocolate — can’t remember if they make it in-house, or if it is made especially for the restaurant by a chocolatier — but it is rich, dark, and delicious.

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I am very happy to see Brisbane’s food scene at a different level from when I left over two decades ago. Through the years, my parents have introduced me to several higher-end restaurants which have never quite hit the mark with me. We need more chefs like Ryan Squires returning home and pushing Brisbane forward, towards where it will be on par with other major cities around the world. I hope my next trip home will be even more delicious!

** Parking is a problem in the city which could be the reason why the restaurant is empty during lunch. We ended up paying AUD71 per car for three hours of parking. In the evenings, parking lots offer more reasonable flat rates. I suggest taking a cab or CityCat **

esquire
145 Eagle Street
Brisbane, QLD 4000
Tel: (07) 3220-2123

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a perfect meal at The North Left

I was never a big fan of The Crosby’s menu, so when it closed I wasn’t too sad about it. However, the restaurant which now occupies that space is a whole new story. Chef Ryan Adams of 370 Common is one of my favorite chefs in Orange County, and when I heard he had taken over, I was excited and pleased because I knew it would be a place where I would love the food and libations as well. If you’re not familiar with the space it’ll be hard for you to see it from the street simply because of the way the light reflects off the windows during the day. It is right next door to the Starbucks if that makes it easier. DSC04221 Chef Ryan spends his time at both restaurants which means he had to elicit the expertise of some trusted members of staff to keep the place going when he isn’t physically there. One of the notable personalities is Chef Aron Habinger, executive chef of The Crosby since its inception until about a year ago. I’m not a gin drinker, but agreed to try Cucumber Gimlet ($10) because I trust everything Chef Ryan does. The cocktail is refreshing with cucumber and lime with a good balance of sour for my palate. DSC04257 Order Salmon Belly ($14) if you are a seafood fan. The cured egg yolk shavings add a wonderful salty component to the delicate fish. The incredible asparagus spears are sous vide in beef fat — yes! how awesome is that — and light salad is refreshing and palate cleansing. A very respectable offering. DSC04265 I’m torn between the over-use of Brussels sprouts on menus and my love for them, but when push comes to shove, I will always order them, especially when they’re crazy good. Brussels Sprouts ($9) is a combination of my favorite flavor profiles — tart and salty — San Joaquin Gold cheese provides the latter. Hazelnuts add a lovely crunch for textural contrast. Divine! DSC04230 Have you ever had fresh chick peas? If not, Garbanzo ($8) is a perfect place to start. Garlic, chile, arugula, mint, what’s not to love? Squeeze some caramelized lime over skillet and it’s an ideal side for sharing. DSC04242 Even though this is a vegetable dish, Mushrooms ($12) is anything but vegetarian. Discs of King trumpet mushrooms are cooked in wagyu beef fat, topped with smoked maitake possessing a rich, robust flavor I can only smile about. DSC04249 If you’re a fan of Three Seventy Common’s fried chicken, then you’re in luck! You don’t have to wait every month to get some. Chicken Nuggets ($15) are just as good as the fried chicken Chef Ryan prepares at his Laguna Beach restaurant. In fact, I might like these just a tad more probably because they’re just that much crispier. The biscuit is amazing and the maple bourbon barbecue sauce is more tart than sweet — can I say I’m in love? DSC04233 A palette of colors makes Sea Bass ($19) not only pretty to look at, but it is equally delicious in my mouth. Charred pickled onions, espelette pepper powder, cauliflower, pistou, shallot soubise — so many flavors, all mouth-popping good. I love the balance of acid in every dish. Here, the pickled onions are just intoxicating. I want a bowl of it! DSC04253 Scallops $18) with smoked paprika, chorizo, roasted corn, popcorn — yes, popcorn — avocado and lemon is sublime. Now, there are two things I will always order when I see them on a menu. Scallops is one of them. The mollusks are cooked to perfection and the use of avocado works surprisingly well, although I’m not sure about the popcorn. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t sure if adding that texture component was necessary. DSC04270 I don’t need dessert at the end of meal, but when it tastes like this, I say, “bring it on”. Strawberries ($9) is not as simple as it sounds. I have nothing but praise for Chef Andrea Guzman because she got me to take more than one bite — actually, I ate half of this bowl. But then again, panna cotta is one of my favorites and this is exceptionally smooth and the consistency is spot on. The strawberry granita adds some texture, while the cereal adds crunch. This is my kind of dessert and one of the simplest, yet most memorable, I’ve ever eaten. Bravo!

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So there you have it. The North Left is open and it is good. Really good. Grab a few friends and head on down. Sip on some cocktails, share some bites. I am confident you won’t regret it.

The North Left 400 N Broadway Santa Ana, CA 92701 Tel: 714-543-3543

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a lovely lunch at Prepkitchen — La Jolla

Lately, there have been many trips to San Diego, even to Mexico believe it or not — I’m not complaining — and they always have to do with food in one way or another. I visited Prepkitchen Little Italy last year, but this is my first visit to Prepkitchen La Jolla and I am surprised at how small this location is. My parking karma is in full force as I find parking right in front of the restaurant.

I am here with a group and we enjoy the relaxed nature of the outside patio. I am glad I snag a seat facing the street because it is entertaining and eye-opening watching some eccentric people walk by every so often.

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A Daily Soup ($5/$9) is offered and on this day, it is mulligatawny. The blend of lentils yellow curry, coconut cream, jalapeno and ginger creates a mulligatawny I find extremely mild in flavor. I would have liked more spices, but understand this appeals to a wider variety of palates. It is pleasant and satisfies.

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Who can say no to charcuterie? Not us! Cutting Board ($18) is a combination of house cured meats, cheese and various accompaniments such as roasted vegetables, olives and grain mustard. The toasted crusty bread is a welcoming addition to this item.

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Another dish no one can deny is Bacon Wrapped Dates ($9.75). I love bacon and I love dates. The marriage between the two is one of salty sweet and it is difficult to stop once you’ve taken a bite.

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Even though I’m not a big fan of salad, I enjoy the Asparagus & Little Gem Salad ($11.25). I think it is the tender little gem leaves and the blanched asparagus which win me over. The roasted shallot vinaigrette and BACON add so much flavor to the dish. A nine-minute egg is just the icing on the cake.

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Tempura Fried Green Beans ($10.50) is a huge hit with everyone at the table. The accompanying sauce ravigot is nice and acidic and provides a great contrast to the fried green beans. Absolutely delicious and deserves a repeat order.

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Sandwiches are definitely in order for lunch. Cubano Torta ($11.75) is definitely respectable, with Heritage smoked ham, pork belly, a chopped pickle relish, gruyere and house mustard. The bread is perfectly toasted and if sandwiches are your thing, then this is your sammie!

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Vegetarians may opt for Poblano Torta ($11.75) with chipotle aioli, plantains, avocado, pico de gallo and queso fresco. The potato chips are soooooo good.

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My favorite dish of the entire meal is Tagliatelle Bolognese ($19.50), a house-made pasta with a beef and pork blend, simmered with tomatoes and rosemary. The bowl is deceiving and looks on the small side, but once you dig into it, you’ll realize there is a lot there.

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This is a quaint and cozy spot for a meal with friends. The staff is delightful and if you get prime parking, it makes the experience even more sweet.

Prepkitchen La Jolla
7556 Fay Avenue
La Jolla, CA 92037
Tel: 858-875-7737

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Sea and Smoke — San Diego

I had seen friends posting about Sea & Smoke for quite a while now, so on a recently visit to San Diego, we decided to stop in for dinner to check it out. It is right off the 5 freeway in Del Mar in a plaza I’m quite familiar with. The restaurant is impressive which puzzles me why they have chosen this spot to open. But then, we see Cucina Enoteca just down the way in the same plaza. I guess the whole place is getting a face-lift with new restaurants and renovations.

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The interior is classic but modern, the bar area seems to be the most popular spot with people hanging out and converging. However, my favorite area is the outside courtyard, reminiscent of a beautiful garden on a luscious estate. The color scheme also makes for a rather relaxing experience.

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We settled in for an early dinner beginning with some cocktails. Barolo Manhattan Rye with Barolo Chinato and House Bitters ($12) and a Kentucky Punch Bourbon ($9)  refreshing and light with citrus, green tea and wine.

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Although I was not able to partake in the Oysters Del Mar ($15), my son devoured his portion with gusto. These broiled oysters smelled incredible prepared with a spinach mornay, topped with parsley bread crumbs and of course bacon.

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I’ll always order octopus when I see it, I just can’t help it. Charred Octopus ($13) was flavored nicely, all the way through even at the thickest part. Roasted ancho pepper romesco is a good accompaniment and made for a colorful plate, but I did not feel it was required. Warm frisee, golden raisins and green olives seemed a strange pairing at first, but worked well together. The octopus was slightly over-charred in some areas, but on the whole, a lovely dish.

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Creamed Polenta ($16) is one of those vegetarian dishes even a carnivore will love. In fact, it was so good I had not one complaint about it, except how huge the portion was — not really a negative, I know. Topped with an incredible tomato eggplant caponata, currants, green olive, rapini and parmesan, I’m not sure the currants added much except to give it a little sweetness, but it was perfect without.

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We were looking for some entrees with more protein involved and naturally, the boy leaned towards the Niman Ranch Burger ($13). I took a bite of it and was highly impressed by the perfectly medium rare temperature — as we had ordered it. The smoked onion jam was robust and so rich on the palate. Using both Swiss and cheddar cheeses also added to the decadence of this burger. Definitely a respectable dish all around. You can add bacon or avocado for an extra $2 each.

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I ordered the Local White Seabass ($25) and was delighted to find it perfectly executed. The outside was well-seared and the inside remained moist and fork-tender. Accoutrements of black olives, orange and fennel worked together and the brown butter potato puree was light.

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I really enjoyed our meal here and was elated that the chef put together a menu with ingredients I don’t ordinarily see together, and didn’t think would work together. Definitely a worthy dining choice when you are down San Diego way.

Sea and Smoke
2690 Via Mar Valle
Del Mar, CA 92014
Tel: 858-925-8212

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