JUST WEST OF THE CANNON ROAD EXIT off Interstate 5 in Carlsbad is one of the prettiest service stations you’ve ever seen. And right next door is West, part of a complex that will include a hotel and occupies USDA prime real estate just a wink and a wave from the Pacific.
West opened confidently, quietly and without the usual tsunami of press releases toward the close of 2005. Determined to be a major player among the county’s big-time, destination eateries, this steakhouse luxuriously re-creates the roadhouses at which party-minded, small-city Americans dined and drank during and after Prohibition. Every detail makes evident the bucks the proprietors poured into the place.
The lighting—dim, moody and terrifically atmospheric—loads West with style. The place may seem dark, but at these prices, who wants to see the soup stains on the shirt of the guy at the next table? The barrel ceiling soars almost out of sight and supports a sextet of sexy, reddish lamps that cast a classy glow over well-styled coiffures and upscale sports clothes. The only neckties present hang from the necks of the managers and black-clad servers. An open kitchen stretches nearly the length of the vast square room. On facing walls, frosted-glass panels that imitate windows are backed by lights that cycle though a palette of shades from lemon-lime soda to sapphire blue.
When they designed West, the proprietors prefaced every detail with the word “big.” Yards of ivory cloth swath large, square tables that support foot-high pillar candles. The cutlery is serious; order a steak and you’ll be provided a Gulliver-size knife, which one guest waved like a sword, saying, “With a blade like this, your dinner partner had better behave.”
And the prices are big, too—appetizers rise from $9.95 for a mound of creamy semolina polenta baked with ratatouille, wild mushrooms and Gorgonzola to $18.95 for a plate (a big plate) of duck confit with foie gras. Steaks start at $28.95 for a 6-ounce USDA prime filet and rise to $49.95 for a 16-ounce, certified Angus New York cut (or surf West’s extravagant turf with a $54.95 combo of 6-ounce filet and 7-ounce lobster tail).
There are compensations: Portions uniformly impress. Steaks come with two generous servings of side dishes chosen from a list whose only weakness is the exclusion of French fries. The menu offers these à la carte, however, dressed up with aged Parmesan and white truffle oil ($7.95).
Salads are offered in regular (humongous) and small (plenty big enough) servings, and at $4.95, the crisp lettuce wedge nearly afloat in silky blue cheese dressing perfectly prefaces a steak dinner. The kitchen displays its ambitions with items like the West salad ($5.95-$8.95), for which the tomatoes are not only roasted but peeled; glazed walnuts, chunky Gorgonzola crumbles and balsamic vinaigrette also accent the tumble of organic baby greens. It’s a good salad list—greens with seared ahi in herbed, sesame-soy dressing; spinach with warm bacon dressing; and an elegantly presented Caesar.
Soups are good, too, notably the Maine lobster bisque given personality by a crouton topped with roasted tomato and Brie ($9.50). The deep, clamshell-shape bowl holds perhaps a pint of near-boiling soup, and since about half of this is cream, you might want to consider your arteries before ordering. Otherwise, dive in, because the bisque is gorgeously textured and seductively flavored with brandy. On the other hand, a few morsels of lobster meat would be nice (especially at the price), as would a pepper mill, since a couple of grinds made it polka on the tongue.
The menu naturally lists shellfish among the appetizers, although it strangely avoids offering shellfish entrées, with the exception of the steak-lobster combo. The elegant starters include prosciutto-wrapped jumbo shrimp with a vegetable Napoleon ($12.95), seared sea scallops in black truffle sauce on a crisp potato cake ($13.95) and sautéed lump crab cakes with Asian-inspired slaw and roasted red bell pepper sauce ($14.95). Ahi tartare seems inevitable these days, but West makes it interesting by adding such frills as tobiko caviar, capers and wasabi-flavored aioli ($12.95).
SEAFOOD APART, the duck confit ($12.95, or $18.95 with a garnish of sautéed foie gras—go for it!) is not the sort of first course anticipated at American steakhouses, and the soft potato “basket” in which it arrives gives it some resemblance to a Cantonese showpiece. But the flavors are there, thanks especially to a smooth port sauce, and if you’re not ordering red meat as an entrée (the confit frankly could serve as dinner), this melt-in-your-mouth dish makes a satisfying, very luxurious choice.
The servers issue warnings when they hand out the steaks, which are served on truly hot plates. But herein lies a tale: The menu’s doneness chart lists rare as a “red and cool center,” medium rare as a “red and warm center” and so forth, but both a rare filet and a medium-rare, 12-ounce New York steak ($32.95) arrived cooked one step further than requested. The server offered to make a change, but this shouldn’t have been necessary. Steakeaters notoriously want their meat just so, and a steakhouse needs to get this right each and every time. Otherwise, the meat was top-quality in all regards; so were such side dishes as wonderfully al dente broccoli, a square of tongue-burning, ultra-rich potato gratin, creamy creamed corn and sautéed wild mushrooms.
As steak alternatives, West offers a roasted Kurobuta pork chop ($24.95), seared Colorado lamb chops ($36.95), elegant, pan-seared halibut with a sweet-corn black truffle sauce ($34.95) and grilled Mexican baquetta with lobster-tarragon sauce and a Maine lobster claw garnish ($32.95). Vegetarian selections include dressy ravioli filled with zucchini, leeks and goat cheese ($17.95).
The dessert list continues West’s extravagant, calories-be-damned approach with offerings like white chocolate crème brûlée served with berries in an almond basket ($8) and lovely, soufflé-texture bread pudding studded with figs, cherries and golden raisins ($7.50). Served hot, it’s capped with a crown of Tahitian vanilla ice cream—and yes, you will eat it all.
West serves daily from 3:30 p.m. at 4980 Avenida Encinas in Carlsbad. Reservations are suggested; 760-930-9100.