Saint Paul

Chef Paul McCabe’s new resto, Delicias


delicias outdoor dining

The patio at Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe

“Oh, Jesus.” It’s all I could muster after my first bite of Paul McCabe’s agnolotti with peas and mascarpone in brown butter.

“Oh, Jesus.” It’s what my wife—who grew up far, far removed from the bearded religious guy—uttered at the exact same time.

Freed of social decorum, we’d end up recreating the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally... We tasted the dish on two different occasions. Both times, our reaction was indecent with pleasure.

McCabe’s prime ribeye cap with ramp kimchi, daikon, and reduction of gochujang (a thinner version of the Korean chili sauce) is similarly ridiculous. And that rabbit confit with olive oil whipped potatoes and prosciutto jus? Yes, just yes.

As a surprise to no one who’s followed the city’s food scene: The new chef at Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe can cook. I consider it a moral obligation for anyone still seeking happiness in his or her life to try that agnolotti. Now, I just want McCabe to get the heck out of Rancho Santa Fe.

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6106 Paseo Delicias

After all, that was the plan as I heard it. McCabe shocked a lot of people when he left his cush, high-profile gig at L’Auberge Del Mar’s Kitchen 1540. He wasn’t the only reason K1540 became one of the hottest tables in San Diego. There was an internationally famous architect (Andre Kikoski), and the fact that L’Auberge is one stunning beachside property. But good wallpaper doesn’t anchor a restaurant. McCabe’s food—a mix of Escoffier, science, and SoCal food-bounty—did.

McCabe left because being a chef is hard. They don’t tell you that at CIA. It breaks backs. It is immune to 401Ks. It’s currently the sexiest service job on the planet, and the laughingstock of economists. Delicias’ owner, Owen Perry, lured McCabe away by offering him skin in the game. Partner status. The goal is to build a reputation, then multiply Delicias across San Diego.

As a repeatable high-end franchise, there’s work to do. The new décor—high-back, olive-hued banquettes, sandal-brown leather chairs, and removal of the old-world white tablecloths—is very nice. But it’s not a conversation starter. Zero je ne sais quoi. The iPad wine lists, which seemed so cutting-edge and brilliant two years ago, are somewhat useless. Delicias has one of the best wine cellars in the state, and the iPad is a great opportunity to give personal notes on many of them (if not every one). But even under the listing for “Chef’s Choice,” the comments section is empty.

agnolotti from delicias

Agnolotti with peas in brown butter

The other challenge is the fact that Rancho Santa Fe may as well be Pluto. It’s one of the richest zip codes in America, so there are local, seasonal billionaires to be served. But billionaires don’t Twitter. They don’t FoodSpot. If anything, they’re motivated to hide where they’re currently spending their riches.

All that said, McCabe’s cooking should overcome all of that. Before I’m accused of idolatry, let me say that he’s not perfect. His scallops with generous tongues of uni, white chocolate dashi, and coconut should be an indulgent wonder—but the ultra-rich ingredients beg an astringent foil the charred bits of farro don’t deliver. His charred ramp risotto with preserved Meyer lemon and tempura morels has a bright, lovely vegetal flavor, but the Arborio seems under-spooned and lacks creaminess. Black cod with lobster, artichoke, and fennel is respectable. It just doesn’t take the top of your head off and blow light offshore winds over your exposed brain.

That agnolotti does.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, I prefer my entrees with salt, dessert with sugar. But I’ve never come across a chef with such a deft touch at fusing the two."

So does McCabe’s beet salad, something he took with him from Kitchen 1540. Caramelizing yogurt is nothing new in India. But Google it. McCabe seems to be one of the only chefs in the U.S. milking its charms. With earthy beets and candied pistachios, it’s a salad that tastes just enough of dessert. In the last four years, it’s been the only salad that I can honestly say, on its own, is worth visiting a restaurant for.

It’s this subtle sweetness that McCabe brings to savory dishes (his rabbit sausage with Concord grapes is another oh-wow example) that really sets him apart. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I prefer my entrees with salt, dessert with sugar. But I’ve never come across a chef with such a deft touch at fusing the two.

For dessert, try the strawberry shortcake with phenomenal sour cream ice cream and pecan shortbread. I was raised on house-made biscuits, whipped cream, and garden strawberries. And his takes that by a mile. The Mexican chocolate sundae, on the other hand, is more sugar than it is a composed dessert.   

I honestly didn’t know if McCabe’s food would sing at Delicias. What if he’d just been the beneficiary of a resort’s budget for high-quality ingredients (which is much greater than a stand-alone restaurant)? Had I, and everyone else, been overbilling him?

Now I’m convinced. My meals here were the best I’ve had in San Diego in a very long time. McCabe and company (which includes F&B vet and former Mr. A’s maître d’ Alex Campbell) need to take the show out of the gated community and into the streets. If Delicias lands an interior designer to match McCabe’s skills—and a team of young chef talent to execute McCabe’s vision—it’ll thrive. If not, that agnolotti and beet salad will remain another little bit of magic known only to the already enchanted.

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