location >1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
chef >Jason Shaeffer
SAN DIEGO’S OWN PIECE of vintage Victoriana, the Hotel del Coronado, has seen its share of transformations over the years. Since opening in 1888, its popularity has remained constant. The Del has hosted presidents and politicians, socialites and celebrities. It’s drawn the glitterati and the literati, not to mention generations of locals for whom a year wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Del for brunch in the Crown Room.
But change has been inevitable: Modern tower rooms were added to accommodate more guests. An extensive remodel (estimated at $55 million) in 2001. A change in ownership to KSL Resorts in 2003. And finally, the hotel’s recent construction of Beach Village, limited-use condos that start at a cool $2.4 million.
For many Del aficionados, however, the most dramatic change—not to mention the most controversial—has been the extreme makeover of the former Prince of Wales dining room last May. This was no mere facelift, folks. The creation of the new 1500 Ocean restaurant is nothing short of a head-to-toe reincarnation.
French doors provide forever views from the dining area to a covered terrace, lower patio with fireplace and, on the horizon, the Coronado Islands. Indoors, the seating includes inviting two-tops with teal leather wing chairs; three curtain-swagged booths (for canoodling or serious business); long, low banquettes; and a semiprivate banquet room for up to 10.
While the polished woods, neutral walls and squared-off columns add a classic Craftsman feel, it’s all a bit corporate. More personality can be found in the bar, where a clever palette of oranges, reds, pinks and a deep blue replicate a classic California sunset.
We miss the clubby intimacy of the old dining room, and the elegance of well-dressed diners for whom the Prince of Wales meant a special occasion. But there’s much to celebrate, starting with executive chef Jason Shaeffer, whose stellar résumé adds abundant street cred to this new endeavor.
A veteran of San Diego’s Laurel (under Doug Organ) and George’s at the Cove (with Trey Foshee) as well as a protégé of French Laundry founder Thomas Keller, Shaeffer is a classically trained chef with the instincts of an art collector. His passion for artisanal ingredients and seasonal flavors has him lining up purveyors all along the coast, buying hand-picked baby lettuces from Temecula and water-buffalo mozzarella from Northern California.
The results? Often, as glorious as the setting sun glimpsed from one of those prime windowside tables.
Most starters soar. Shaeffer’s ab-fab foie gras ($22), flash-seared and lightly dusted with pistachios, may have come from the Hudson Valley, but it tasted like Gascony’s own. A special of grande Mexican scallops, velvety and white as calla lilies, blossomed in a luscious gratin of fresh thyme, bacon, brandy and cream.
And while “grilled chard with mozzarella” sounds anything but sexy, this colorful combo of grilled rainbow chard stalks and buffalo mozzarella topped with a spritz of olive oil, Meyer lemon juice and Parmesan was an orgy of texture and tastes ($16). Not so for a basic cream of cremini mushroom soup ($14), which lacked the pizazz of its compadres.
THE ENTRÉE MENU changes frequently to reflect the seasons, and so the Alaskan halibut ($31) that wowed us in autumn won’t be back on the menu for a while. We hope its exceptional sauce of diced chives and heirloom torpedo onions mellowed with Banyuls vinegar makes a repeat appearance with local seafood like white sea bass or spiny lobster.
A Shaeffer signature from Laurel, Muscovy duck confit ($29), deserves a niche on the menu year-round. Hefty, crisp-skinned and succulent, the leg arrived on a peppery bed of beans, kale and saucisson. Call it “cassoulet lite,” with brighter flavors and, we can fantasize, fewer calories than the traditional farmhouse dinner version.
Braised ossobuco with winter vegetables and chestnuts ($35) offered a generous combination of meaty, marrow-filled shank plus delicate slices of tenderloin. Only a too-sweet fruit jus more suited to duck or lamb kept this recipe from rating a 10.
California lamb porterhouse (a cut incorporating loin and sirloin) also missed the mark, with meat that lacked much flavor except closest to the bone. Despite a masterful side of miniature “marble potatoes,” fennel and black olives, we wouldn’t bother with this $38 entrée again.
The hottest item on the dessert menu is the dining room’s signature dessert, chipotle chocolate cake ($10). Served with soothing cajeta (caramel) ice cream, this fudgy, molten-center cake, tinged with enough chilies to tickle and tease the tongue, is fire and ice at its best.
Service is cordial and capable, if a little pushy at times (no, we really, really don’t wish a dessert this evening). On multiple visits, we appreciated the waiter’s willingness to provide a sip of a wine sold by the glass before we ordered it. It’s appropriate, because wine prices here can be as inflated as Palm Beach real estate. When you’re dropping $11 for a glass of Spanish Albarino, for example—retail price, $15 a bottle—you want to make sure you’re going to like it. On the upside, the list features a number of unusual varietals and some big-name Bordeaux and California Cabs.
As the days grow longer, spectacular dinners here will be accompanied by stunning sunsets, romantic ocean views and temperatures suitable for alfresco dining. You can find those at many a local restaurant, but the Coronado cachet —and chef Shaeffer’s artful cuisine—are exclusive to the Del.
1500 Ocean serves dinner nightly at the Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Avenue in Coronado; 619-435-6611; hoteldel.com. Reservations highly recommended.