By David Nelson
THERE ARE THOSE AMONG US who like living on the edge, even at dinner. If you get a kick out of teetering between the frying pan and the fire, call Paradise Grille and book seats at the marble counter that rims the open kitchen.
The action is nonstop. While the staff works up a sweat, diners can watch from the security of the sidelines, rather as if they had courtside seats at a basketball game. On the other hand, a table distant from the scene of creation just might be preferable, and at 244 seats, Paradise Grille offers many options. These include a front terrace, which, given its proximity to the ever-busy parking lot of Del Mar's Flower Hill Promenade, is perhaps not the most restful location. The main dining room presents various charms and comforts, like a deep, particularly desirable booth that allows guests a discreet view of the kitchen acrobatics. Downstairs, in the attractive and rather clubby bar, more booths and banquettes look through broad windows at the vast patio, which is centered by a doughnut-shaped glass table that encircles a fire pit and can accommodate a dozen or so for dinner parties.
Proprietors Conor and Shana Adair presumably had oceans of confidence in themselves when they chose to open so large an establishment in their first outing as restaurateurs. They had good backgrounds for it: South Africa-born Conor spent six years working the front of the house at Mille Fleurs and Bertrand at Mister A's, and Shana, an American who spent her youth in London, was concierge at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad. Their confidence seems justified, since Paradise Grille frequently is full.
The reasons for this include a cheerful, reasonably well-trained staff that understands guests in this neighborhood expect some pampering, and a menu that emphasizes big, up-front flavors and offers novelties like the richly garnished, house-made flatbreads served as both appetizers and entrees. The 36-year-old chef, Justin Hoehn, grew up in Point Loma and understands local tastes, such as the fact that good bread remains an essential meal-starter for many. Served with a pot of full-flavored herb butter on the side, the hot squares of fluffy, buttery focaccia are irresistible, to the point of threatening to dull the appetite in advance of the meal.
A flatbread appetizer makes adventures in bread inadvisable, so be judicious. Offered as entrees by day and starters by night, these exuberantly garnished, pizzalike creations are not for tea-with-milk-and- sugar types. The simplest piles the bread with an ultra-pungent combination of Roquefort cheese, caramelized onions, arugula and preserved lemons ($13); the second dresses a heap of roasted vegetables, basil and mozzarella with sweetened balsamic vinegar ($12); and the third, named for Del Mar ($21), lavishes the crust with grilled steak and shrimp, Brie, tomatoes, onions and both champagne sauce and avocado cream. Needless to say, this appetizer should be shared.
Hoehn knows his way around a pot of soup, although it arrived cool one evening; the kitchen quickly made amends by sending out a boiling-hot replacement (the soup du jour costs $7). A very nice, suavely bodied puree of roasted corn, the soup was glamorized by dark, dark green droplets of basil oil and a frothy cloud of cream whipped with fresh sage. The idea of a puree of corn is simple enough, but the adornments showed well-considered imagination.
Starter options continue with guavaglazed pork ribs ($13), a big bowl of black mussels steamed in citrus-and-fennel flavored ale ($11) and skewers of marinated, grilled shrimp ($15) served with grilled watermelon, a novelty that must require considerable dexterity to cook. Hoehn varies the inevitable Caesar salad by adding whole-grain mustard to the dressing and a tapenade-spread crouton ($8) - but why not just call this a romaine salad? - and also serves a very dressy heirloom-tomato salad with bite-sized mozzarella balls and an inspired sprinkling of hazelnuts ($14).
BLACK COD has become the darling of fish cookery, and a juicy portion is accompanied by stir-fried vegetables, udon noodles and Japanese miso broth ($26). It's nice, but the beautifully crusted, wonderfully succulent halibut with a "risotto" of corn and asparagus takes top honors among seafood offerings ($28).
Hoehn hones his comfort-food credentials by braising short ribs in plum wine and bedding them on fluffy, garlic-rich whipped potatoes ($23). But the star among meats is the Angus rib-eye ($33), a charred-rare, bone-in beauty that is a marvel of savory flavor. Fried onion strings, asparagus spears, Roquefort-mashed potatoes and a winy Bordelaise sauce make this an impressive plate.
Paradise Grille also serves an attractively straight-forward, rather robust lunch list highlighted by roasted chicken breast with pureed Yukon Gold potatoes and carefully cooked vegetables ($16); cleverly garnished, two-fisted burgers with hand-cut French fries ($12); and a long list of well-composed, entree-size salads, which are exactly what most local lunchers want. There are an ahi Nicoise, ($15), a citrus-crusted salmon salad with mango vinaigrette ($14) and a hearty grilled skirt-steak salad ($15).
The best may be the artfully arranged cobb salad, which poses a buffet of ingredients atop greens tossed in a roasted garlic- Roquefort dressing (the kitchen must go through pounds of this costly cheese daily). A sliced egg in one corner of the vast square bowl is joined by nuggets of warm, just-grilled chicken, crisp bacon, avocado, cherry tomatoes and, for good measure, several ounces of creamy Roquefort ($14).
When the dessert card (all $8) is presented, ask which are homemade, and then go for either the superbly creamy, hazelnut-chocolate pot de creme sided with an orange-cardamom biscotto, or the remarkable Paradise Sundae, which towers above its skyscraping glass and might be the tallest confection in San Diego County. A crown of macadamias finishes this elegant construction of vanilla- bean ice cream, hot fudge and caramel sauces and whipped cream, which, like some bicycles, is built for two.
Paradise Grille serves lunch and dinner daily at Flower Hill Promenade, 2690 Via de la Valle, Del Mar. Reservations are advised; 858-350-0808.