Gordon Goes Gourmet
Solace & The Moonlight Lounge brings a little turf to the surf
25 East E St., Encinitas
Watermelon salad with currants. Duck confit mac ’n’ cheese. Biscuits with orange honey-butter. Sounds like a picnic with an inflated sense of self-esteem. Or bourgeois crimes against proletariat bucket food.
Maybe it’s both. It’s also dang tasty, and how Urban Solace became a North Park star.
Since opening in 2007, chef-owner Matt Gordon bit hard into the real-food movement. Corn syrup got the Heisman, as did hormonal meat and unsustainable fish. In a manifesto, Gordon credits his daughter’s birth for the awakening. They fed nothing but organics to the child (future psychotherapy will revolve around the Oreo-shaped chasm in her id). They did the same to their restaurant, within reason.
Two years ago he announced expansion plans to Encinitas, the nice-legs beach burgh with 4.6 Italian restaurants per resident. Then, delays galore. Zoning problems. Funding problems. Don’t-ruin-my-view-with-your-tall-designer-mall problems.
Solace & The Moonlight Lounge finally débuted last August. It’s a two-story, reclaimed wood joint whose talisman is a painting of “The Dude.” (That’s Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, a couch-potato mystic whose existence revolves around White Russians and terry cloth.)
Could an urban stalwart win over surf city? You bet. Beach locals have suffered tourist-bait for too long: longboard art, dolphin schwag, fish taco after fish burrito after Italian joint. Solace, along with Union down the street, interrupts Encinitas’ daddy-o romanticism. Thanks be to jeebus.
Their spot in LEED-certified Pacific Station isn’t ideal. The crowd gravitates upstairs to the indoor-outdoor Moonlight Lounge and raw bar, where the view consists of an AC unit on a gravel roof. Bummer. But there’s open sky, palms, and the brackish scent of sea foam.
While North Park specializes in woobie grub, Solace is more refined. Makes sense. Comfort food has gone frisky-bunny and reproduced on every corner. Time for something new. Those famed biscuits made the trip, however. Duckaroni did not, which is like Lady Gaga refusing to say “disco stick.”
A Jidori chicken liver pâté is pleasant, creamy from a bit of foie gras, spiced with apple, Armagnac, and nutmeg, and topped with a fig-currant jam. Pickled onions (reddened by beet juice) drop some acid to cut the fowl-fat. The appetizer star is the yellowtail tartare, tossed in an herb purée with pumpkin seeds, serranos, and garnished with Aleppo pepper oil. Killer cornmeal crackers carry it. As for the fried crab “brik”? Well, it’ll solve any lingering mayonnaise deficiencies.
For the salad set, Gordon proffers a warm spinach number with big ole lardons, shaved Parm, poached egg, and bacon vinaigrette. It’s a righteous pseudo-salad for reluctant leaf eaters. Our warm Ricotta dip is served not so warm. It’s a too-sweet garlic bomb with spiced honey and a pinch of black olive purée. Eat it with the olives, which add much-needed depth.
For cocktails, go tequila. The Mayan Crush is excellent, especially considering it’s a “skinny” (130 calories or less). It’s got Ixá organic silver tequila, blackberries, tarragon syrup and sour mix from SD’s Refine Mixers.
Steamed Baja mussels with smoked tomato butter are winners—a spicy, border-town take on French finger food. Gordon’s mustard-crusted black bass is another gem. The delicious crust of hot vapor punches you in the mouth in the best way. Can’t go wrong, either, with the artichoke-braised lingcod with sunchokes, dill, parsnips, and artichoke jus. Oh, that jus—on the right side of salty and choked to perfection.
The unsuspecting star of the menu? Sautéed farro with seasonal vegetables, smoked toms, and Parm. Farro is an ancient super grain breathlessly championed by nutritionists. It boosts your immunity, bathes your chakras in fiber, keeps Facebook from crashing. It’s just super, and Gordon’s version tastes like a sturdier risotto for the feel-good set.
As oeuvre, a coconut cake is a massive slab of carrot cake-ish goodness with addictive candied nuts. For something less diabetically inclined, try the goat cheese cheesecake with honey and basil syrup—a nifty tango of sweet and savory. And, of course, a “Dude Abides” white Russian.
“Gordon’s not cooking four-star here; he’s not trying to. With most dishes sub-$20, this is buck-banging gourmet that outperforms its market price. And Moonlight Lounge is the crafty cocktail hang that brings Encinitas into the now.