Il Delfino and Le Petit Calypso
location:1002 North Highway 101, Leucadia
chef: Dave Morris
Do Siberian cooks pine for Alaskan kitchens? Maybe. The tasty proof that like lures like is served along the North County coast, where soft sun and blue water draw restaurateurs from similarly blessed shores. The fresh catch of the moment includes Le Petit Calypso, the lone eatery on the planet to specialize in “Leucadia California cuisine,” and Il Delfino, an unpretentious Italian eatery named for dolphins that play under the waves.
Le Petit Calypso shares Rough Surf Plaza with such businesses as Yoga 101 and A Touch of Aloha electrolysis salon. The location is perhaps 100 longboard lengths from Café Calypso, opened in the late 1990s by chef/proprietor/ beach dude Gilles Knafo as a showcase for the Caribbean-accented French cuisine inspired by his sojourn to the islands. At Le Petit Calypso, he and chef Dave Morris write seasonal menus that they say derive from California, Pacific Island and Mediterranean influences.
Sun and sea certainly meld in dishes like lemon-saffron linguine tossed with shrimp and crayfish ($16.95) and a wonderful Moroccan-style salad of grilled red peppers and goat and feta cheeses, broiled until bubbling and served atop baby spinach ($7.95). The flavors flow through the mouth.
Appetizers with names like curry ahi-crusted crab cakes ($9.95) are not easily visualized, but when the New Yorker in the adjacent airplane seat asks, “What is Leucadia California cuisine?” cite this baseball-shape cake draped with seared rare ahi. Knafo and Morris prize ahi and feature it layered with cucumber in a spicy-sauced “Napoleon” ($8.95), paired with balsamic vinegar-glazed red onions on toast spread with goat cheese ($8.25), and given a ponzu glaze in a fruit-garnished, entrée-size cut ($19.95).
Good gets better with the crisp tangerine shrimp ($19.95), which are tender, meaty, crunchy and spiced enough that the tongue takes notice after the second bite. The seafood-oriented menu additionally lists filet mignon in a brandied peppercorn-shallot sauce ($20.95) and Tahitian-style chicken with fresh pineapple ($18.95). The flourless chocolate cake makes a fine finish ($6).
Like its parent restaurant, Le Petit Calypso presents live entertainment nightly, including a pair of guitarists who play with irresistible charm and could have been extras in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Orange walls support unframed paintings of boats floating on calm waters and sun-worshippers on a cactus-shaded beach. Don’t doubt it: This place is as cool as the surf at 2 a.m. Le Petit Calypso serves breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner nightly except on Mondays.
location: 2185 San Elijo Avenue, Cardiff-by-the-Sea
chef: Laura De Martin
The tropical fish that swim around an improbable, submerged replica of the Roman Colosseum in the Il Delfino aquarium are safe from chef Laura De Martin, but shellfish probably scurry at the sight of her. A native of Borzano, Italy, she seems able to cook everything with style, and certainly delights in mussels and clams, which she pairs in a brodetto of garlic, tomato and white wine ($6.50), and includes a seafood risotto ($16.50) that also stars calamari, shrimp and—for better or worse—salmon.
The same critters, with a bit of halibut added, are tossed into a big bowl of linguine di mare ($16.95), and all of them presumably were born somewhere in the Mare Pacifico that rolls ashore a few blocks west of downtown Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Il Delfino’s breezy terrace.
To differentiate itself from other Italian restaurants (the well-regarded Trattoria Positano is two doors down the block), Il Delfino offers filet mignon in a four-peppercorn sauce ($20.50), along with nightly steak specials and two or three catches of the day. But the standing menu lists plenty of delights, and you don’t even have to eat meat or seafood to have an excellent dinner; the penne rustiche (rustic macaroni) tumbled with a fine, spicy tomato sauce, pine nuts and mushrooms ($10.95) is one of the best pastas around. The dish wears shredded arugula like a Caesar’s crown of laurel leaves. Similarly, the substantial appetizer of baked eggplant Parmigiana ($6.50) is light, savory and delicious—but take care, because it arrives hot enough to melt the tongue.
Served atop toasted bread, the Tuscan salad of greens, red onions and roasted bell peppers makes another good starter ($6). Go on to fettuccine in a richly flavored lamb sauce ($13.50) or to fork-tender lamb ossobuco served over saffron risotto ($18.50). The scalloppine Vesuvio ($17.50), flavored with oregano, onion and tomato, is a delicate variation on the veal scalloppine theme.
The restaurant’s mood reflects contemporary North County, which is to say there’s prosperity in the air, but nobody dresses up. As a nice, old-fashioned gesture, the hosts presents women guests with an orchid when they leave.
Il Delfino serves dinner nightly. Reservations are suggested.