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Kitchen 1540 makes a comeback


Kitchen 1540 makes its comeback with Scott Thomas Dolbee and his billions of ingredients

Seaside: calamari, spot prawn, lobster, octopus, smoked tomato

Animal: prime tenderloin, onion, grilled romaine,  comeback sauce, crunchy wafer, toasted brioche

“Ouch.” That’s one of many four-letter words heard when Paul McCabe left Kitchen 1540 last November. Don’t blame him. He’d taken K1540 as far as he could. Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe offered what resort groups don’t—skin in the game.

L’Auberge felt burned. Rumors suggested they might just spritz everything with truffle oil and become the restaurant equivalent of that depressed friend who doesn’t shower, wears robes with Cheetos in the pockets, and yells at daytime TV.

Then they pulled Scott Thomas Dolbee back to San Diego. Dolbee got his start as a line cook at the Del Mar Hilton when he was 17. His career went vertical from there. Saucier at the Ritz. Sous at Patina Group’s Pinot Provence. Exec chef at French 75. After he successfully launched The Blvd in Beverly Hills, Four Seasons asked him to overhaul their property in Whistler. His team earned the hotel Canada’s only AAA five-diamond award.

1540 Camino Del Mar

Some places would’ve asked Dolbee to ride the ghost for a bit, recreating McCabe’s beet salad as if he’s a casino-lounge cover band. Not here. All traces of McCabe have been wiped. It’s a new start, and whoa, is it ambitious.

Dolbee’s debut menu has six sections (artisan, raw, cure, coastal, inland, sidekick). Thirty-three dishes. Each dish boasts about 30 moving parts. His kitchen staff must want to shank him.

Calculating the possible “unique bites” on his hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack)—with nori-cured foie, avo, pickled sea bean purée, white soy, octopus, radishes, and carrots—requires an algorithm. In today’s gourmet scene, using more than two ingredients is considered showboating. Dolbee’s busy plates echo back to 1995, in a good way. The chef also isn’t afraid to push buttons. There are three forms of foie gras on the menu, and bluefin tuna on his “oysters tartare.” May as well key his name into the side of PETA’s company Prius. Good on him for the foie, although serving endangered bluefin seems a bit out of step with his otherwise sustainable ethics.

Those tartare oysters are great combos—the shellfish topped with generous mounds of tuna, steelhead (a sea trout that does a pretty nifty impersonation of salmon), and shredded Wagyu (especially good). For the hiramasa, the octopus is pressure-cooked into a phenomenal softness I never knew octopus could attain. It’s a treat, even if that sea bean purée tastes like your lawn.

His “Seaside” is an embarrassment of riches, with calamari, spot prawn, lobster, and that indescribably creamy octopus. As for the beet salad, a Kitchen 1540 legend McCabe made with caramelized yogurt? Dolbee uses fromage blanc, watercress, beet borscht (a foam made with gelatin and CO2), and yuzu gelée. I propose the global eradication of gelée cubes—a science trick that yields a texture somewhere between Jell-O and those colorful grips made for grade school pencils. But otherwise, his riff on the cold root veg is excellent.

The star is his foie pastrami—a project he’s been working on with the owners of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. It’s a caraway-seeded bit of lovely, with a jam made from kumquat, Tiroler pork belly, and onion. On a cracker, the jam serves as the sweet, acidic foil for foie’s intense chubbiness. It essentially replaces the traditional glass of Sauternes.

Dolbee can cook pork and game (Whistler is mountain food, after all). His “BBQ Pig Roast” is the collected works of Babe, with generous portions of leg, shoulder, belly, and crackling alongside scarlet turnips (sweet, mild), red orach spinach (a Mediterranean specialty), and buckwheat popover. The venison is also very nice, with cauliflower marzipan, black trumpets, huckleberry, red kale, pine nuts, smoke, and what looks like a bit of coral reef, but reeks of Douglas fir pine needles. Careful with that Douglas reef—a pinch tastes like a forest. It’s a reminder that servers need a crash course on how to educate diners on Dolbee’s dishes—especially with so many possible bites per plate.

The “Animal” is a fun riff on In-N-Out. Dolbee grills romaine lettuce for the “black hash-mark” taste, replaces Thousand Island with a southern comeback sauce, and includes toasted brioche croutons for the bun. It genuinely tastes like the famous burger that has made three-quarters of SoCal mildly obese and extremely happy. He also showcases the “escargot of the sea”—abalone—with sunchoke, arugula purée, lemon foam, nutty brown butter, and Northern Divine caviar. Abalone has a delicate flavor, and can be overwhelmed. To that end, his lemon foam is a perfect bit of citrus air. One night the meat is brushed lightly with butter—perfect. Another night, it’s absolutely throttled.

If there’s a problem with Dolbee’s menu so far, this is it. Someone on his line likes butter. And salt. A lot. His Cornish game hen—with Ibérico chorizo, 62-degree egg, harissa, and hummus—is a near-perfect dish, if not for the bolts of salt from the rub. Dolbee’s been cooking at 3,000 feet for the last four years. Our taste buds are dulled with elevation, so dishes require more of both salt and butter. Maybe this explains it. Or maybe it’s a crackpot theory.

Regardless, Dolbee’s a show. His is one of the most inspired and ambitious menus I’ve seen in San Diego—a little carnivore comfort, a few science tricks, and billions of details. It’s not executed at 100 percent by staff yet. But Dolbee’s motivated a mountain resort to five stars. I think he can handle it.  

*Note: Pastry chef Jeff Bonilla’s new menu wasn’t quite ready. But I did have his blue cheese ice cream. And it was fantastic.

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