Troy Johnson eats at 1500 Ocean
Immaculate Europeans gasp and point as two seagulls land on a table and get to it. In milliseconds, the birds clear the glassware and pick off stray French fries like drunken busboys.
“One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,” says a large man in wishful-thinking summer attire. Ever? I pray he gets to see the chanting monks of San Miniato someday. But, yeah. Even the pests at Hotel Del Coronado are an attraction.
The Del was built in 1888. Its rich history (Marilyn Monroe’s ghost reportedly cuddles lonely guests) is also its Achilles’ heel. You can change the foliage, maybe. Christmas wreaths become New Year’s streamers become Easter ova. But blow out a wall or modernize the carpet? Pretty certain Dr. Seuss’s wife and the ghost of Joan Kroc need to sign off.
The Del can, however, change marquee chefs. Since euthanizing the Prince of Wales in 2006 and reopening its signature restaurant as 1500 Ocean, there have been four. The first three were young prospects: Jason Shaeffer from Thomas Keller’s fold (now chef-owner of Chimney Park in Colorado); Brian Sinnott from Manchester Grand Hyatt (now with LA Specialty Produce); and Aaron Martinez, a modernist who studied under William Bradley at Addison (left quickly to be a sous at San Francisco’s Coi).
But Robert Hohmann is the most pedigreed. Got his start under Keller at Per Se (chef de partie, ’04-’07), hit Batali’s Del Posto (sous chef, ’08), back to Keller at Bouchon Bistro (exec sous, ’08-’10), then with Jonathan Benno at Lincoln for a year (exec sous), and finally to Michael Chiarello’s Bottega Ristorante (’11-’12), where he got his first shot as chef de cuisine. His belt is notched, and the expectations are high.
Hohmann’s a New Yorker with strong Sicilian roots that mark the menu, as in his veal tripe Siciliano—braised for five hours in tomato sauce, garlic soffritto (kind of like mirepoix), and herbs, finished with sherry and olive oil, then gratinéed with Parm and crumbs. It’s a good dish, the tripe cleansed of offensive tripeyness, but retaining its chewy joy. It’s also maybe the most rustic thing 1500 Ocean’s ever served, and an indicator of its new direction.
Until very recently, 1500 still boasted near-$50 entrées and $13 simple desserts. Them’s black AmEx, oil-baron-in-paradise, just-plain-stupid prices. Now it’s all in the $25 to $32 range. Figuring a peanut butter sandwich at the Del’s Babcock & Story costs $10 (juice and dessert included, and mandatory), 1500’s new prices are relatively sane. This shift also brought wine director Ben Kephart, who helped Tracy Borkum navigate the highly successful switch from Laurel to Cucina Urbana (uptight cuisine to casual gourmet).
Hohmann’s menu includes a requiem for foie gras in the duck liver mousse. It’s a stunner, even if the organ taste is heavily muted. The quenelle of food sins (verjus-steeped organs, mascarpone cheese, crème fraîche) is sprinkled with pebbles of sea salt and set atop cardamom shrapnel and cinnamon-port prune marmalade. Near-illegal pleasure.
Order that with the burrata bruschetta and you’ll be a happier, rounder person. The famed buffalo mozzarella comes with ciabatta that’s spread with walnut-garlic pesto and thin-sliced hot coppa ham (Italian sandwich legend), topped with black truffle-sherry gastrique. A lot of yes on a plate. I’d be okay skipping the Skuna Bay salmon crudo, which begs a bigger acid (he nullifies Meyer lemon with sugar). There’s nothing wrong with—nor mind-blowing about—his sea bass with fennel dressing, either.
Hohmann treats produce in a very New York way: as if they’re dead bodies in need of hiding. His Brussels sprouts are boiled, fried, tossed in candied black pepper, fresh apples, spiced pecans, bacon bits, and apple balsamic vinaigrette. Real nice to eat, but pretty far from sprouts. He liquefies cauliflower and celery root for a brilliant velouté, spiked with pickled pomegranate seeds and cumin-candied walnuts and a whiff of truffle oil.
Many hotel chefs prefer chicken over liver mousse, and chicken over tripe—because Joe Tourist dines conservatively. But Hohmann’s menu shows a welcome amount of risk. He serves Moulard—that Pekin and Muscovy hybrid, best known as the foie gras duck with great breasts (called magret). It’s jaw-dropping good, medium rare atop vanilla-parsnip purée and duck confit salad with sautéed spaetzle (a nod to the chef’s German roots). As is his Meyer lemon risotto with goat cheese and Greek yogurt with a ring of crispy-fried risotto and lemon oil. Sounds like a lot of tang, but Hohmann tames it.
The Del isn’t easy for a new chef. It’s union. That means servers have been here for 25 years. Some like food; some like paychecks. Inherit a cook who thinks an haricot vert is a skate ramp? Good luck firing him. Servers are less illuminating than they are trained to be invisible. Maybe that’s why Kephart continually works the room. He’s one of SD’s most likeable food-wine pros, who can work high-, middle-, and lowbrow when needed. A frontline ally the new chef will need.
After six months, the Hohmann-Kephart duo is a true attraction. The chef has said he’s committed to the Del for at least five years. Let’s hope it’s mutual.