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First Look: Vistal

Top local chefs Paul McCabe and Amy DiBiase team up for InterContinental’s show pony



Oh. Well. OK then.

That’s a hell of a team you’ve got there.

Paul McCabe was once one of San Diego’s top chefs when he worked as exec of Kitchen 1540 in Del Mar, having been named one of James Beard Awards’ “rising stars.” He’s still a top chef. He just top-cheffed in Arizona for a while at the Royal Palms. Now he’s back.

Amy DiBiase is also one of San Diego’s best, first making her name at former Point Loma bistro, Roseville, and then opening Paradise Point’s revamped restaurant, Tidal. She never left, but now she’s also back.

DiBiase and McCabe briefly passed each other in the kitchen in 2001 when McCabe took over at Top of the Cove. DiBiase was a line cook there at the time, just starting her career, but had already given notice.

So then they both went off and had more success. And now they’re together at the Vistal, the signature restaurant at the InterContinental San Diego, the 400-room hotel overlooking San Diego Harbor that opens this week. McCabe will oversee all five dining venues (except Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse), including a 19th floor rooftop bar, a fourth-floor pool bar, and a cafe. But the real showpiece of their collected talents will be Vistal.

They’ve crafted the menu as an ode to the coasts—the one out their windows and farther afoot, including Baja, Pacific Islands, and Mediterranean fishing villages. Looking at the menu, a few things stick out. Like the garlic butter ahi belly with radish, green onion, maitake mushroom, and ponzu; pickled black cod with Persian cucumber, fennel, preserved plum, horseradish crema, and malted toast; and local abalone with smoked onion sabayon and uni. A whole portion of the menu is dedicated to dumplings, including a sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi with Baja stone crab, yuzu, caper, and macho (squash) blossom; and a caramelized cauliflower ravioli with ricotta, curried brown butter froth, and cilantro pine nut gremolata. At 1540, McCabe did a lot of things right. But two of the things he’d mastered was brown butter (it’s not hard, but his was far better than most), and caramelizing foods (his caramelized yogurt beet salad was phenomenal).

For entrées, there’s a crispy skinned white sea bass in lobster-coconut broth; chicken confit with chicken liver butter; olive oil-poached halibut with whole grain mustard cream; coriander cider-glazed pork cheeks; and Baja blue prawns in a cilantro pistou.

Perched on the third floor, Vistal’s definitely going to be a view restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to a terrace overlooking the USS Midway and the bay. A 29-seat bar also faces that famous old battleship. Fittingly, the designers included nautical touches like metal dock cleat purse hooks and an installation of flying fish made by Arbor Collective skateboards out of Venice Beach.

A 14-seat chef’s table will frame the kitchen with huge exhibition windows, letting groups watch DiBiase and her team in action.

Many big hotels show a lack of trust in local talent and pull name-chefs from other cities. But in McCabe and DiBiase, Vistal has two locals at the top of their game.

Enough talk. Take a look at the first known photos in the universe of Vistal. It’s now open.

901 Bayfront Court, Downtown

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Restaurant reviews, food trends, top cocktails, wine, beer and generally the best eats and drinks in San Diego, by Food Editor and general good guy Troy Johnson.

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