Top Belgian Chef Makes a Mark with Crudo
Chef-owner Pascal Lorange set up in The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch
5965 Village Way, Carmel Valley
At the risk of being cast as a fogey stereotype merchant, I declare Crudo distinctly feminine. The design is clean, elegant, white as snow. There are live orchids here, and ovary-shaped metal votives on the wall. There is no taxidermy, save for the fruit hung in mathematical order on a few walls.
If many modern restaurants look like a grand- father’s whiskey den met a warehouse in need of construction, Crudo looks like an immaculately arty Apple Store met a modern kitchen showroom. Its bright, airy openness would refresh the spirits of even the poutiest Dwell subscriber. One could easily see commercials for both organic food and bleach filmed on location.
Makes sense, then, when the maître d’ tells me that the clientele is overwhelmingly female. “Sometimes I’ll look around the room, and it’s 90 percent,” he says. If you’re a straight male over the age of 30 and have decided loneliness is a subpar roommate, Crudo is a fantastic place to eat dinner.
It’s also just a pretty good place to have dinner overall, romantic aspirations aside.
Crudo is one of a few feature restaurants in The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch, a new, developing residential area east of Del Mar off the 56 freeway. The average cost of the cars in the parking lot is $70,000. I’ve never seen so many people with nice shoes. The clientele is immaculately groomed, sporting fine jewelry that, if pawned, could pay most San Diegans’ rent.
Not a bad place to set up for chef-owner Pascal Lorange. Restaurants in malls are often dicey. Orange County is comfortable with them, since they lack for quaint architecture or historic buildings. Many of the OC’s top restaurants are located in strip malls. Not so in San Diego. Before the advent of Del Mar Highlands Town Center and the redone Westfield UTC, we associated mall food with inglorious chain gruel. Just more calories to fuel our consumerist binge.
And yet, sitting among the white-white-white (and gray marble, and light-sand wood) of Crudo, you don’t feel like you’re in a mall. Nor in San Diego. With gentle European club music playing on the speakers, it feels like Miami or a resort where high fashion and design meet a temperate climate.
Lorange’s food is also gorgeous and femme, with color-bursting flowers and microgreens and preciously cut ingredients. The kitchen must go through a couple hundred microplanes a month. Each dish should have its own flower girl who haphazardly and cutely drops flora on the plate to celebrate this great dinner moment.
Lorange has quite the pedigree. The Belgian-born chef worked his way through Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe (Le Prince de Liege, and under three-star French chef Georges Blanc) before landing in New York and working at Le Pain Quotidien. There, he was recruited to be the personal chef for Vegas crooner Julio Iglesias. He’s cooked for President Obama, and headed up the launch of Fig & Olive Restaurants in Southern California.
With Crudo, he’s created an unusual fusion: Mediterranean-Asian. Sushi rolls with prosciutto and pesto, one with foie gras. Beef tartar crudo. Every server tells you not to expect sushi—it’s in the form of sushi, but with a French-Mediterranean spin. Cured meats, foie gras, tapenades, etc. Each table gets a Mediterranean spin on the wasabi and soy sauce staple. His is a mixture of soy and aged balsamic vinegar, and instead of wasabi he has wasabi harissa sauce and candied kumquats.
There is so much going on in every plate. While many chefs have gravitated toward the “great ingredients, simply prepared” approach, Lorange goes for “great ingredients, so many of them in a beautiful plate war.” His smoked duck breast and foie gras “Mediterranean roll” has fig jam, as well as caramelized mushrooms, with some tomato, scallion, onion marmelate, and kumquat chutney. If you want, you can dip that in his soy-balsamic-harissa-kumquat sauce. But you shouldn’t do that. Because foie is a solo artist, best appreciated with a spotlight and your rapt attention.
The menu starts with his “Crudotini” crostini, many of which are excellent. They range from the simple-yet-delicious prosciutto, ricotta, dates, and scallions to one with short ribs, gorgonzola, hazelnut, and apple. We don’t find a bad one in the bunch, but our favorite, surprisingly, is the grilled vegetables with goat cheese pesto. The fact that I have foie gras on my plate and prefer the roasted veggies is a testament to what Lorange can do with simple produce.
Of his crudos—again, plated with a Georgia O’Keeffian flair—the salmon tartar shines, with pesto, shallot, capers, harissa, lemon, and herbs. Because they’re deepwater fish, salmon become chubby to insulate themselves from the cold. And fat is flavor. But it also needs acid to cut that fat (same reason why deli meat sandwiches come with a pickle), and lemon and shallots do that. As for capers? It’s merely nature’s best salt. The branzino doesn’t fare as well, served with a pesto that has a bit of a bitter herb note.
The Brussels sprouts and coppa “taco” is a wonderfully creative dish. The sprouts are kept with their giant stem on, grilled, and then deep fried. They’re served with thinly cut slices of coppa (cured pork shoulder meat). The silky fat with the crunchy, fried sprouts is phenomenal, and might not even need the accompanying rosemary aioli (though we’re here to eat, not quibble with two fats on a plate).
Also, those crab cakes. They’re made with blue crab and are almost pure meat, accompanied by a mango-cilantro salsa and a tomato-ricotta horseradish emulsion. I’d drink his emulsion. For his mussels, he’s chosen a dainty, sweet broth of prosecco instead of a sturdier, drier white wine. The broth is nice, but mussels almost demand a sturdier broth to hide the occasional mollusk that tastes too much of the sea. That’s why many chefs use chorizo in their broth.
From his carpaccios, we like the golden beets the best, mostly because of that pesto goat cheese with almonds, tomato, and arugula. The lobster is also nice, very light and sunny with shaved artichoke, arugula, and truffle balsamic.
It’s hard not to appreciate Lorange’s very French version of what salad is. For example, the chicken paillard “salad” is essentially a flattened and grilled piece of chicken strewn with a few pieces of arugula. I don’t care much for salads, either, Pascal. It’s very nice, although it screams for more of the lovely sauce, a lime sabayon with aged balsamic.
When you hit the entrée portion of the menu is when you start negotiating with yourself on whether your kids really need to go to college. It’s not cheap, starting at $22 for a Mediterranean calamari penne and landing at $39 for a lamb-chicken-sausage couscous. Of the three we sample, the lamb tajine speaks to us most—with that unmistakable vinegary zing and those hawayej spices (cumin, coriander, caraway, turmeric, cloves, etc.), plus some apricot for sweetness.
With the white truffle chicken (I always order the chicken, to see what a chef can do with the most pedestrian of proteins), I notice a potential pitfall at Crudo. See, Lorange makes his own salts, and uses them on a variety of dishes. When used correctly, it adds an excellent floral salinity to dishes. But the chicken is saltier than a sailor’s mouth. One bite to bloat.
The coconut Chilean sea bass is nice, served swimming in a pot of coconut milk, soy, carrots, pearl onions, spinach, cilantro-lime juice, and Bombay spice. The fish is expertly cooked, tender but not simmered into mush. Though sold as “a sort of panang curry,” it needs a touch more spice and attitude.
Don’t skip dessert at Crudo. Dessert is often the “damn, I guess we have to” section of a chef’s menu. But Lorange has a perfectly light touch with his mille feuille, with strawberry-mint cream between gossamer-thin pastry wafers, fresh raspberries, and a terribly good herb-spice sorbet. The Meyer lemon tart, too, which is more like a luscious custard than a solid tart, just oozes out of its puff pastry when cut into. I’ll be big boned for this.
Getting his Belgian-French heritage all mixed up in his Asian tendencies, Lorange has created something unique for an emerging part of fancytown. Every dish is lovely. Almost every dish works, even when his flavor riot suggests it shouldn’t. It’s a reason to visit a part of San Diego you might not otherwise.