Campfire Brings Some Inspired Ancient Cookery Back to Carlsbad
The name says it all: fire and smoke flavors served here.
Carlsbad's Campfire is
Best DishesSmoked & Cured Fish Plate
It’s getting harder and harder to gauge a restaurant by its name. Many are just two cool words married by an ampersand. This Crafty Noun & That Food Noun.
But Campfire tells it straight. They are obsessed with smoke. You smell it as soon as you walk in the door of their 6,000-square-foot, indoor-outdoor partial Quonset hut in Carlsbad. It smells like nights spent in Joshua Tree or Cuyamaca or whatever great outdoors you have fond memories of, with friends or family cooking more than franks and Costco burgers. You also see it in Campfire’s cocktails, a good portion of which are infused with ash and smoke and grilled fruit. You see it in the design, which is 50 shades of wood, plus some arrows lodged in the wall for murderous measure.
You can’t miss the message: fire and smoke served here.
Fire and smoke are the ancient method, and the new one. For a few decades, restaurants have roamed far from the open flame and relegated fire and smoke to the realm of backyard dad cooking. Professionals went toward techier pursuits, vaguely warming chicken or quail in a vacuum-sealed bag at 150 degrees for hours. They stuck food into a nitrous can and spewed out intriguing foams.
There is nothing wrong with this. Progress isn’t the inedible transgression it’s often made out to be. A sous vide protein, done well, is tender beyond belief and remarkable. But if you believe in evolution, you have to believe that smoke and fire are the “flavors” humans crave most. Those two have spent a million years ingraining themselves into our DNA of needs. There are thinkers who think we were able to leapfrog the evolutionary waiting line because we learned to cook otherwise inedible or undesirable food with fire. We bent nature to our incendiary will.
Grilled food, then, is our Pavlovian bell.
And regarding trends, going backward is the new going forward. Unplug your phone. Raise chickens in your 2016 yard. Resuscitate 1930s pharmacy recipes for your craft cocktail bar. Throw a butter churning party. The faster we go forward, the stronger the urge is to recoil into the yester.
Whether I’m aggrandizing their mission statement or not, Campfire has put everything into the ancient flame.
The Campfire team is impressive. Owner John Resnick was once the Hard Rock Hotel’s “vibe manager.” An actual title, under which he no doubt learned underrated big-business concepts like systems and quality control. He then moved on to be a general manager at Consortium Holdings—the hottest restaurant group in San Diego, creators of Craft & Commerce, Neighborhood, Underbelly, Ironside, and Polite Provisions—overseeing their guest experience. At Campfire’s bar is Leigh Lacap, a top cocktail mind also formerly of Consortium. In the kitchen, lording over a custom 12-foot grill that is the heart and soul of Campfire, is Andrew Bachelier (ex-Cucina Enoteca, -Addison).
Here’s the catch about fire cooking: It’s hard. Very hard. Cooking in liquid (braising) is like bumper bowling—extremely forgiving, if not foolproof. You can set it and forget it. Cooking over live flame and smoke demands your constant attention. A dish can go from perfectly grilled to perfectly ruined in seconds.
And what we found over three visits to Campfire was exactly what I expected. We had our minds blown a few times, most dishes were pretty good, and a few fell short. Welcome to smoke and fire cooking. You’re gonna have hits, you’re gonna have misses. There is very little in between.
Bachelier’s brisket plate from the lunch menu is a runaway star, one of the best things I’ve eaten in San Diego in a long while. Brisket doesn’t seem to do very well outside of small Texan towns. And yet his is phenomenal. It’s not the tenderness, which I’d say is above average. It’s the flavor of his rub, served over sushi rice with a middle layer of furikake (a Japanese spice, usually made with dried fish and/or dried bonito flakes, sesame seeds, dried seaweed for umami, etc.), plus a fried egg atop. It’s Tokyo-Tex, and worth driving to the restaurant for.
Second, the smoked fish plate. Admission. I ordered this out of reluctant obligation. If a smoke restaurant offers a smoke plate, it’s damn near mandatory. But smoked fish is a blind spot for me. I don’t hate it. Don’t love it. Like political opinions, I tolerate it.
And wow. Campfire’s is outstanding. That lightly smoked ono, with a small dollop of the spicy rémoulade. The local yellowtail rillette (a slow-cooked rendering of the meat into a near pâté), is unbelievably good. There’s that sweet glaze on a smoked trout fillet, offset by candied lemon slices. Then the trout skin chicharrón, dotted with brilliant orange roe.
It is the smoked fish plate for people who don’t like smoked fish plates. An absolute converter.
In fact, my entire first lunch, with that brisket and a very good ceviche (coconut foam, balanced by an untraditional spicy yogurt), is a winner. Then we return the next night for dinner and it’s a different story.
Four of us order nearly half the menu, and each dish seems held back by a different flaw. A duck paté comes buried under a thick layer of jelly, which spins it too far in the sweet direction and close to a 1970s dessert (I do miss ambrosia). The char siu—a perfect choice for a smoke restaurant, since the Chinese delicacy is cooked over an open fire—is dry. The posole, a classic Mexican hominy stew, lacks depth and seems under-seasoned.
Having raved to my guests about my lunch earlier in the week, I feel that particular modern ego sting of the Bad Restaurant Suggester.
The night is saved by a few very good dishes. First, a whole sea bass with black garlic romesco, torpedo onion, and charred lemon—perfectly smoked, juicy, and seasoned. And their meat pie with braised lamb shank, smoked brisket, marrow, roasted rutabaga and turnip, and glazed carrot—all set in a blue cheese pie dough with a hard herb demi. It’s a solid griller’s riff on a pot pie. The best dish is a side of broccoli, seasoned with chermoula—that pungent North African sauce like a brash, lemon-powered pesto. With charred florets, lime, and candied peanuts, a whole plate of this might help me forget who my relatives voted for.
Vexed by our underwhelming dinner, I demand one of my companions return a third time to settle things. Dinner started with the sprouted porridge bread, made in house and slightly grilled, with cultured butter and smoked sea salt. Addictively good, and worthy of the world’s greatest food (bread and butter). It was followed by that luminous smoked and cured fish plate, which rejiggered my priorities in life. Then another delicious side dish: roasted baby carrots lacquered in a licorice glaze, cut with goat cheese, honey, and almond.
This was it. Campfire is mostly phenomenal! And then our entrées came. The smoked half chicken, while juicy, is served with chard that has been grilled and smoked into an unsettlingly bitter state. We also try the smoked short rib. The server wisely cautions us that it’s not like the braised short ribs overpopulating San Diego. This will be tougher, she warns. We understand, and we’re fine with the resulting tenderness. But it’s been so heavily salted that the accompanying koshihikari rice can’t balance out.
And so here lies Campfire. An arty, lovely place to bring friends who appreciate pretty things. Home to a few of my favorite dishes and cocktails in San Diego. And home to some frustrating misses.
As I leave, I look through the huge kitchen windows at that custom grill. Two chefs hover over it, trying to contain the fire and smoke. Mastering that beast will take months, not days, I think. Campfire may need to pay better cook dollars to retain the fire-and-smoke talent.
There are gonna be days the primitive tools win. And there are going to be dishes like that brisket, and that fish plate, that set new standards on how to cook with fire and smoke.