1540 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, CA 92014 858-793-6460
Now that race season is over, it’s safe to eat again at KITCHEN 1540. For a couple months every summer, the lobby bar—swarming with folks celebrating their wins or drowning their losses—at L’Auberge del Mar is a sight to behold; just walking from the restroom to the restaurant can feel like you’re running a gauntlet of swaying bodies. But once you’re in the dining room, and the restaurant’s glass doors are closed to shut out most of the noise, you’re free to enjoy KITCHEN 1540’s subtly made-over interior—a relatively tranquil space with a view of a lively open cooking station.
In July, the executive chef Paul McCabe unveiled an ambitious, ingredient-driven new menu predominated by shared plates accented with Asian flavors and an arsenal of innovative techniques and offered in two tasting sizes: Sample, a petite one-person portion, or Savor, which is big enough to split among friends.
Start with the Farmhouse Salad, a happy holdover from the previous menu. Though it’s composed of a dizzying list of ingredients and different preparations, at its core, it’s a study in fresh organic produce—raw curls, shavings, and slices of seasonal vegetables set upon a sun-dried tomato, garlic, and basil gelée.
Raw oysters, though faultlessly fresh, were overpowered by their toppings, a mix that included cured pork fatback, a blackberry granita, and a fizzy version of classic mignonette. A plate of serrano ham was shaved so tissue-thin that it came off in clumps, rather than deliciously succulent slices.
And the black cod was another unfortunate miss. The silky fish, one of my favorites, and accompanying maitake mushrooms, were drowned in a toasted rice consommé that was under-seasoned and unappetizingly murky. The saving mouthful? A single lobe of San Diego-harvested sea urchin.
Steamed buns, stuffed with pork cap—the marbled outer layer from the rib end of a pork loin—got dinner back on an upward trajectory. The handheld pockets were served with a trio of homemade sauces; the best was a sweet and savory fish sauce-dressing akin to a Vietnamese dipping sauce.
In the end, it was the two most exotic plates that impressed me most. The first, a quite literal example of nose-to-tail cookery, featured tenderized and deboned pig tails, the meat remolded into fat disks that were seared until crispy on the exterior and dabbed with smoked barbeque sauce. We savored each crunchy and luscious bite, and enjoyed the supporting sides of coleslaw and warm potato salad.
When they first arrived on a flying saucer-shaped dish, the roasted sweetbreads looked more like contemporary art than anything edible. A composition in stark black and white, the sweetbreads were entirely enrobed in a syrupy Japanese sauce called tsume, usually prepared by simmering down soy, mirin, and a seafood broth, dyed an opaque black with cuttlefish ink, giving the sauce an extra dose of briny character.
Though it looked startling, it was a smart and completely craveable dish; sweetbreads were fairly mild in flavor and the earthy sauce gave them an umami roundness of flavor, whose richness was contrasted by translucent white shavings of pickled daikon radish and asparagus.
Returning to the down-home-cooking that’s also comfortably in McCabe’s wheelhouse were the cheddar-topped fries with a red pepper Romesco sauce, white corn grits so sweet and kernel-laden they tasted more like creamed corn, and a simple but very flavorful sauté of squash with garlic and bacon. The squash, and much of the produce, comes from Temecula’s Crows Pass Farm; the restaurant is even growing some of their own in a zigzag of pipes that form vertical gardens installed on the dining room’s outdoor patio.
A shared dessert, a white chocolate panna cotta, was a bit too gummy in texture to finish, but our nightcap proved a memorable way to end the evening. After we chose an absinthe from the after-dinner drink menu, our server lit ours aflame and poured it into a small tumbler of root beer. He put a napkin over the mouth of the still-hot glass, now empty of absinthe, to trap in the warm, anise-scented fumes, which we sucked in through straws in between sips of the cocktail. A total party trick, yes, but a fun one.