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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

New Del Mar Restaurant Follows Trend Toward Southwestern Cuisine

January 07, 1988|DAVID NELSON

In its year-ending cover story that claimed the 1980s slammed to a halt with the Oct. 19 stock market decline, Newsweek magazine stated that California nouvelle cuisine died with the decade.

Local practitioners of this elegant style of cooking may feel that Newsweek's report of their demise is premature. But in any case, Newsweek did not toll the bell for the emerging Southwestern--as opposed to California--cuisine. With its contemporary approach to traditional New Mexico and Mexican foods, Southwestern cooking also could be called nouvelle (simply meaning new ), although perhaps it is better off unsaddled by this trendy-sounding term.

Southwestern food has been popular in New York for at least two years, but it is unlikely to last there, simply because it has no natural base in the region. It stands a much better chance in San Diego, because it is related to the entrenched local Mexican cuisine that is no more likely to go out of style than hamburgers and french fries.

A new Del Mar restaurant, Cilantro's, recently joined downtown San Diego's Pacifica Grill in introducing modern Southwestern cooking to the county. North County evidently finds this new style easy to swallow, because the place was jammed on two recent visits.

Cilantro's serves its selection of savory, attractive dishes in a room that is itself quite attractive, thanks to the light desert colors, well-chosen artworks and sophisticated furniture that has been designed to look primitive in a thoroughly up-to-date manner. Be warned that the room is noisy when full, although on neither visit did this situation seem to distress the largely casually dressed clientele.

Four-Part Menu

The menu consists of four parts, a long list of appetizers that Cilantro's somewhat inaccurately calls tapas ( tapas are the tiny, often highly seasoned bites of food served with drinks in Spanish taverns); a delightful selection of side dishes, most of which serve equally well as garnishes or as minor snacks; salads, and a brief selection of entrees. (At least a few items from each of these sections is available for purchase at the elaborate delicatessen counter in the bar.)

There are two basic ways in which to attack this menu, of which the cheaper, easier and perhaps more pleasant is simply to order a succession of appetizers, almost all of which can be conveniently shared by the table. (Three appetizers, a salad, and an order of steak fajitas from the entree list made a wonderfully satisfactory shared meal for a pair of diners.)

A more conventional and expensive meal would center on such entrees as grilled salmon in a highly seasoned vinaigrette; grilled, dry-aged ribeye steak in a roasted tomato- chilaca chile sauce; chile relleno stuffed with either pork carnitas or sea bass, and garnished with papaya salsa; grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa, and chile-rubbed roast chicken served with a chipotle chile and garlic-seasoned mayonnaise. None of these dishes was sampled, but all sounded interesting, and the chickens, which turn and sizzle on spits in the exhibition kitchen behind the bar, were rather difficult to pass up.

The presence of seafood on the menu shows one of the differences of the new Southwestern cuisine; shellfish and saltwater fish simply were not available in the land-locked areas in which this cooking has its origins. The staple seasonings and sauces, however, by and large have been nicely recombined into flavorful additions to the plentiful seafood of today.

Other differences include a pervasive lightness in the cooking, the use of imaginative and colorful relishes, and the absence of the heavy frijoles refritos (the term means "well-cooked beans," and not "re-fried," as common parlance has it) of Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex restaurant cooking. Cilantro's substitutes black beans, cooked to a savory finish but by no means reduced to sludge.

A basket of hot, freshly prepared flour tortillas arrives with salsa and butter as a kind of sustaining snack for the guests to munch while reading the menu. These breads are excellent but filling, and over-indulgence will prevent the table from taking full advantage of the appetizer list.

This list starts with soft tacos stuffed with one of three fillings, of which the pork carnitas was sampled and found excellent, the meat meltingly tender and very rich. Cilantro's offers a choice of yellow or blue corn tortillas but prefers to serve the blue, which seem not much different except for their slightly tough texture.

Blue corn tortillas also serve as the base for the house nachos, a better-than-average version in which the lightly crisped chips are coated with melted Monterey Jack cheese (rather than the mustard-colored, canned glop that most places use) and garnished with chunky salsa cruda and a small mound of black beans. This dish, by the way, also is quite filling.

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