Conceptualize, if you wish, what might have happened had Pablo Picasso painted his impression of an El Greco masterpiece: Ears might have been clustered on the right of the canvas and noses on the left, but it certainly would have been clever and, most likely, rather engaging.
Pacifica Del Mar takes the same approach to familiar dishes, by breaking them down into their components and applying a "Pacific Rim" point of view that reassembles them into avant-garde and even playful concoctions. Executive chef Neil Stuart uses the styles and favorite flavorings of the cuisines found along the West and East Pacific coasts to create a hybrid cuisine that is strictly his own and has much to recommend it.
Now emerging from its temperamental first year in business, this trendy showplace in Del Mar Plaza probably remains the only restaurant at which you can order an edible Martini. This signature appetizer, called "the kim chee Dungeness crab Martini," sets a fanciful tone for the purposefully avant-garde menu. Served in an oversized cocktail glass, the crazy but delicious concoction layers crab, shredded cabbage and a spicy, Korean-style dressing in a flippant nod to the hotly pickled shredded vegetables called kim chee that appear daily on the Korean table.
What Stuart does to food is akin to learning to ride a bicycle equipped with differently sized wheels: Once you conclude it is possible, the rest comes easily.
Thus the appetizer list offers an Oriental lasagna primavera ; chile-cured lamb ribs basted with a guava glaze; a takoshimi of peppered Hawaiian ahi that wraps the flash-grilled fish and its Chinese-inspired salsa in what the menu is pleased to call "wonton skin tacos." A "tropical" gazpacho substitutes pineapple for tomato and adds sweet rice vinegar to complete the effect.
A purportedly Oriental lobster roll tastes like something dreamed up by an inventive Midwestern farm wife. But the flavor of the local lobster that stuffed these crisply fried, burrito-shaped parcels utterly vanished under the influence of the superb, Missouri-style smokehouse bacon, the filling of fresh corn and the too-sweet, fresh plum sauce. All in all it was a nice try, however.
The menu sometimes is happier when it takes a simple route, such as with the salad of baby greens and infant pear tomatoes tossed with sesame oil dressing, or the more challenging, Caesar-style salad in which chewy, musky smoked salmon from the Pacific Northwest stands in for the anchovies.
The entree list seems relatively calmer, but has its exciting moments.
The combo of grilled sea scallops and chunks of duck cooked in the manner of Chinese barbecued pork might best be described as ravishing; these are rare flavors. A toss of spiced shrimp and strident, lemon pepper-flavored linguine falls at the other end of the scale, however.
There are also Maryland soft-shell crabs flipped in a wok with asparagus and yellow tomato curry; wok-charred catfish with red pepper fettuccine and black bean sauce (the fish is "blackened" to add a pseudo-New Orleans accent to the international babble of styles); grilled lamb steak glazed with honey and sesame oil, and ahi "Kiane," a sort of Hawaiian answer to steak Diane that sauces the fish with red wine, shallots, ginger and coconut milk.
Two other entrees sampled recently were a grilled mahi mahi sweetly finished with a sauce of toasted macadamia nuts and banana (a demure but pleasant dish), and a fine rib-eye steak that soaked in San Francisco's zesty Anchor Steam beer before taking its turn on the grill. The marinade produced a juicy, interestingly flavored piece of meat, which the kitchen garnished with an unusual gratin of waffle-cut potatoes.
The restaurant boasts an especially fine wine list and is comfortable and handsome if less resolutely artsy than its menu; the preferred dining area in the present season would be the outdoor terrace, which offers million-dollar views of the coast and, for those who arrive in time, a dandy light show each night at sunset.
PACIFICA DEL MAR
In Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino del Mar
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Dinner for two, including a glass of wine, tax and tip, about $50 to $90. Credit cards accepted.