Just how close is Taryn's at the Track to the Del Mar race track?
When the breeze blows across the surf and the turf at old Del Mar, the odor of stables, hay and horses wafts over Via de la Valle and parks in Taryn's lot. It's a bracing reminder of the thrill of purebred horseflesh, even for those who have never fidgeted in line at a parimutuel window.
Taryn's opened about two years ago and seems to have learned which way the wind blows, because it has revamped a menu that once was on the nouvelle cuisine side of the tracks to something more attuned to local tastes. This owes partly to the fact that Taryn's discovered that the racing season, rather than delivering the goods, can be slow; fearing crowds and traffic, locals often avoid the track neighborhoods during the race meeting, while many track patrons head directly out of the area after the ninth race. The most important menu change would be the addition of a goodly many Italian dishes--primarily pastas and decorator pizzas--since just about anything prepared in the Italian way seems an easy sell at present.
It remains a very attractive restaurant, half-lit after sunset so that the pinks in the decor seem to continue that event long after the sun has fled. Handsome, potted cactus arrangements add sophistication and hint at a Southwestern flavor no longer espoused by the kitchen.
The starter list is not enormously inspiring, although there is some variety, with a Thai chicken satay and steamed mussels in marinara sauce interspersed among the listings for garlic bread, shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell. One of the more pleasant treats is a lagniappe, a puddle of virgin olive oil infused with garlic and fresh basil that the waitress pours on the butter plates as a sop for the bread basket's excellent offerings.
An Oriental-style spinach salad takes a rather novel tack by adorning the leaves with mixed sweet peppers, scallions and a moistening of rice wine vinaigrette. The Caesar includes--on request--a small school of anchovies, but is more a decent romaine salad than a genuine Caesar, since the bite simply isn't there. However, there is plenty of bite to the thyme-spiked Manhattan clam chowder, a hybrid version that combines the thickness of creamy New England chowder with the tomatoes that characterize the New Yorker version. It's an excellent soup, notable for its full flavor and generous complement of tender clams.
The menu makes some effort to cater to the diet-conscious by offering light dishes marked with calorie counts (angel hair pasta in fresh tomato sauce at 280 calories, baked halibut flavored with lemon and dill at 550) and even extends this to the pizza section, which includes a pie dressed with a little cheese and a lot of vegetables.
Further afield in the pizza section is the Cajun prime rib pizza, a round of dough topped with something called "Cajun" mozzarella and spicy strips of prime rib.
The pasta choices include penne with creamed smoked salmon, linguine with assorted fish and shellfish in tomato sauce, and cheese and spinach ravioli in a light basil cream with sun-dried tomatoes. Among the more interesting entrees are charbroiled swordfish in Champagne sauce; a chicken breast finished with a cross-cultural sauce of shiitake mushrooms and Marsala wine, and a top sirloin in wine sauce.
Coconut shrimp have become quite a local favorite, and Taryn's serves an excellent, very generously portioned plate of beautifully crisp, juicy prawns; the accompanying sauce is remarkably sweet, but appropriate.
The "peppercorn" New York sirloin works less well, however, since the marinade--an unusual addition to the typical recipe--gives the meat a rather musky flavor. The steak also seemed dry, and the thick sauce a little too winey and cloying. People who like potatoes mashed with their skins will be pleased by Taryn's fluffy, well-seasoned spuds, but be warned that the skins lend a distracting and disagreeable graininess.
TARYN'S AT THE TRACK
Del Mar, 514 Via de la Valle
Hours: Dinner served nightly
Cost: Entrees priced from $7.95 to $13.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $60. Credit cards accepted