Wolfgang Puck, the celebrated Los Angeles restaurateur, periodically visits the celebrated Chino's Farm in Rancho Santa Fe to squeeze the tomatoes and pinch the peppers destined to perform star turns on the pizzas at his Spago on the Sunset Strip.
For the last few months, however, Puck hasn't been in such a hurry to get back on the road after loading his vehicle with Chino's crisp corn, pampered baby lettuces and dewy berries. At least every other week, he makes a point of stopping in bustling downtown Rancho Santa Fe to visit Delicias, a restaurant that unmistakably bears his signature even though he holds but a minority interest and has not placed his name on the menu.
Principal proprietor Paulo Parviz, a Portuguese restaurateur embarking on his first restaurant venture in this country, recruited Puck for his stylish, trend-setting approach to contemporary cuisine. Puck, in turn, sent down Spago's Serge Falestich to spend a minimum of three days each week creating new dishes, training the kitchen staff and--most unusually for these times--actually cooking for the clientele.
There is a certain serendipity to the restaurant's name, a borrowing from this community's main drag, Paseo Delicias. To the English-tuned ear, delicias connotes "delicious," although the Spanish word actually denotes "delights," and if anything it would seem that Delicias aims to be a garden of delights.
Certainly, this sizeable restaurant has the look of a garden. A great spray of flowers some two yards across occupies its own table in the center of the room, and satellite bouquets in the same dazzling colors decorate all the tables. The tables' floral undercloths are matched by the chair cushions, while antique-looking tapestries in more muted colors hang on the walls and, perhaps just for the sake of whimsy, a Persian rug carpets the ceiling.
But if this is a garden, it is one populated by noisy bees whose cacophonous drone echoes off the marble floors and the decorative tile wall that fronts the open kitchen. Genteel Delicias may be--the miniature purse stools placed beside womens' chairs makes that point rather neatly--but at times it has the roar of a bus depot in full cry. However, since the cooking presumably inspires the relentless buzz, the noise at least becomes understandable.
The menu is written in a matter-of-fact tone that makes for so-so reading; the exclamation points are saved for the plates, which is precisely where they belong. Chino's contributes its all to the cooking in a way that suits Delicias' flowery approach, because Puck and Falestich use vegetables--chopped, shredded, diced and minced--in painterly fashion, working from a palette stocked with the greens of herbs and the rich reds, oranges and yellows of fancy peppers and specialty tomatoes. In many preparations, minced vegetables seem to double as confetti, or as crunchy rainbows lavishly streaked atop a given plate's principal ingredients.
These minced ingredients star by themselves in the chopped salad, a multihued mound dressed with a few sauteed shrimp. This makes a light, pleasant starter. But the tomato salad--overlapping rounds of red, yellow and green dressed with a vividly herbal vinaigrette--may eclipse all competitors in the salad section. In deference to Californians whose daily regimen dictates greenery, there is a plate of choice young lettuces dressed up with sherry vinaigrette and shavings of moderately sharp Asiago cheese.
For all its novelties, Delicias shares certain features with the humblest of new eateries, namely pizzas and pastas. Everyone has to have them these days, it seems, and it is hardly surprising to find them here, because Puck more or less invented designer pizza at Spago and also has lavished his creativity on pasta.
The pizzas naturally issue from a wood-burning oven (an unwritten gastronomic law laid down by Puck governs this point), and they make a fine shared first course. A particularly handsome pie paves the lithe crust first with dilled creme fraiche (a thickened cream) and then with grilled red onions and smoked salmon, decorated regularly with dill sprigs and pearls of salmon roe that explode in salty, tangy bursts when crushed between the teeth. The calzone takes a luxe turn with a filling of cheeses, shredded basil and wild mushrooms, and is flat but so rich that it seems a cheese pastry under its sparing mantle of garlicky fresh tomato sauce.
The same tomato sauce gives a fine but not unusual flavor to a dish of angel hair pasta. (So many restaurants now serve this particular macaroni that one wonders if the heavenly hosts have been plucked bald.) Meanwhile, a touch of tomato stirred with chopped herbs into a smooth cream sauce gave an exquisite lift to elongated spinach ravioli stuffed with a mince of zucchini, fennel and assorted bell peppers.