The speed with which Del Mar has transformed itself from a gastronomic backwater to the dining capital of the North County coast has taken more than Del Mar residents by surprise. Industry naysayers who predicted a mad scramble for patrons during the 10 months that the ponies don't run at the Del Mar track have been forced to taste-test their words.
In the course of a single year, four large establishments--Il Fornaio, Pacifica Del Mar, Epazote and the Bistro Garden at the Inn L'Auberge Del Mar arrived within an easy stone's throw of the town's main intersection at Camino Del Mar and 15th Street.
Although one might wish that the hotel had named itself less redundantly, the Inn L'Auberge did bring to Del Mar the type of dining room for which the California coast once was famed: the sort of gracious, relaxed place to which guests are more likely to repair for a leisurely lunch than a business meal. Such places have been exceedingly rare of late--a few other local rooms still fit the bill--and lunch at any of them can prove a pleasurable excursion.
The Bistro Garden, which is true to its name, offers service outdoors as well as in a pair of handsome rooms. The restaurant presents a carefully written, periodically revised luncheon menu.
A category of "small plates" nicely caters to modest noontime appetites while doubling as an appetizer list for those who intend to make this the main meal of the day. The term is sometimes a misnomer, however; a recently sampled seafood quesadilla , generously stuffed with shrimp, scallops, cheese and a few peppers, easily could have served as an entree. Other choices in this section include grilled, Chinese-style chicken and duck sausage with a black bean salad; flash-grilled ahi with Japanese-style vinaigrette, and oysters on the half-shell with freshly grated horseradish, a combination that can be pleasing on one of this autumn's rare crisp days.
The relatively grand decor, which leans toward Belle Epoque furnishings and paintings, takes a more formal approach than the menu, which is decidedly contemporary in tone. The paneled walls end at a soaring roof that peaks in a skylight, and a grand piano is tucked away in a bower of dried blossoms and twisted branches.
Main-course offerings include a Cobb salad that replaces the usual turkey with bay shrimp, and a Caesar fleshed out with mesquite-grilled chicken. The Oriental duck salad with marinated Chinese noodles had the makings of a lovely plate, except that the kitchen tucked just a very few scraps of duck into the grand assortment of luxury greens dressed with ginger vinaigrette. The guest who ordered this in a fowl mood briefly fell into a foul mood when she was unable to discover a single bite-size piece of duck.
A spit-roasted Cornish hen, on the other hand, was a beauty of a bird, burnished a bronze tone and exuding juices and flavor. This made a substantial lunch and was better without the pasty gravy that, fortunately, arrived on the side. Other entree choices include linguine tossed with shellfish and a cilantro "bisque"; an omelet of the day (recently an enticing wild mushroom and smoked Gouda combination); grilled prawns served over creamy polenta, with grilled peppers on the side; grilled salmon with basil and sun-dried tomatoes; the obligatory hamburger, and a turkey club with apple-wood-smoked bacon.
A little extra offered by this restaurant is a basket filled with an assortment of fine breads; this sort of bread basket, while standard on the East Coast, is far too rare here.
The dessert selection is not entirely inspiring and makes much of homemade gelati , or Italian ice creams. A peach cobbler, however, was worthy of its crust and was sparked by the pleasant conceit of cinnamon-flavored whipped cream.
DEL MAR BISTRO GARDEN
The Inn L'Auberge Del Mar, 5140 Camino Del Mar
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Cost: At lunch, entrees from $5.25 to $11.95; lunch for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $50.