Most full-service hotels continue to offer at least two dining rooms, usually a choice between a pricey La Grande Maison Frou-Frou and a less expensive, none-too-formal Kozy Korner Koffee Shoppe.
Rarely is an effort made to present high-quality food in both rooms. But in a majority of cases, both are served by the same kitchen, and the Chef Michel who supervises the preparation of the boeuf hache a la mode du jour for the restaurant is none other than the Chef Mike who oversees burger flipping for the coffee shop.
Rancho Bernardo Inn belongs to an already small and shrinking body of hotels that offer two full-service dining rooms, each equipped with its own kitchen. The extravagant menu and formal tone of the El Bizcocho room make it a special-occasion sort of restaurant for most locals. The Veranda, while more modest and relaxed, retains a certain sense of formality that, combined with a well-written menu, makes it a reliable resource for locals who want something out of the ordinary at a fairly reasonable price.
The Veranda takes the style of a late-Victorian country house, as evidenced by the latticed walls covered by creeping vines. The Spanish arches that frame views of the golf course seem incongruous at least, but the daylight views are fine. The service is willing, if not nearly as polished as in El Bizcocho.
Since the room primarily is intended as an alternative for in-house guests, the menu includes the inevitable offerings of onion soup, shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon, prime rib and filet mignon. But once past these selections it shows a good degree of imagination, including a large number of dishes designated as "heart-healthy." Among them are broiled swordfish with pineapple and a grain mustard sauce; salmon given a Southwestern identity by flavorings of achiote and lime juice; chicken breast spiced in the Indian tandoori style, and a sauteed breast of turkey dressed with cranberry relish and a sage-based pesto sauce.
Dinners include the alternative of the day's soup or the house salad, rather loosely labeled "mimosa," an assemblage of greens garnished with the traditional minced egg specified by the name, but also marked by the localism of sliced California black olives, which detract from the salad. The soup recently was a cream of celery, a classic that in this instance was served boiling hot, always a point of recommendation.
The length of the seafood list rivals that of the meat list and offers some excellent preparations. The tiger shrimp etouffe seems a house interpretation of New Orleans cooking, and a good one. The mildly racy "Creole gumbo" sauce brought a fine flavor to the well-cooked, plentifully served shrimp.
San Diego's kitchens should be treasuries of avocado recipes, but rarely do new ones surface, at least in restaurants. As its fresh catch of the day, the Veranda recently offered an avocado-studded cream sauce over an arrangement of scallops, Maine lobster chunks and angel hair pasta that did justice to this local fruit; another local seasoning, cilantro, showed its versatility by nicely accenting the Down East flavors of the shellfish.
Interestingly seasoned choices among the meat entrees include a Kansas City sirloin with roasted salsa, a grilled pork tenderloin with raisin chutney and curried pears and center cut lamb chops served with sun dried tomato-tarragon butter as a replacement for the usual mint sauce.
The dessert tray takes advantage of the Inn's talented pastry cooks and includes both an elegant chestnut "parfait" with hot chocolate sauce and Vincent Price's bread pudding. This sweet, based on a recipe by the master of the macabre, is moist but not too sweet, and features a custard sauce rather than the sturdier whiskey sauce offered in New Orleans.
Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Cost: Entrees from $11.50 to $24; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $70.