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Middle-America Menu Still Exists in Del Mar

December 05, 1991|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Although the old-fashioned Middle American menu seems pretty much in retreat in the face of the rush to alfalfa sprouts and oat bran, it seems to be holding its ground at a Del Mar eatery.

Few establishments in this county still offer grits, but the Country Inn lists them in a section of "country-style extras" that completes the two pages of breakfast dishes that include hot biscuits, hashed brown and home-fried potatoes and, as the menu says, "100% chicken eggs."

Even a "johnny cake waffle" turns up among the breakfast offerings, which are served all day. The dish, a pancake-like bread rather than a waffle, goes back to American antiquity and is based on a cornmeal batter (some food historians think the name is a corruption of "journey cake," since these then-common breads kept well and sometimes were toted along by travelers).

Also on the breakfast menu: an immense selection of omelets (including a version folded over chili, beans and cheese); corned beef hash; chicken fried steak with eggs; vegetable frittata; oat pancakes (the menu mentions these under the title "health nut platter" and serves them with fresh fruit) and all the usual breakfast breads, right down to a stack of buttermilk pancakes layered with strawberries and whipped cream.

In sum, the menu runs to five closely printed pages, supplemented at lunch and dinner by daily specials.

Although the breakfast list is impressive by the sheer variety of dishes that aren't so easily found these days, the lunch and dinner menu offers good selections of simple but generally hearty foods. Like the cooking, the restaurant itself is sturdy, plain and serviceable; there is something of a subterranean feel to the premises, understandable given that the building is bunker-like and half-buried at the edge of the Flower Hill Mall on Via de la Valle.

Among lunch and dinner entrees, one main thrust seems to be the items listed under the heading of "smokarama," or hickory-smoked barbecued chicken, pork ribs, beef and ham steak. For purists, the Country Inn offers a smoked beef sandwich devoid of barbecue sauce (non-purists can have all the sauce they like) on the theory that the hickory flavor is well worth savoring in a pristine state. In practice, this theory seems more than credible, since the meat is succulent and tangy, and gets an extra dose of perkiness from the onion bun on which it is layered. The sandwich sampled would have been much better, however, had the kitchen trimmed the fat from the meat.

The country cooking tone continues with such items as liver and onions, chopped steak with grilled onions and mushroom gravy, and fried fish or shellfish with hush puppies. The current craze for fresh fish is acknowledged by the offer of salmon, sea bass and halibut, poached, sauteed or grilled at the guest's choosing. The salad list takes up a fair amount of space, and the kitchen seems to give attention to arranging the greenery. A Cobb salad, a California classic that often is not well done, was very convincing here. The fresh cornmeal muffin on the side spoke well for the restaurant's baker.

The specials menu, printed daily, adds a few sandwiches to the already longstanding list of sandwiches and hamburgers, and recently included a calamari filet served on a bun (not very "country") and a buffalo burger. Other choices seem to recognize trends and have included a Southwestern-style pizza and fettuccine garnished with grilled chicken and a tequila-flavored cream sauce.

Desserts are made daily and follow the general tone of the menu, although an orange-flavored caramel custard (the finely grated orange peel was deliciously evident) was as French as it was good. An apple-cherry crisp seemed to have been topped with a batter rather than a crust and was gooey right to the bottom of the bowl.

* Country Inn 2600 Via de la Valle, Del Mar Calls: 481-8861 Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily Cost: Inexpensive to moderate.

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