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Fresh Appeal

Fine Produce and a Fanciful Decor Take Hotel Dining to New Heights

September 01, 2002|S. Irene Virbila

If the name Bradley Ogden doesn't ring a bell, it should. Back in the early '80s, when he'd just moved to San Francisco from the Midwest, the formidably talented young chef blew the socks off hotel dining in the Bay Area when he inaugurated the restaurant in Campton Place Hotel. Ogden had just completed a 4 1/2-year stint as chef at the American Restaurant in Kansas City, and his cooking was unabashedly American. The best meal? Breakfast. Indulgent yet not stuffy, Campton Place Restaurant reeled in foodies from all over the country with the promise of Ogden's updated breakfast classics.

In 1989 he opened the Lark Creek Inn, a ferry ride away in Marin County, then One Market Restaurant at the foot of Market Street. Ogden soon had four restaurants, but as his projects grew, the quality sometimes suffered. It's not unusual, but disappointing from someone with such solid credentials.That's why when I heard that Ogden had ventured south to open a restaurant in the San Diego Marriott Del Mar, I didn't rush to what I envisioned as another mid-level hotel restaurant. I hate to admit it, but it took a friend visiting San Diego to get me there for the first time. He asked me where to eat and I floated the idea of Arterra. He was dubious because he hadn't been impressed with Ogden's restaurants lately. Then I let drop that Chino Farms--a family outfit that sets the gold standard for organic produce--had told me the chef at Arterra buys produce from them--and not just a token hundred dollars' worth. Lots.

In the end, I'm glad I offered to join my friend at Arterra. Ogden is a co-owner, and under chef Carl Schroeder, his protege at Lark Creek Inn, the kitchen is turning out seasonal cooking that defines California cuisine.

The San Diego Marriott Del Mar is not in an ideal location--a business park on the other side of the freeway from the beach. Though decorated within an inch of hipster kitsch, it needs something as a draw and apparently decided the restaurant is crucial.

Lucky for us. The spacious dining room has an upbeat color scheme of gold, orange and purple accented by glass sconces that look like melted blueberry parfait. Add a big splashy bar, a catchy soundtrack, and it's Le Cirque heads for the suburbs. The curtains are a jolt of red with gold polka dots, perhaps to distract diners from the absence of a view. You won't notice once the first dish arrives: you'll be looking at your plate .

To start things off, the kitchen may send out a small glass of golden watermelon "consomme" with a wedge of lime. In cherry season, seared foie gras is paired with dark Montmorency cherries and brioche, set off by a restrained sauce. Though the menu changes frequently, you might find a lovely salad of red Sensation pears and Chino Farms lettuces served with a cloud of Gorgonzola souffle.

A summer menu featured an heirloom tomato salad strewn with fresh corn kernels, and tomatoes--red, gold, green--with flavors as deep as they come. This is the real deal, with a round of goat cheese rolled in bread crumbs and spices for contrast. Melon and prosciutto is a gorgeous stack of green and orange melon on mellow Parma ham, a combination surely made in heaven. There's a richly flavored sweet corn soup, too, swirled with cream and violet chive blossoms topped with Dungeness crab hash. A dozen Hama Hamas from British Columbia, crisp and cold, came on a cast-glass platter filled with ice and are some of the best oysters I've had--ever.

For Schroeder, this has to be a dream job. It comes with Ogden, a built-in mentor of some stature; he has the chance to work with the best products; and the pace is never punishing.

Guinea hen appears as delicious thick slices rimmed with crisp skin set on wild mushrooms and gnocchi. A light, delicate smoke permeates alderwood-smoked duck breast, giving the meat an exotic edge. Wild salmon with baby turnips is in a gossamer shellfish and saffron sauce. As fine as the roast pork loin is (and the incredibly sweet corn that accompanies it), vegetarians have the edge at Arterra. The kitchen puts a huge amount of work into the vegetarian entree. Most recently it consisted of a watercress soup, a tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella salad and a "personal tart"--don't you love that expression?--of goat cheese and more of those luscious heirloom tomatoes.

The young staff has caught the excitement of the kitchen. From the way they explain the food or the wine, you can see how hard they're trying to do something here in San Diego County. The sommelier will ask how cold you'd like your wine. In his refrigerator white wines are kept at three temperatures--one for Chardonnay, one for Sauvignon Blanc and other whites, and one for Champagnes. The wine list is no slouch either. Wine director Matthew Andrews has put together a respectable all-American list, which is as strong on Oregon and Washington as it is on California selections.

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