Many hotel chains seem unable to wean themselves from stodgy dining room decor, although the trend away from stodgy menus apparently continues unabated.
The look of the formal Triple Crown room at the Del Mar Hilton seems chosen from a color chart marked "Institutional Bland." While the light tones of the windowless inner room offer little that diverts the eye, diners at least are spared the sunset shades adopted by so many hotels that opened or redecorated in the 1980s. The restaurant's name, of course, refers to the nearby Del Mar race track.
The menu is quite another issue, and far from adopting the noncommittal tone that sometimes characterizes hotel lists, this one takes its cue from the Southwestern, Provencale and Italian themes currently in vogue. These styles sometimes mingle and marry, which does not present a problem, since all share a preference for bold, bright flavors.
One of the kitchen's best offerings comes as a lagniappe, a selection of freshly baked breads of considerable interest; the flavorful medley recently included tender flat bread brushed with herbs and olive oil, a dark rye loaf flavored with cumin and a beguiling, almost pizza-like bread stuffed with mozzarella and garlic.
The appetizer list kicks off with a rather complicated snail production that nests on pasta garnished with roasted garlic and sauteed wild mushrooms. That dish seems rather Italian, while another offering, a pleasing presentation of tortellini stuffed with poblano cheese and garnished with smoked shrimp and basil oil, combines Italian and Southwestern motifs.
Other choices in the appetizer category include oysters, clams and shrimp with braised spinach and tomato fennel custard, and bresaola , or Italian air-cured beef garnished with grilled vegetables and shavings of Parmesan cheese.
The soup list includes both an iced gazpacho infused with peppered vodka (this sounds like a Bloody Mary meant to be drunk with a spoon) and a thoroughly delightful Dungeness crab chili that leavens the rich texture and deep flavors of traditional meat-based chili with the fresh, briny taste of the crab. Smoked Wisconsin Cheddar covers the chili like a melted-on mantle and supplies yet another strong, enticing flavor.
The salad selection also shows flashes of cleverness--notably the mango-walnut dressing that tops a mix of greens and fruits and the cilantro-lime dressing that moistens a combination of spiced shrimp, artichoke bottoms and hearts of palm.
The meat list offers the major cuts necessary on hotel menus, but flavors each in a consistent style: Serrano chili butter melts over the filet mignon, the garlic oil adds an extra sizzle to the mesquite-grilled Porterhouse, and Colorado lamb chops are flavored not only with cumin, but with a minted vinegar that coyly refers to the mint jelly usually served with this meat.
There is more interest to the seafood offerings, however, which include a salmon filet dressed with chili pesto, tarragon and salmon caviar, grilled sea scallops with corn pasta and a spicy crab sauce and lobster in a masa dough crust with sharp mustard sauce.
A dish of seared tuna in an orange-pecan sauce would have been interesting had not the fish been notably dry. Marinated prawns with grilled peppers had excellent flavor, but the bed of tomatillo-spiked wild rice was mushy, indifferent in flavor and in too great a quantity.
This restaurant's prices place it squarely in the special-occasion category, a situation matched by the service and, to a degree, by the wine list.
A rather dull selection of pastries catered by off-premises suppliers burdens the dessert tray, a surprising situation given the hotel's obvious intention to make Triple Crown much more than a typical dining room.
Del Mar Hilton, 15575 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Hours: Dinner served nightly
Cost: Entrees $15.75 to $22.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $60 to $100. Credit cards accepted.