The French-fried potato, a national institution enshrined on virtually every restaurant and fast-food menu, has, in its finest, thinnest, crispest version, become the centerpiece of choice recently on chic restaurant tables in several big cities around the country.
For example, overflowing platters of crunchy shoestring-cut spuds routinely appear at expensive contemporary-cuisine restaurants and steakhouses on the trendy West Side of Los Angeles.
The idea of potato as star seems barely to have touched San Diego County, although it is well under way at Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe, a most handsome establishment in which L.A. super-chef Wolfgang Puck holds a minority partnership. One of Puck's under-chefs, Serge Falestich, wrote the original menu; the kitchen now is supervised by Jay Greenfield, who has cooked at the Rancho Bernardo Inn and at rival Mille Fleurs, just a block up Paseo Delicias from the eatery that takes its name from the main street of this North County estate community.
Hot, brittle wisps of fried potato in a salad may be the final decadence of the age, but they certainly make a chewy, tasty contribution to a plate of sauteed wild mushrooms tossed with a huge assortment of rough, tender and bitter greens. The dish is unusually heady for a salad and oversized for a starter course, and the guest who ordered it took one look and exclaimed, "This is dinner!"
The thoroughly contemporary menu at Delicias offers a mix of the trendy and the traditional in an airy but rather noisy room that explodes with the colors of huge fresh floral arrangements and flower-patterned upholstery and table linens.
Salads predominate among the appetizers and are available as full meals for light eaters; although this is a formal and fairly expensive establishment, guests can choose to treat it as a bistro by ordering simply a salad, one of the pastas or a pizza from the wood-burning oven. Virtually without exception, the entree list features grilled items.
In addition to salads of green beans with duck sausage, and chopped vegetables with sauteed shrimp, the appetizer list mentions an elegant-sounding plate of roasted fish medallions with crisp vegetable chips in soy-sesame oil dressing; gravlax , or salmon cured (on the premises) in pepper, sugar and dill, served with creme fraiche and grilled brioche, and fried oysters with a tomato-cumin salsa. The bivalves, lightly coated and cooked so quickly that they remain cool and liquid within their hot, thin crusts, were unusual and interesting if too large to be taken at a single bite. These were replaced in the shells over the salsa, which seemed quite tame at first, although undertones of heat built with each bite.
The pasta and pizza selections, none of which were sampled on a recent visit, include such elaborate constructions as fettuccine with forest mushrooms, prosciutto, miniature asparagus and an herb sauce; green and white angel hair pasta with an austere but highly seasoned finish of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and blanched garlic (the blanching mutes the pungency), and a pizza extravagantly topped with smoked salmon, dilled creme fraiche , caviar and grilled red onions.
The entree list opens with grilled salmon, arranged on a chiffonade (a bed of shredded lettuce) of radicchio and sauced with a basil-flavored stew of sun-dried tomatoes. Tuna, coated in cracked peppercorns and quickly grilled (this dish stands to become the pepper steak of the '90s) is served with tomato salsa, while a black-peppercorn sauce finishes a grilled, dry-aged New York sirloin.
The treatment given the entrees sampled was impressive. A crisply finished, Chinese-style duck was infused with the flavors of ginger and orange and became a sort of East-meets-West version of canard a l'orange . Grilled John Dory did very well with a light grain mustard sauce, moderated in flavor to match the mild but meaty quality of this excellent fish. Plate garnishes with both were first-rate, and with the fish included warm eggplant caviar spiced with red pepper, absurdly slender carrots, wax and green beans, and sauteed red cabbage that hinted at sweet-sour flavoring. An a la carte bowl of the house shoestring potatoes or fried onion wisps--both sprinkled with a mix of savory herbs--should definitely be ordered for the table.
The extravagant dessert tray offers chopped fresh fruit for those blessed with self-restraint, but otherwise includes a walnut-apple cake, creme brulee with raspberries, profiteroles profligately stuffed with white chocolate ice cream and whipped cream, and a double-rich fudge torte iced with white chocolate.
Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees $14 to $24. Dinner for two with a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, about $60 to $110