Even the Bread Basket at La Tapenade Is Tops
Various organisms and organizations run on their own clocks, and it happens that every fall, when we turn the clocks back an hour and adjust to Standard Time, North County’s plush Rancho Valencia Resort hires a new chef.
Last year the new man in the kitchen was Claude Segal, a Frenchman of some renown who didn’t quite make the magic happen for the dining room of this luxurious, tennis-oriented hideaway in the hills near Fairbanks Ranch. So this fall, Segal was sent to La Jolla’s La Valencia hotel and super-chef Bradley Ogden, perhaps the top current name in the San Francisco Bay Area and the nearby wine country, was named consulting chef.
Ogden is famous for his updated American cooking, which he introduced in the mid-1980s at San Francisco’s top-flight Campton Place hotel and now practices at his own wine region eatery. As consulting chef to Rancho Valencia, he most definitely consults rather than cooks; don’t expect Ogden to be out in the kitchen personally flipping your order of hash browns. The actual supervision of recipes designed by him or in his style falls to newly installed executive chef Salvatore Petrolino, whose credits include stints at Campton Place and another San Francisco hot spot, Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio.
The dining room, La Tapenade, remains a gracious, airy, moderately formal but eminently comfortable space. The menu takes up but a single page and consists of just eight starters and seven entrees (the server recites the day’s two or three specials), and is transcended by simplicity; the quality of the cooking, which is very high, depends on top-quality ingredients given careful attention, rather than in complexity of composition. Prices reflect the grade of raw materials used, and range from $6.25 to $10.50 for first courses and $17.50 to $27.50 for entrees; this is a spot to keep in mind for New Year’s Eve or another major celebration.
The bread basket itself is a delight, since the choices are freshly made and may include both a coarse-textured olive bread and light, fluffy biscuits made tangy by the addition of grain mustard.
The simplest starter, the field lettuce salad with “potted” olive toast honors the restaurant by featuring tapenade , which in England would be known as potted olives. This same excellent salad garnishes the house-cured salmon with warm potato salad, a plate large enough to serve as a light entree and impressive for its nearly translucent, beautifully textured sheets of salmon, which are dryish but melt on the tongue and have a mild, subtle flavor.
Salads and vegetables predominate among openers, and choices include a roasted onion garnished with shaved ham, Parmesan and chervil-flavored vinaigrette and a roasted artichoke, served chilled with tomato-scallion vinaigrette and aioli , the Provencale garlic mayonnaise.
The Italian-inspired fritto misto (“mixed fry”) of prawns and rockfish takes on a cross-cultural tone when Petrolino adds the all-American garnish of wilted kale and black-eyed peas.
The soup changes daily and recently combined white beans, turnips and bacon in a thickened broth; the turnip lent a nice, musky flavor, but the soup was merely satisfying and filling rather than anything special.
At its most prosaic, the entree list offers herbed free-range chicken with chive-flavored mashed red potatoes, and New York sirloin with assorted baby vegetables and buttermilk-battered onion rings. Pasta appears as a base for pan-seared tiger prawns dressed with a sauce of corn and roasted eggplant.
The simplicity of the approach continues with baquetta bass with braised escarole and corn fritters, and with the extra-thick veal chop sided with an apple butter made of reduced, specialty gala apples, and a compote of wild rice and bacon.
The entire “black top” sole (this is actually a species, although it sounds like a sneaker) is coated with a citrus glaze and grilled, and served unboned unless otherwise requested; the flavor is mild and sweet, and the glaze--very light and tasty--is perfect with the fish. The garnish of crisp, thread-wide fried sweet potatoes is perfect with the butter-soft fish.
At the meatiest end of the scale, the grilled lamb chops, seasoned very simply with a garlic “broth” (too thin to be called a sauce) are also done very well, and seem content with a none-too-creamy but nicely tender gratin of potatoes and celery root.
Ogden and Petrolino save their rich effects for the end of the meal, and offer a dessert tray that includes an old-fashioned, many-layered chocolate cake (good, but not great); a silky bourbon pound cake topped with fresh pumpkin ice cream, and a lovely, crisp apple crisp straight from the American heartland.
Rancho Valencia Resort, 5921 Valencia Circle
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees $17.50 to $27.50; dinner for two, including a moderate wine, tax and tip, about $100 to $130