Thursday, May 28, 2009

Day Tripping in Rancho Santa Fe: Pantry and Chino Farms


I rarely manage to get up to Rancho Santa Fe but this month I've been there two Saturdays in a row. The first was to meet my friend, garden writer and author Debra Lee Baldwin, for lunch at the home of artist Sunna Bohlen. Debra met Sunna recently in the course of researching a story and not only did they hit it off, but they decided to bring me into the fold, given my interest in art, gardens (Sunna designed a lovely one for her property) and, of course, food -- for Sunna is also a talented cook. She specializes in French cuisine but also is quite adept in her native Korean cuisine. And that's what she prepared for us at my request.

We were seated at a long table on one of the hilltop patios that surround her spacious, light-filled home. To the right of us was a magnificent rose garden in full bloom with voluptuous, velvety scarlet Ingrid Bergman roses. A sparkling blue lap pool lay in front of us seguing into sprawling southwest views reaching past Del Mar and toward the ocean. The setting alone would have been enough, but thanks to Sunna we enjoyed a large chive pancake with a marvelous spicy sauce as our first course. Then she left us for a few minutes, returning with a huge platter of stir-fried glass noodles with thinly sliced beef and a variety of vegetables and a collection of petite bowls filled with tasty homemade pickles and other condiments. The meal ended with her sumptuous chocolate mousse accompanied by impossibly wispy, light-as-air but crisp cookies she made with meringue and almond flour.

As we were leaving, Sunna's son Daniel stopped by. Daniel, a chef trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and his wife Michiru own Pantry, a little restaurant down the road in Rancho Santa Fe's village. Debra had been there weeks earlier with Sunna, who often takes a turn at cooking or bringing homemade desserts. The locals know her and love it when she shows up with her chocolate mousse or some other treat.

It sounded irresistible so last Saturday I met Debra there for lunch. It's a sweet, comfortable place filled with Sunna's large abstract paintings, some reminiscent of Rothkos only in more optimistic color palettes. A large patio faces onto the street, and attracts families with small children and dogs. Pantry's theme is "new American comfort food" and the menus are appropriately straight forward. Lunch choices include salads, sandwiches, wraps, pasta, meatloaf, chicken pot pie and the burger I enjoyed. It was a half pound of beef with melted gorganzola and sauteed onions nestled in a light wheat ciabatta-like roll from La Brea Bakery. Accompanied by crispy frites, of course. There's also a hint of Bohlen's Asian inheritance on the menu -- the same glass noodles and beef dish Sunna had prepared for us the week before and a Thai wrap with chicken, vegetables and a delicious peanut sauce, which Debra ordered.

Daniel may be the chef, but Michiru is the baker. Once we finished our lunch, Daniel stopped by our table with a tray of her cookies -- large chocolate chip, oatmeal chocolate chip and brownie chunk cookies.


Not only are they sold at Pantry, but you can find them at Stump's Village Market, Harvest Ranch Encinitas and Del Mar, and Cardiff Seaside Market. My favorite was the chocolate chip, a sweet, salty, chewy mouth pleaser.

Since I was so close, I decided to stop by the Chino Farms produce stand -- the same one, by coincidence, that Ruth Reichl writes about today in her Gourmet Weekly e-newsletter. (FYI, Ruth, as much as I hate to correct you, it's "Chino Farms" not "Chino Ranch." And, actually, the signage for the stand itself is "The Vegetable Stand.") The stand and the 50-acre farm that surrounds it have been around for decades. It's the local mecca for San Diego's top chefs and the inevitable subject of visiting food writers. To my mind, it's a revolving art gallery of edible nature. The beauty of each individual piece of produce is fleeting but stunning while it lasts.

Everyone who visits marvels over the strawberries (indeed, it's the subject of Reichl's mini essay this week). When I was there, the stand had three types of strawberries: the large regular berries, smaller Mara de Bois berries and teeny tiny seductive Alpines -- also called fraises des bois -- that reminded me of the aromatic wild berries I long ago picked by the side of the road in the Magdalene Islands. I bought a pint of the large strawberries, which were just as sweet and juicy as they should be.


Strawberries may be the most talked about item at Chino Farms but they sell a large selection of greens, herbs, root vegetables and, well, so much more in virtually every garish color you could imagine.

Here were some unusual basil sprouts. Use them as a distinctive garnish, add them to salads or as part of a roasted pepper and olive oil appetizer.


Visually, they were tame, though, compared with the colorful array of cauliflower on display that day.


Nearby was an equally outrageous collection of carrots and radishes.




Beets, of course, followed, in hues of red, orange and cream, along with bunches of purple kohlrabi. Then my eye was caught by something less dramatic on the color spectrum but more dramatic to my taste buds: green elephant garlic.


This is the good stuff. Yes, they sell conventionally sized green garlic -- and, of course, I bought a few. I have to take advantage of the short time it's around. But I was bowled over by the idea of trying elephant garlic while it's still young and sweet. Cut into it and you can see the beginnings of the formation of individual cloves but at this stage you slice and/or mince them like onions to saute, add to a sauce or vinaigrette or, what I did: aioli. It's strong but not yet fierce.

That day, Chino Farms also had pints of itty bitty Brussels sprouts, enormous fava beans in the pod and half pints of beans in their jackets. There were lettuces and fennel bulbs, oranges and lemons, fragrant bundles of sage and thyme and a growing crowd of customers eager to get the makings of that evening's dinner.

Yes, we have an ever growing number of farmers markets that are offering us a similar wealth of wonderful produce and they're my regular haunts, but if you do have a chance to stop by Chino Farms, you're in for a real treat, the experience of a long-time San Diego tradition.

Chino Farms is located at 6123 Calzada Del Bosque, just off Via de la Valle. Look for the sign that says "The Vegetable Stand."

Pantry is located at 6024C Paseo Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe.