Like many San Diego diners, I was surprised and saddened when Brian Sinnott left the kitchen of 1500 Ocean at the Hotel del Coronado. A terrifically talented chef, he was going to be tough to replace. But, it looks like the management has found a worthy new team for the restaurant, led by chef de cuisine Aaron Martinez.
Martinez, who joined 1500 Ocean in June, arrived from across the bridge and just up the road at The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia in Rancho Santa Fe. Martinez also spent three years under William Bradley at Addison and was a sous chef at The Prado. But, intriguingly, he rounded out his training in two very different European countries: Belgium, where he interned at In de Wolf, and Spain, at the three-star Michelin-rated Restaurante Martin Berasategui in Lasarte-Oria.
Raised in San Clemente, Martinez has a fierce appreciation for locally raised fresh ingredients. And, that includes wild plants. Martinez honed his foraging skills in Belgium. "That's what we did in Belgium," he says. "It just makes sense. Foraging makes you that much closer to the food. It's all about respect for our terroir."
Fortunately, San Diego's canyons yield plenty of bounty. Martinez lives in South Park and often forages in nearby canyons. He says he's found nettles there and the baby sorrel in our grouper dish came from a canyon expedition. Of course, the Del has recently redone its gardens and the beds surrounding the restaurant are filled with herbs and produce that he and his staff can wander outside to pick.
Martinez's menu is simple and focused on clean flavors that emphasize the ingredients. He describes his food as "modern American with French influences." Even the descriptions of each dish on his tasting menu are stripped of pretense. Tomato. Spot Prawn. Scallop. Grouper. Ham Hock. Beef Cheek & New York, Mille Feuille. A few accompanying ingredients are listed to give a hint of what you'll encounter, but there's no attempt to bedazzle through words. The food is all.
So, my friends and I made our way through beautifully presented dishes on the chef's tasting menu.
The tomato with currants, basil, and fresh cheese--house-made burrata--was set off with a light and fresh heirloom tomato consomme.
The cherry tomatoes popped with sweetness but were kept from being cloying by the tartness of the currants, the spicy anise flavor of the basil, and the creaminess of the cheese.
Then came the Santa Barbara spot prawn, lightly cooked and accompanied by concord grapes and a tangy ginger verjus reduction. What I especially enjoyed was the shaved celery. The light bitterness and crunch was more than a pretty garnish but a complement to the sweet and tender shrimp.
Next up was a gorgeously seared scallop.
Martinez played off the scallop texture and color with an artichoke heart quarter, then created a diversion with a salty slice of olive and a sparkling Meyer lemon froth.
We moved on from that light dish to a more deeply toned one of grouper with sea urchin sauce.
I loved this dish. The grouper had a brilliant crispy skin while the flesh was delicate with a wisp of citrus tones. The sea urchin sauce beneath was satiny and rich with an ocean brine finish that was set off by the sour sorrel leaves. And how cool to roast and smoke the carrots. It's something I'd like to try at home with root vegetables.
That roasting and smoking theme carried over to the next dish, the ham hock. It was sweet and salty and oh so tender. The ham hock was accompanied by a mustard duo of emulsion and tiny fresh flowers. I enjoyed the roasted turnip--and, by all means, show us the root--and the peppery nasturtium leaves.
The last savory dish of the menu was the combination beef cheek and New York steak.
Both pieces of beef were precisely cooked and both benefited from dollops of sweet and salty corn pudding, studded with tiny sauteed chanterelles. And, what a lovely idea to combined slices of charred onions with a dab of onion jam on the New York steak. A little green, thanks to floating arugula leaves, provided a splash of color and tinge of bitterness. A perfect ending.
Except, of course, for dessert. Sweets are a challenge for me these days, but I couldn't resist dipping into Martinez's confection of chocolate mousse between paper-thin chocolate wafers with orange and coffee purees and a small scoop of house-made vanilla bean gelato. In fact, I dug in before I realized I hadn't gotten a photo of it. My apologies, but this was tremendous. Martinez focused on pastry making while in Europe and it will be fun to see what he does with pastry going forward.
Each of these dishes were paired with wines presented by wine director and manager Joe Weaver. I'm not drinking these days, so I can't speak to the pairings, but Weaver has an established reputation at the Del as a distinctive sommelier and manages the wine program--with over 800 labels--for ENO, the Del's wine, cheese, and chocolate room. Weaver kept his pairing presentations simple and concise, explaining each wine's provenance and the elements to look for in each sip.
With Martinez and Weaver collaborating at 1500 Ocean, plus the beauty of the oceanfront setting and the comfortable and attentive service, the restaurant should be a destination for locals as well as the Del's tourist trade. I'm looking forward to seeing how it will evolve as Martinez settles in.