We tend to have different expectations of hotel chain restaurants compared with stand-alone eateries. We believe the chefs are mandated to think only in terms of massive numbers of customers, especially if they're also in charge of room service and catering. That the ingredients are limited to whatever can be ordered from contracted vendors. And that there's just no such thing as seasonal, nothing unique to the region, nothing particularly inspired.
I should know better. In San Diego alone there are many exquisite exceptions to this approach--Tidal at Paradise Point, A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, JSix at Hotel Solamar, Nine-Ten at the Grande Colonial, Cafe La Rue at La Valencia. The list goes on and on.
The first time I visited Chandler's Restaurant at Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort, it leaned toward the former set of expectations. The menu could have been found in almost any hotel restaurant anywhere in the U.S. The flavors were fairly pedestrian.
But, I was told, hang on. The resort and the restaurant were going to undergo a big change.
That was about a year ago. Last week I made another trip up there to meet the new culinary director, 35-year-old Teri McIllwain. The words being thrown around about the restaurant's "reimagining" included "local, coastal, and unexpected." I was dubious, figuring overselling was in play.
And I was wrong. While Chandler's decor hadn't been changed, clearly the menu and overall direction of the restaurant had. McIllwain, who came to Cape Rey from Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, where she had been chef de cuisine and nutritional chef for their Premier Fitness Camp and Chopra Center, clearly has taken a different approach to Cape Rey's dining program. McIllwain, who attended the San Diego Culinary Institute in La Mesa, had been a personal chef in San Diego and spent time as a Bon Appetit culinary instructor at local Sur La Table stores. She comes to her current job with a perspective on health and nutrition as well as food education that is being channeled into what shows up on Chandler's menu and how she works with her cooks.
Chandler's now benefits from dishes made with ingredients from local farms that McIllwain partners with as well as produce from the Specialty Produce farmers market truck, where she and her cooks can select items grown in Southern California.
Healthy meals are deeply important to her both at the restaurant and at home. She told me she regularly cooks up batches of whole grains and ancient grains at home to heat up for breakfast so she has energy for the day. McIllwain told me about a dish she loves to make--a variation of which will be on the menu, she added--that involves sauteing pancetta in a pan, then adding shredded yams that crispen up in a pancake. To that she adds green onions, feta, and a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Her awareness of seasonal changes dictates when she changes the menu, she said. If she sees pea tendrils at a farm or in the Specialty Produce truck, she also knows that halibut will be coming back soon. Fish is just as seasonal as produce and she keeps that in mind while updating menus. The menu I saw last week featured Burrata and Vine-Ripened Tomatoes with grilled asparagus, arugula, pesto, and red apple balsamic reduction; Capeside Poke with ahi, rainbow quinoa, thai chili aioli, cucumber marinated seaweed, lime, and ponzu; Jidori Fried Chicken with yellow corn polenta, farmers succotash, and garden herbs; and Spinach Pizza wit lemon ricotta, spinach, mozzarella, parmesan, and garlic. There are vegetarian dishes, gluten-free dishes, and still plenty of comfort food.
For my visit with McIllwain, she showed me how to make her Farro Stir Fry--another dish that will be on the menu soon, she said. What I enjoyed about this dish was not just the flavors, but the fact that it's something a home cook can easily make and that it's so versatile. This is a dish whose ingredients can change to keep up with the seasons. McIllwain calls for butternut squash in the recipe but used delicata squash with me, and will be shifting in the next couple of months to summer squashes. For local greens, we used lacinato kale, but you could use spinach or Swiss chard or any other type of greens. Are you vegetarian? Switch out the chicken broth with vegetable broth and use tofu instead of shrimp as your protein. And, here's a tip for you from the long-time cooking teacher: Always add acid before you add salt because it pulls out the sodium from the ingredient, meaning you then don't need to use as much salt. And, on the flip side, if you wind up with a dish that's too salty, add acid to tame it.
Be sure to have everything prepped before you start cooking because--other than cooking the winter squash--it goes pretty quickly.
Farro Stir Fry
From Teri McIllwain of Chandler's Restaurant at Cape Rey Carlsbad
16 16/20 Baja prawns, peeled and deveined
1 lemon, zest and juice
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a large mixing bowl add combine shrimp, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Toss and set aside. Meanwhile, in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat add the olive oil, allow for oil to heat through and cover entire pan. Once hot add the shrimp to the pan, and evenly place shrimp to cover the pan. Cook shrimp without moving until shrimp begin to turn slightly pink and begin to tighten. Flip shrimp and continue to cook until pink and fragrant. Remove from the pan and hold to the side.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, small diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup butternut squash, small diced
2 cups beech mushrooms
3 cups cooked pearled farro
½ - 1 cup chicken broth
1 green onion chopped
2 cups local green, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons gluten-free soy sauce
1 Meyer lemon, zest and juice
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 lemon, quartered, for garnish
Over medium heat using the same pan, add olive oil and heat through. Once hot, add the onion, garlic, and the squash until cooked through. Add the mushrooms, sauté until slightly cooked, 30 seconds, then add the farro. Stir-fry the farro until golden brown, then add the chicken stock until the farro is slightly covered. Simmer until most of the stock is absorbed, then fold in the greens and green onions. Remove from heat and add olive oil, soy sauce, lemon zest, and juice from half the lemon. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Plate stir fry and add shrimp, squeeze more lemon on top, season and serve with quartered lemon slices.
Chandler's at Cape Rey Carlsbad is located at 1 Ponto Road in Carlsbad.