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Baby octopus with watercress, frisee and roasted pepper jam

The Ranch, Revisited

by Kersten Deck | Photography by Anaïs & Dax | Riviera San Diego magazine | September 25, 2013

There are few more quintessential Rancho Santa Fe views than that of the Inn’s croquet lawn, newly leveled and landscaped, from the patio of Morada, its sleek signature restaurant. The sheer manicured beauty of the whole enterprise is breathtaking: the pepper tree radiant with twinkle lights, the gardens abloom with hydrangeas and lavender, the occasional Maserati rounding La Gracia, probably driven by someone phenotypically blessed.

Beauty and privilege have long been fixed variables at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe—these were once the secluded stomping grounds for the likes of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Half a century and a $12 million renovation later, the refuge in the Ranch has a brand-new spa, freshened-up guest rooms, new poolside cabanas, and a truly pretty space to admire and be admired in the chic and stylish Morada.

Of course, the Inn is an icon—one in the Ranch, at that—so there are going to be some atavistic instincts that drive la vieille garde to sniff at the changes, protesting the loss of the Royce salad they’ve been ordering since the Eisenhower administration. Along with everything else on the menu (and off it, really), the avocado and bacon staple with creamy ranch dressing has been booted, but the kitchen will gamely whip it up if asked.

In the new setup, there’s something for everyone—even local craft beer from three taps, for the first time ever—and very few bad seats. At sundown, the patio cools off considerably, and the fire pits become a cushy magnet for animated conversation fueled by beer and fortune; unless eavesdropping and eye-rolling are among your hobbies, opt for a table far from the flames or, better yet, in the glam dining room, which is simply gorgeous. Gone is the ballroom’s fusty decor—and the ballroom itself, actually, which is now a medley of smaller, more flexible spaces (fittingly, “La Morada,” the Inn’s given name when built 80 years ago, means “the house of many rooms”). In the warm, striking dining room, glittering chandeliers light a wall of meticulously hung black and white photos, framed in silver and depicting scenes from the Ranch’s hacienda heyday. A fireplace separates the dining room from the lounge area, where high-backed booths and an earthy palette continue the elegant through-line. Thanks to that dining room, Morada is easily the chicest restaurant in The Covenant, nailing the new without feeling at all nouveau.

For the most part, the food follows suit. Executive Chef Todd Allison was last seen at the ill-fated Anthology (“a ‘get me back to San Diego’ job,” as he puts it), and the San Diego native has spent a decade-plus learning from some of SoCal’s best before their names went viral. “I knew James Boyce when he was Jimmy and William Bradley when he was Billy,” he laughs. These associations mean less than they used to in the culinary world—eventually, everyone’s a few degrees from Kevin Bacon—but they’re still impressive. That kind of polish goes a long way in the Ranch, and Allison does seem right at home, with a trio of gardens hosting everything from herbs to kumquats, and a menu that mentions all the right local names (Suzie, Shaner, Crow’s Pass, Carlsbad Aquafarm… you get the point).

With Sous Chef Brian Black, Allison has created a seasonal menu that prodigiously attends to the traditional and the mildly experimental. Regulars can still get their fill of proteins—meltingly delicious short ribs with a port sauce; lamb with harissa couscous, ratatouille, spearmint and pistachio gremolata—while guests looking for something more avant-garde can try pan-roasted baby octopus with a punch-packing lemon confit and roasted pepper jam. Anything Allison does with ahi tuna—garlicky with local fruit and housemade taro chips, street-taco-style with mint and cilantro slaw—is a winner.

I appreciate the confidence in a restaurant that doesn’t put salt and pepper on the table. Nothing I tasted at Morada needed either; if anything, a few dishes might be a bit more with less. With meaty trumpet mushrooms and just the right amount of seasoning, the housemade ricotta gnudi are delightful and would be just fine without the brown butter that makes everything on the plate taste like candy. And the Chilean sea bass is an obviously fresh and juicy fish whose honey glaze is sublime, but the grapefruit alongside it gilds the lily a bit. Elsewhere, the interplay of strong flavors pays off in spades. The beef tartare, for instance, comes with pickled quail eggs, capers, red onion and truffled garlic. Served with brioche toast, it’s an appropriate homage to Morada and the Inn itself, both retro and refined.

For now, the dessert menu is not required reading—there’s a typically decadent dark chocolate pot de creme, and a strawberry shortcake made with baked-in-house shortbread and lemon curd, but nothing that merits ordering twice. That goes for the cocktail menu as well, though the Pimm’s and Stormy, essentially a dressed-up strawberry mojito, would make a fine poolside accessory in one of those lovely new cabanas hours before dinner.

Morada
The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe
5951 Linea del Cielo, Rancho Santa Fe,
858.381.8289, theinnatrsf.com
Breakfast daily, 7-11am; lunch daily, 11am-3pm; dinner Sun.-Thu., 5-9pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-9:30pm

Who Goes
Old-school regulars, brides-to-be scouting the venue, well-dressed families

What to Wear
Go Ranch-chic in Genetic denim and a tailored jacket (and diamonds).

Where to Sit
It’s hard to beat the view from a patio table while the sun is shining; after that, the glam dining room is the warmer option in terms of temperature and decor.

The Wine
A Sonoma-heavy list features a nice by-the-glass selection; the jammy Wedell Cellars Pinot Noir pairs well with fish or fowl.