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Buttermilk-fried quail in a spicy red pepper-almond sauce  

Triple Threat

by Kersten Deck | Photography by Anais & Dax | Riviera San Diego magazine | October 22, 2013

A win in North Park, another in Encinitas... where else but Del Mar would one go to round out a trifecta? Matt Gordon, the extremely likable chef behind Urban Solace and Solace and the Moonlight Lounge, chose Flower Hill Promenade—itself a hot ticket, thanks to $30 million in renovations—for Sea & Smoke, already a big sis to its elder siblings with a whopping 220 seats.

Those looking for a NorCo version of the casual-hip Urban Solace might be disappointed—whereas that clientele rolls up on foot or fixed-gear bikes, the lot outside Sea & Smoke is packed with Bentleys. That’s not to say it’s at all stuffy; Sea and Smoke swapped Paradise Grille’s vestiges of Polynesia and Tommy Bahama for a muted, modish brasserie, courtesy of ubiquitous design firm Bells & Whistles. In the dining room, the glassed-in kitchen (which houses a wood- and gas-fired oven) stands sentinel over groups sharing family-style cauliflower dip and loud conversation; the palette is about the only thing that’s muted here. In the sunken lounge a few paces away, the feel is equal parts ’50s den and chic modern enclave. Locals hover near the bar and sip quality cocktails reliant on small-batch spirits—anything but what chef Gordon calls “grocery-store brands” (that means no Ketel, no Jack, no Absolut and no Goose; perhaps the large-scale wall hanging of Johnny Cash flipping the bird is aimed at those harboring a problem toward artisan liquor).

Though he’s clearly concerned with pleasing his fans, Gordon doesn’t set his culinary agenda by what’s expected or popular—to wit, that pizza-perfect oven is not churning out anything that resembles pizza. Gordon’s hip to the fact that these days, a chef insisting you acknowledge the proximity of the farm to his table, or the absence of antibiotics in his wagyu, is less impressive now that it’s the boldface talking point on every new eatery’s press release. Though he’s as committed to the sustainable, from-scratch narrative as most anyone in San Diego (he even has a publicity-perfect personal basis for his ethos, stemming from the startling realization that his child’s baby formula was laden with high-fructose corn syrup), Gordon’s has been a quiet revolution, far more concerned with the practice than the preach. When the impending backlash of “made with no artificial ingredients” hits (what was it before you could label it that?), Gordon will be buzzing away in his kitchen, doing what he’s always done best: contemporary, approachable food, created with conscience.

And talk about approachable: In true brasserie style, Sea & Smoke is open from dawn till the wee hours. Everything is meant to be paired and shared—the a la carte meat and seafood dishes are intended to be enjoyed family-style, passed around and dished up with sides like roasted Brussels sprouts with pomegranate and feta (bright and flavorful), or sweet cornbread from the skillet. Gordon’s plates are well-suited for this treatment, even the salads (the vanilla-scented beet mélange is the winner there). The buttermilk-fried quail, for instance, comes with a spicy red pepper-almond sauce that packs a mild wallop; and the pork belly is an innovation with Sriracha-squash puree and a dreamy black pepper maple glaze. Redolent of basil and sprinkled with toasted cashews, the sweet and sour eggplant, tempura-fried with red bell pepper and rapini, is sensational. It’s the kind of dish a vegetarian would order to remember the nostalgic saltiness of pork. Our server agreed, noting that she’d only heard of one notable critic who isn’t a fan: the chef’s wife.

If you’re in the habit of smoking a post-dinner cigar, Sea & Smoke lends its name to a truly perplexing dessert, a bowl of tobacco-smoked goat cheese and Armagnac citrus soup. The menu warns that it’s not for those under 18, but if you want to put your kid off cigarettes forever, surreptitiously funnel a bite into their mouth. A better option is the delectable rum-glazed grilled peaches Foster, served with a brown butter shortcake and
sour cream ice cream. It’s the height of sophisticated comfort.

When the olive trees planted around the permiter can provide more protection from the Flower Hill elements—surrounding lights, distracting storefronts, the bustle of being smack-dab in the middle of a mall—the patio will be much improved, sure to bait happy hourers with artisan meats and cheese boards. As it is, the alfresco side of Sea & Smoke is curiously casual and unintimate for a menu with a $60 steak on it (I don’t mind paying $60 for a very shareable, very delicious 18-ounce short loin; I mind when I’m eating it on a bistro chair that feels for all the world like an Ikea seater). So far, few seem to care—on a recent night, every one of those chairs was occupied. And that steak might pack all the comfort one needs.

What to Wear
It’s North County; people wear flip-flops. Keep it simple and casual, but chic.

What to Drink
Solid crafts on draft include premier local labels like Culture and Societe. The liquor and the wine as well are in step with the artisan booze program. No Ketel One here.

Where to Sit
The bar banquette is ideal for sharing plates, (and, come happy hour, people-watching).

Gluten-Free Gourmet
Sea & Smoke has one of the largest gluten-free menus in the county—the slow-baked sweet onion is a knockout.

Sea & Smoke
2690 Via de la Valle, Del Mar, 858.925.8212, seaandsmoke.com

Mon.-Thu., 7:30am-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 7:30-1am; Sun., 7:30am-11pm. Starters, $4-$15;
entrees, $12-$60; desserts, $3.50-$9; sides: $3-$14; dessert: $8