To understand the appeal of Campfire restaurant in Carlsbad Village, you have to see the beauty in its ugliest dish.
Chef Andrew Bachelier's top-selling roasted broccoli - a blackened mound of florets that look as if they've been burned to an unappetizing crisp - is shockingly delicious.
After fire-roasting, the broccoli head is flash-fried in fish oil, which gives the outer buds a featherlight, melt-in-your mouth umami sensation. Served with North African chermoula sauce and candied peanuts, the generous $10 dish is one of many tasty surprises on the 7-month-old restaurant's menu.
The high-concept restaurant owned by John Resnick (formerly of Consortium Holdings) was created to celebrate the communal aspects of camping and campfires. Virtually everything on the menu is prepared over an open flame or in wood-fired ovens and served roasted, grilled, charred, smoked, seared or blistered.
The kitchen is walled with glass so diners can get an up-close look at the always-burning fires of oak, black fig and other woods. The indoor/outdoor 185-seat restaurant is whimsically decorated with antique camping gear, bows and arrows and tents, outdoor fire pits and a teepee for kids to play in. Even the bathrooms have the look of woodsy cabin circa 1950. It's a fun and friendly environment, though its dining room can be unforgivably loud on busy nights.
The menu is divided into four sections with starters, veggies, proteins and desserts. Most everything is priced under $13, except the meat, fish and poultry dishes, which range from $22-$34.
Because fire-based cooking can be unpredictable - some woods burn hotter than others and humidity can affect the heat intensity - servers warn diners that dishes will come out when they come out. As a result, shared plate/communal dining works best.
Vegetarians will find a bigger-than-usual number of selections, including one of my favorites, the charred heirloom carrots ($10). The purple, orange and yellow mini carrots are roasted to a crispy sweetness and served with a light yogurt sauce, poppy seeds, everything bagel spice and snap pea tendrils and blossoms.
Another winner is the charred octopus, which is crispy and smoky on the outside, tender and moist inside. It's served in a butternut squash puree with pepitas, fried kale leaves and spicy pickled red peppers. The only downside of the $14 dish is I wanted more.
Among the entrees, the grilled halibut ($26) has just the right mix of crispy skin and delicate, moist flesh. The T-bone with blue cheese ($34) is a big man's plate of juicy meat. And the massive double-crust meat pie, filled with smoked brisket, braised lamb shank meat and roasted veggies, looks like it could feed two adults ($26).
Yes, they do have s'mores, an assembly-required dish where diners can roast their own house-made marshmallows over a heated coal, then squash it between fresh sugar graham cookies with fast-melting squares of salted caramel dark chocolate ($8 for two do-it-yourself s'mores).
Campfire has been slammed with business since it opened. The patio is a favorite hangout for North County families whose kids can roam free in the gated area. And the bar, managed by Leigh Lacap, has built a growing following for campfire-inspired cocktails that incorporate elements like roasted malts and essences of smoke, charcoal and Douglas fir.
Campfire recently introduced a weekend brunch menu, as well as an "afternoon snacks" menu of light appetizers available between lunch service (Tuesdays-Fridays only) and dinner (5-10 p.m. nightly). Pardon the pun, but Campfire is hot, so if you show up without reservations during the dinner hour, expect a wait.
Campfire, 2725 State St., Carlsbad. (760) 637-5121. thisiscampfire.com