Five years ago, Arterra Restaurant was at the cutting edge of nouveau fine dining in San Diego. But the recession forced its operator, The Marriott Del Mar, to retreat to a safer, more homestyle menu to ride out the economic storm.
Now, Arterra is back with a new chef and a globally inspired menu that, while not experimental, is creative and expansive in the variety of cuisines it offers. Diners can snack on Chinese duck steambuns, Korean short rib bulgogi, Mexican empanadas and Italian agnolotti.
The menu was developed by new executive chef Evan Cruz, a San Diego native with a deep well of experience in fine dining. He spent five years as an executive chef and trainer with Roy's Hawaiian Fusion, two years as chef de cuisine at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, and a year as executive chef at Pacifica Del Mar.
Cruz, who joined Arterra five months ago, is a master with seafood and Asian cuisine, but he's confident with his grilled and roasted meats and has a delicate hand with housemade pasta. And the sumptuous depth of flavor in his sauces is notable.
Six years ago, Arterra was pushing the envelope with molecular techniques and adventurous ingredients. Cruz has all these techniques in his arsenal (freeze-dried black garlic and powdered white chocolate turn up on standard dishes) but what stands out with his cooking is his solid technique and proficiency with multiple cuisines.
The menu's star dish is the hand-rolled Agnolotti, served with a rich braised oxtail ragu that's so good you'll feel compelled to eat it with your eyes closed ($21).
Another winner is the beautifully plated Grilled Spanish Octopus ($17). Served with calamari, confit potatoes and a smoked paprika sauce, it's got a nice char, an appealing texture and a buttery, herby finish.
The craveable crispy skin is the best part of the well-prepared Loch Duart Salmon, served with steamed mussels in clam juice, roasted fingerling potatoes and sprigs of foraged fennel ($24).
Cruz isn't afraid of a little spice, and his authentic bulgogi appetizer ($13 for three mung bean cakes topped with marinated short rib, toasted rice and kimchi) hits the mark squarely. The duck steambuns (three for $12) are also a starter with a difference.
The only slight misfire on my visit was the Lamb Two Ways ($27). The grilled lamb porterhouse was well-grilled and married well with the creamy vadouvan curry sauce and powdered black garlic, but the accompanying coin of rolled lamb was tough and dry.
While Cruz is new to Arterra, the restaurant's long time sushi chef, Andrew Hoh, is still there, making his house specialties that include the Albino and Scrumptious rolls.