Confidence, nostalgia and whimsy on the menu at Richard Blais’s Ember & Rye
New steakhouse at Park Hyatt Aviara allows ‘Top Chef’ all-star to go big
San Diegans were first introduced to the culinary chops of chef Richard Blais seven years ago, when he was the founding chef at Juniper & Ivy restaurant in Little Italy.
Blais left Juniper a few years back, but diners can now get a taste of how the Del Mar resident’s cuisine has grown at Ember & Rye, his signature vintage-inspired steakhouse that opened March 18 at the Park Hyatt Aviara resort in Carlsbad. I use the word “grown,” rather than “evolved,” because the dinner menu at the 266-seat restaurant has an eye-popping 63 items.
Dining at Ember & Rye is a little like a high-priced version of going to the San Diego County Fair and trying to figure out how many different foods you can stuff into your body in one day. After tasting just a fraction of the menu, I’m eager to go back for more.
Blais is well-known for swirling molecular gastronomy and a sense of whimsy into his food. He’s also famous for being the first winner of Bravo’s cooking competition series “Top Chef: All-Stars.” With the big-budget backing of Hyatt behind his revamp of the former Argyle Steakhouse overlooking the hotel’s 18th golf green, Blais has let his imagination run wild, with mostly excellent results.
The menu at Ember & Rye — which Blais named after his daughters Embry and Riley — honors the traditions of golf clubhouse restaurants and old-fashioned steakhouses, with a nod to Southern California’s wealth of fresh seafood and produce. It also factors in the state’s surfeit of Instagram-savvy diners who are looking for something different and snap-worthy to share with their online followers.
A few of the dishes that make Ember & Rye unique? How about chilled young radishes dipped in white chocolate, or an “uncrustables” version of the Masters Tournament pimento cheese sandwich? The radishes, sprinkled with flaked salt, are surprisingly yummy. The minimalist pimento cheese sandwich on white bread? I presume it’s an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire.
Not everything on the menu is a hole-in-one. The potato rosette snack is bland and Blais recently held a wake on Instagram for his fried fennel blossoms, which bombed with diners. But his restless creativity is inspiring, and sampling a variety of Ember & Rye is fun dining adventure. The menu is divided into six sections, including snacks, salads and appetizers, a generous 12-dish selection of vegetable plates, meat and seafood entrees, desserts and “accessories,” which are add-ons like roasted bone marrow, garlic croissants, pickled walnuts and Blais’s own bottled steak sauce.
The heart of the menu is the steaks that range in price from $49 for a 6-ounce Brandt Beef bacon-wrapped filet mignon to $94 for a 14-day dry-aged “Thor’s Hammer Cut” 30-ounce Flannery Beef rib-eye to a staggering $190 for a 12-ounce A5 Japanese Wagyu “skinny cut” sirloin. They’re cooked over a wood fire on a Santa Maria-style outdoor grill that diners can see from the east dining room and patio.
From my vantage point in the dining room on two visits, the steaks are clearly selling well. But on a journalist’s budget, I opted for the blue-collar alternative: the burger — made with a blend of Flannery, A5 Wagyu and other meats trimmed and ground in-house. Priced at $26, the backyard-style burger comes with an enormous portion of crunchy/tender triple-cooked fries. Before moving to San Diego, Blais ran a gourmet burger chain in Atlanta, and he created a killer off-menu In-N-Out-inspired burger at Juniper & Ivy. The new Blais burger doesn’t disappoint. It’s a savory flavor bomb, slathered with house-made kimchi ketchup and topped with white cheddar, caramelized onions and sweet and sour pickles.
Because of its vast menu and the high prices of its entrees, which start at $29, it’s more affordable to dine with a group and graze your way through a tableful of mostly small plates.
The grilled La Jolla Canyon spot prawns, kept live in a tank in the kitchen for the peak of freshness, are so creamy they melt in your mouth ($29). The top-selling avocado tostada ($19) is topped with tuna tartare and a golden “yolk” of pureed mango sauce (suspended in its oval shape with some chemical wizardry) that, when broken, adds a tangy spread for the fish. The summer corn crème brûlée ($7), a creative twist on creamed corn, is so lush and decadent it could be served as a dessert.
The Oysters & Pearls ($16) are raw oysters on the half shell with tiny pearlized balls of bitingly flavorful liquefied cilantro. The Hot Scotch Egg ($9) is an odd thing to find on a dinner menu, especially with a side of mousse-like maple syrup, but it’s a good dinner- and conversation-starter. And the Crab avocado ($24) is a fun trompe l’oeil, a skinned avocado stuffed with crab salad and dusted with black lime powder that resembles the dark skin of a ripe Hass avocado. To make it easier to choose dishes, the restaurant offers a three-tiered “Epic Snack Tower” of bite-size small plate items for $162 at lunch and $195 for dinner.
The restaurant’s bar menu is heavy on the retro-style cocktails, including the house special: Smoking Ember, a $24 mezcal and grapefruit drink that’s served tableside with a poppable bubble of “citrus smoke” on top. Compared to the main menu, the choice of wines by-the-glass at Ember & Rye is surprisingly small, with just seven mostly California reds and six international whites, starting at $12 a glass. The pours are generous.
If there’s any room left after dinner, pastry chef Christophe Rull’s desserts are equally playful and nostalgic. There’s a house-made strawberry jello with smoked vanilla cream ($13), a house apple pie ($18) and a carrot cake “club sandwich” ($12), which is cream cheese frosting sandwiched between triangle-cut slices of carrot sponge cake with a side of coconut cream.
Argyle Steakhouse had a large and loyal country club following that Park Hyatt aims to keep at Ember & Rye. Although Blais developed the new menu and frequently visits with guests in the dining room, Ember & Rye’s executive chef is Willy Griggs, who helmed Argyle for many years before the makeover. Grigg’s popular pork ribs are still on the menu, along with other dishes named presumably for their kitchen creators, including Scarlett’s half-chicken Francese and Ciro’s super beef burrito.
The newly refreshed interior is sunny and classy with bits of golf decor here and there. The background music is a mix of Sinatra, Elvis and Chubby Checker. The servers are warm and well-informed on the vast menu. Blais says that his goal with Ember & Rye’s menu is to steer to the center for mainstream diners who love a great steak in a nice environment, but with plenty of options for the adventurous foodies who might just try a bubble-topped cocktail or a chocolate-dipped radish. There’s room, he says, for everyone.
Ember & Rye is open for lunch and dinner daily at 7447 Batiquitos Drive, Carlsbad. Call (760) 603-6908 or visit parkhyattaviara.com/eat-drink/ember-and-rye.
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