Two to try in Carlsbad: Well-known chefs helm newly opened Fresco Cocina and Polo Steakhouse

A selection of dishes at newly opened Fresco Cocina in Carlsbad.
(Haley Hill Photography)

Chefs Chris Idso and Judd Canepari, both with long cooking histories in North County, are exploring Latin and American cuisine


North County restaurant fans are familiar with the names and cooking of chefs Chris Idso and Judd Canepari, who have both run restaurant kitchens in the region for more than 15 years.

This summer, each became the founding executive chefs at new Carlsbad restaurants. Idso, who spent a combined 18 years as executive chef at Pacifica Del Mar, is now heading up Linda DiNitto’s new Fresco Cocina in Carlsbad Village. And Canepari, whose diverse résumé includes stints at the La Valencia Hotel, Rancho Bernardo Inn and La Costa Glen, is cooking at Mayur Pavagadhi’s new Polo Steakhouse on Avenida Encinas.

I spoke with both chefs about their menus and tried some of their new signature dishes. Here’s a taste.

The bar inside Fresco Cocina in Carlsbad.
(Haley Hill Photography)

Chris Idso: Fresco Cocina

It’s hard to imagine Pacifica Del Mar without Idso, who cooked at the seafood restaurant from 2000 to 2014, and then returned in 2018 after a four-year break cooking in Hawaii, Los Angeles and San Diego. But earlier this year, the longtime Carlsbad resident got an offer from DiNitto he couldn’t refuse: The opportunity to help open a new restaurant in his hometown that focused on Latin cuisine rather than the mostly seafood-focused dishes he had been cooking for decades.

DiNitto, who also owns 264 Fresco in Carlsbad Village, took over the former KoKo Beach dive bar at Carlsbad Boulevard and Grand Avenue last year and transformed the space into an upscale, multistory restaurant-bar with rooftop dining and ample spaces for private event bookings. An Italian raised in Venezuela, DiNitto wanted the restaurant to have a South American menu, but Idso pushed to expand the cooking canvas with dishes from Southern Mexico, a region whose cuisine he perfected while cooking at Estancia La Jolla from 2016 to 2018.

Through months of menu development, research and tastings with DiNitto’s family, Idso arrived at Fresco Cocina’s menu, which celebrates the cuisines of Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico. Diners are welcomed with a complimentary bowl of duros, a Mexican wagon wheel-shaped puffed wheat snack that’s been dusted with powdered mole seasoning. The menu is a mix of shareable dishes and plated entrees with vibrant colors, textures and flavors that pack some heat, but not too much. Not surprisingly, Idso’s seafood dishes have quickly become the menu stars.

The roasted Chilean seabass pibil, foreground, and whole roasted huachinango Veracruz at Fresco Cocina.
The roasted Chilean seabass pibil, foreground, and whole roasted huachinango Veracruz, background, at Fresco Cocina.
(Courtesy of Haley Hill Photography)

What to order: Idso’s signature dish — and my favorite on the menu — is his roasted Chilean seabass pibil. The seabass fillet is first marinated in a chile achiote paste (pibil), then layered over a bed of grilled chayote squash and black rice that are wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf and served with roasted corn salsa on top. The entrée arrives on the table still tucked inside the leaf, which imparts a sweet, floral flavor to the fish. Idso said he likes roasting pork in banana leaves and tweaked his recipe to honor the flavor and delicacy of the fish.

The octopus appetizer, served with spiced potatoes, honey-caramelized cipollini onions and chipotle aioli, as another of my favorites. Idso said the key to this bright and spicy dish is the initial braising, which tenderizes the usually chewy mollusk meat before it’s given a final char on the grill. Other noteworthy dishes are the whole roasted huachinango (Mexican snapper) with a Veracruz-style charred tomato, olive and chile sauce, and the Brazilian churrasco, made with marinated Prime skirt steak, fresh herb chimichurri sauce, grilled broccolini spears, charred onions and fingerling potatoes. If it’s available on the dessert menu, make room for the sweet and tangy guava crème brûlée.

Brazilian churrasco skirt steak and fingerling potatoes with chimichurri at Fresco Cocina in Carlsbad.
Brazilian churrasco skirt steak and fingerling potatoes with chimichurri at Fresco Cocina in Carlsbad.
(Courtesy of Fresco Cocina)

What to drink: Try the Good Vibes, a refreshing, citrusy cocktail made with tequila blanco, fresh grapefruit and lemon juices, orgeat (almond syrup) and a dash of Aperol.

Details: Open daily for lunch and dinner, with brunch on weekends. 2856 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad. (442) 333-9321.

The caviar service at Polo Steakhouse in Carlsbad.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Judd Canepari: Polo Steakhouse

Over the past 25 years, Canepari said he has worked alongside many young chefs who eventually left San Diego to pursue their culinary ambitions and a few earned Michelin stars. He took his career in a different direction, heading up restaurant operations at hotels in La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo, a Vista health spa and a La Costa retirement community. These corporate jobs weren’t as sexy in the chef world, but they offered the Temecula resident the luxury of time he could spend at home with his wife and children. But now at Polo, he has developed a unique steakhouse menu that he hopes will finally bring him to the attention of Michelin inspectors.

“This is the opportunity to put all of my work and life experiences together on the plate. I’m truly at the top of my game and it’s time to elevate my team,” he said.

Steakhouses aren’t known for winning Michelin stars because of the conservative simplicity of their menus. So Canepari is taking traditional steakhouse dishes and giving them modern, molecular and creative twists, as well as “zhuzhed-up” plate presentations.

The interior of new Polo Steakhouse in Carlsbad.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A good example is the eye-popping caviar service, which ranges from $65 to $140. The fish roe is served inside a full-size brass crab sculpture from Japan that sits atop a seascape of driftwood with edible seaweeds, bread crumb “sand,” lavender lace “coral” tuile and grains of celery and rock salts. And for diners who order some of the bigger and pricier cuts of steak, their meal will arrives with the garnish of steak bones that Canepari himself has carved and polished into shapes like forks, knives and leaves.

The escargot appetizer at Polo Steakhouse in Carlsbad.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What to order: The clever escargot appetizer allows diners to enjoy all of the buttery garlic sauce that comes with the gone-too-soon snails. Canepari drills six holes in a warm toasted demi baguette, pushes the snail shells into the bread and then slathers the whole dish with warm garlic and beef marrow butter. If you eat all the bread, you won’t miss a drop. Another fun starter is the oxtail consommé, a twist on French onion soup and a fresh-drawn pint of beer. The soup arrives in a tall beer glass, with a foamy (nitrogen-induced) head of puréed sweet onions and a crispy Gruyère cheese tuile on top.

The gazpacho soup at Polo Steakhouse in Carlsbad.
(Courtesy of Angela J. Lee)

The gazpacho soup is served creatively in a bowl topped with a variety of fresh vegetables. The Prime Angus tartare is served in a hollowed-out beef bone with a custard egg. And the steaks — a mix of USDA Prime, American Wagyu and Washugyu cuts from different farms and priced from $45 to $110 — are served a la carte with just a roasted garlic head and sprinkle of chives. The cheesecake and cannoli desserts are recipes from Canepari’s Italian grandmother.

What to drink: The Polo wine cellar has more than 1,000 bottles, many inherited from the building’s previous tenant, West Steak & Seafood. Discounts on drinks and the bar bites menu available from 4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays.

Details: Open 4:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (opening on Mondays soon). 4890 Avenida Encinitas, Carlsbad. (760) 930-9100.

Michael's Zuppa di Pesce, a seafood dish with beurre monte sauce at Polo Steakhouse in Carlsbad.
(Courtesy of Angela J. Lee)