We cut through the Del Mar racetrack traffic and drove east, passing a stretch of fields and horse stables that eventually gave way to two small buildings on our left. A valet-only parking lot was stacked with luxury cars and a nearby side street hosted waiting limos and more luxury cars, almost all of them surely there for MARKET, the hottest restaurant in Del Mar. There are still five months left before New Year’s, so it’s not worth tallying the ballots yet, but MARKET is an early contender for Top Meal of 2008.
Carl Schroeder opened MARKET about two years ago after working for Bradley Ogden at nearby Arterra and in Marin County at the revered Lark Creek Inn. He also learned from culinary superstar Michael Mina at Aqua in San Francisco. Schroeder relies on Chef de Cuisine John Thompson and Sous Chef Leif Thornquist to help execute his market-driven vision. Schroeder takes advantage of MARKET’s location five minutes from Chino Farm, which turns out some of Southern California’s best produce.
The first thing we saw upon entering MARKET was a bustling lounge and bar, complete with a sushi chef who remained surprisingly focused given the steady hum of drink orders. The dining area was a refuge by comparison, with pottery holding fresh-cut flowers and dangling “chains” with alternating white and brown links. The only aberration: banquettes with fabric that’s liable to induce epileptic seizures.
At first, we received slices of baguette with a ramekin of house-whipped butter. This was fine, but not nearly as exciting as the moment when our waiter delivered a basket of fluffy jalapeno corn muffins, still hot from the oven.
Blue Cheese Soufflé & Organic Stone Fruit ($14.95) was better than it sounded, moist and substantial, topped with candied almonds and peach emulsion. Butter lettuce featured sliced peaches, top and bottom, plus more candied almond slivers, crumbled cheese and apricot preserves. It was a summery winner.
Crispy Duck Confit & Roasted Plums ($15.95) tasted good. Then again, why wouldn’t duck leg and thigh poached in its own fat? The coating of ginger-orange marmalade was spicy-sweet. Still, the duck skin could have been crisper. The accompanying salad was pretty tasty, with balsamic onions, wild arugula and curry vinaigrette.
Pancetta Wrapped Bison New York Strip ($33.75) was stupendous, lean but luscious slices brushed with chipotle glaze and wrapped in crisp Italian bacon. The meat was plated on sweet cilantro-spiked corn kernels and topped with smoky string beans. The contemporary spiced bison sausage tamale layered moist masa and rutty crumbles of sausage patty. There was also a streak of either basil or scallion puree that added yet another flavor dimension.
Organic Pork Loin Wiener Schnitzel ($27.50) was a fairly traditional dish, two cutlets with thin crusts, topped with an “up” farmer’s market egg that broke, spreading yolk over the meat and vegetables. The dish also featured explosively juicy cherry tomatoes, artichoke puree and a mound of braised artichoke- corn sauté.
Bacon Wrapped Maine Dayboat Scallops ($28.25) were spectacular. Piles of curried cous cous and dime-sized cherry tomatoes of varying colors were each pile topped with a perfectly cooked bacon-wrapped sea scallop, which was browned on the outside. Filling out the plate were cuts of eggplant, butter beans, sweet pepper relish and a golden tomato broth that wasn’t too watery.
Pastry Chef James Foran also incorporates a market driven approach with dessert ($9.95 each).
Roasted Plum-Sour Cream Cake was much more satisfying, basically a perfect pound cake with moist cake, crisp streusel top and a central vein of cinnamon-apple streusel. It was plated with roasted plums and a scoop of ginger ice cream plumed with candied ginger.
The duck and apricot spring rolls probably needed a textural boost, but that’s a minor quibble considering the ingredients were so fresh and the flavors were so consistently bold. We ate eight different dishes, which were all good to great, and the menu listed another eight equally compelling options. A restaurant as exciting as MARKET warrants a regular pilgrimage.