Entering the restaurant it was notably quite empty despite being 7:00pm on a Sunday, as a matter of fact there were only two other tables populated in the entire large restaurant. Decorated in low light and heavy woods with multiple candles throughout, the restaurant had the feel of a happening night spot, but also an air of romanticism and the floor-to-ceiling windows provided an excellent view of the bay. Seated promptly at a window seat as requested, water was filled and menus delivered by our hostess.
After a few moments of browsing the menu and noting the decibel level arising from a table full of children across the restaurant, our server Daniel M arrived. A gregarious fellow full of stories, anecdotes, recommendations, and quips I can say that Daniel was nothing like any of the other waiters on the trip, but I liked him more than any except maybe Ruben at The French Laundry – sometimes it is nice to have someone with personality serving your food. Referring to Candela’s food as “Beverley Hills Hispanic Cuisine” Daniel explained some of the choices and specials and left us with time to decide before brining bread and taking orders – orders which he would either approve of or disapprove of after inquiring about our particular tastes. Normally I find a waiter/waitress guiding my decisions a tad odd, but I certainly prefer it to the sort of waiter who suggests “everything is good.” I like honesty.
Orders placed we got started on the breads – each served warm from the oven along with a most interesting tequilla and oregano spiced jalapeno butter. While the seeded whole-grain and white roll were both serviceable and much enhanced by the superb butter, the star of the breads was undoubtedly the cheese roll which had the consistency of a hot buttered roll, but contained a warm core of creamy cheese that tasted somewhat of a brie. In order to not stuff myself before the meal even began I limited myself to one of each roll, but most certainly could have consumed a few more of the cheese rolls happily.
Taking my standard approach to non-tasting menus, I opted for three appetizers instead of a main while my companions each chose an appetizer and a main. After approximately 20 minutes more of chatting and watching the beautiful boats on the bay (and listening to the ever growing racket from the children with indifferent parents across the restaurant) we noted that the restaurant began to fill up with patrons and Daniel wooed each table with more clever conversation. It was at this time that our first course arrived.
For my mother’s first selection she chose the “Crema de Cuatro Quesos al Chile Pasilla, a cheese soup consisting of well blended Mozzarella, Swiss, Bleu, and Parmesan cheeses with a dollop of mashed potatoes, jumbo prawn, and shredded fried sweet potatoes. Like all of Candela’s dishes, the vast numbers of ingredients in this dish were certain to register on many different levels and unlike some of the other dishes, this one worked very well. With heavy top notes from the sweet potatoes, prawns, and bleu cheese the Mozzarella and Parmesan plus the mashed potatoes formed a smoother and more textural base that registered on the palate moreso than the tongue. Heavy and rich, the portion of this dish was quite large and sharing was definitely necessary.
Desiring something lighter, my aunt selected the “Ensalada de Palmitos,” a mixed greens salad with vinegar sauteed tomatoes, mushrooms, hearts of palm, and artichoke vinaigrette. The second unique vinaigrette of the trip (Bouchon’s Walnut vinaigrette being the first) I quite liked this salad and found the combination of perfectly tender hearts of palm with invariably sweet tomatoes to be a good base for the smooth yet savory vinaigrette. Very fresh and impressive in portion, another winner.
For my first course I was served two appetizers, one hot and one cold. The first, heavily recommended by our waiter was “Callos Jean,” or Scallops Sautéed with Portobello Mushrooms, Onions, Cilantro, jalapeno, lime, and white wine. Per Daniel these were the best scallops he’d ever tasted, but per Mike Daniel clearly has not been to Gary Danko, Moto, Deepwood, or a number of other restaurants. While decent, scallops are too delicate for such a vast number of spices and the somewhat overcooked mussels were simply lost in the jumble while the lime and cilantro just overwhelmed the palate and the jalapenos dominated the tongue.
The second dish, “Estructura de Aguacate” was a pureed Hass avocado with scallops, shrimp, and crab marinated in lime-juice and tossed with cilantro, tomato, onion and served with basil mango vinaigrette. Served like a tuna tartare and featuring a similar mixture of spices to the Callos Jean, this dish worked much better and was actually quite delicious – and large. Sweet crab and scallops were clearly detectable over the spice and the lime juice provided a sour foil to the sweet mango vinaigrette (yet another new vinaigrette) and the whole dish had a decidedly Italian feel to it while also maintaining a Spanish ceviche quality due to the lime and seafood.
Plates cleared we sat once again listening to the now-screaming-level sounds coming from across the restaurant and were amused that two of our neighboring tables complained directly to the waiter about the noise – one group even walking out of the restaurants after drinks due to the racket. While I understand that the economy is bad and you don’t want to offend a guest by asking them to leave or silence their children, I also think it is poor form to allow one table to ruin the experience of others. While not offended enough to leave, we were ~30-40 yards from the table; had I been close I’d have left as well. Eventually, just after our mains arrived, the group finally left and the ambiance greatly improved.
The first main dish, ordered by my mother, was “Escamas del Mayab,” a Grouper sauteed in olive oil and topped with baked scallop potato scales, served with vegetables and poblano Chile and yellow corn cream sauce. A large piece of grouper, I cannot say this was the freshest piece of fish on our trip – possibly the least fresh, actually – but certainly not bad. Lightly sautéed but cooked well to the middle, the mild and delicate fish was well complimented by the crispy potato scales while the combination of sauces were an interesting twist. Not a huge fan of poblanos in general, I was glad that this sauce was relatively muted and not overwhelming – thick with a little heat, nothing too memorable. The second sauce was actually tremendous and reminded me both in taste and flavor of a cornbread pudding akin to that at Moto – mild and sweet, a good accompaniment to the fish. The vegetables, while fresh, were sautéed in olive oil and spice and relatively unmemorable.
The second main, my aunt’s selection, was “Pasta Uxmal,” a linguini pasta with lobster and Portobello Mushrooms. After dinner at Mozza and La Botte in LA, plus the hand rolled pasta at One Market I’m really not sure what her thoughts were in ordering a non-house made noodle – but order she did. Unremarkable, bland, and limp the pasta was quite sub-par in my opinion while the lobster was relatively unflavorful and lost to the earthy mushrooms. I admit I did not expect much from this dish and it delivered just that. My aunt liked it, so I guess that is something, but for the price I’d take Prego, Krab, and Barilla.
The final main, actually an appetizer, was the “Ceviche de Pulpo.” Octopus ceviche sandwiched between two crispy corn tortillas, fresh mango slices and vinaigrette was definitely my favorite savory of the night and was actually impressive on a level that far surpassed the rest of the dishes. Utilizing minimal excess spices and instead focusing on well prepared octopus, fresh mangoes, and a simple vinaigrette I found the approach and execution to this dish quite different from the rest of my choices and liked it very much. Perhaps it was the lack of cilantro, perhaps the less-is-more approach – a contender along with All Angelo’s Octopus carpaccio for best octopus preparation I’ve tasted.
Having already enjoyed Karen Krasne’s Extraordinary Desserts earlier in the day and feeling quite full (with some cheesecake remaining at the hotel) we decided to order only one dessert with three spoons. Highly recommended by Dan and certainly a novelty given the fruit component we selected the “Pastel Tres Leches” Traditional Strawberry Sponge Cake soaked in three milks sauce. Served in a portion large enough to share we found this dessert wonderful in texture, taste, and presentation – like an Angel food strawberry shortcake with hints of caramel and crème fraiche, but vastly better – a great ending to the meal.
When it was all said and done, our bill was quite modest compared to other dining experiences on the same trip – but so was the degree of satisfaction. While billing itself as fine dining, I personally found Candelas to be more aptly described as a bar with better-than-average bar-food. Somewhere in the preparation of the menu I do believe the chef lost track of how to enhance a dish with spices and instead opted to simply over-spice and over-season for the sake of complexity. Instead of using 6-7 ingredients separated on a plate to highlight various textures and aspects, the ingredients were all served combined thus blunting the impact of each. Additionally, while the setting is beautiful and the service was absolutely wonderful, I have to admit that the screaming children was a huge disappointment in how it was handled. In the end, I don’t think I would go back to Candelas given the myriad other options in San Diego – but if I ever opened a restaurant of my own, I’d be sure to ask Daniel to be a server.