In charming Cardiff, it’s common to find residents gracing the meandering coastline as they trail along the sandy beaches while embracing the California sun. Situated beautifully amongst the seaside behind it, Chart House is still as locally praised today as it was when its doors opened in 1976. For 35 years, Chart House has proven to be a highly acclaimed destination for California inspired seafood and steak dishes.
Before approaching S. Coast 101, you find yourself lost in awe as the curvy and somewhat steep road descends to a final revelation of dancing waves and coastline views. Along the road you see a few local establishments and restaurants until at last, you’re met with the inviting restaurant sign that indicates your anticipated arrival.
Chart House is conspicuously recognized for its premiere dinner selections, but also serves lunch and a special Sunday brunch. The lunch menu mirrors the dinner menu in its finesse of fresh seafood selections but is more casual, offering a Diner Burger or Lobster Grilled Cheese as popular lunch items. Many of their specialty items are still included on the lunch and brunch menu, such as their celestial East Meets West Tuna appetizer. Sunday Brunch boasts breakfast classics such as French Toast or the Four Egg Omelet, but falls nothing short of its staple seafood items, as well.
Upon arriving and being cordially greeted by valet, my guest and I look at the beautiful structure of the restaurant as we walk quickly up the paved runway that leads to the restaurant’s foyer. The exterior’s gorgeous stone-brick feature gives Chart House a seemingly residential quality as the soft grey accents of the stone are beautifully fitting against the bright green grass and blossoming flowers trailing the paved ramp way. The large glass doors are completely open, offering a genuine invitation that brings comfort to patrons. Our hostess greets us with a gracious smile while informing us that the dining room is not yet open, but recommends sitting at the bar until our table is ready. My guest and I make no hesitations and even before sitting at the sleek bar that holds a variety of fine spirits, are welcomed by our bartender, Roy, who is eager to offer a happy hour menu of cocktails and small plates.
As I sit, I become engulfed by the ocean view that completes the restaurant’s already natural vibe. The restaurant is adorned by hues of brown and nude that are perfectly complemented with touches of blue and soft orange. The sight of the deep blue water in the background makes the interior come to life. The restaurant walls are earthy with pieces of colorful modern art strategically placed around the foyer and bar area, but the true work of art is the natural counterpart of the shore that is visible by the sheer walls of glass that even with its barrier, make you feel as if you are dining ocean side.
Within moments of seating ourselves at the bar we are happily greeted by the managing director, David Yolz who makes us feel greatly appreciated and welcome. Although he constantly walks the perimeter of the restaurant floors ensuring pleasant service and excitable guests, he very often makes his way back to check on us, always maintaining an admirable level of professionalism and hospitability throughout the evening.
Knowing that we want to save our appetite for the dinner menu, we manage to fight our desire to sample Firecracker Shrimp and Ahi Nachos on the bar menu, but do follow Roy’s recommendation of the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling as our staple wine for the evening. My eyes continually go back to the specialty cocktails, especially the Mango Mojito as I can’t help but notice the many patrons around me that are smitten by theirs. Once Roy serves us our glass of wine, I’m immediately drawn to the pleasant sweetness that this wine offers and become enthralled by the hints of peach and lime that linger with their fruitful undertones.
Just minutes after receiving our wine, our friendly server greets us at the bar, offering to take our drinks and move them to our now ready table. We thank Roy for his hospitality and eagerly follow Peter through the spacious dining room area. While walking, I can’t help but notice the openness of the restaurant, particularly drawn to the enormous space of the dining area and the high ceiling that holds contemporary chandeliers that hang gallantly and bring glimmers of low lighting. There are a variety of table options planted throughout the restaurant that could accommodate larger parties or an intimate night for two. The restaurant also features larger booths that possess a wave-like glass border above it, separating the dining room from the bar lounge area. By a quick glance upwards, I notice a beautiful staircase leading to an interior balcony that holds another dining room with various tables within it. From our table, I was in perfect view of the open kitchen---a feature of Chart House which makes this establishment feel even more genuine, creating a far more intimate and engaging dining experience.
Peter welcomes us again and is quick to bring refreshing glasses of water and freshly baked bread before we closely study the menu. Although we have already chosen our wine for the evening, Peter still offers a menu of specialty cocktails and martinis and points us to the back of the menu where an extensive wine menu is printed. It’s hard to ignore the vast variety of California wines, but I find that Italian, South American and even Australian regions are distinguished selection choices. The menu does move from sparkling wines to reds in intense specificity, always distinguishing popular wines by type and listing the array of selections underneath. This extensive menu even goes to lengths to classify more exotic red and white wines within their own class which I find truly commendable for those keen to sample wines that aren’t as cliché or most easily found.
I am delighted when I see Executive Chef Gerardo Nava walking in our direction, swiftly making his way to our table with a coy smile planted on his face. I stand to properly introduce myself to him, quickly noting his courteous demeanor and comforting presence. It is evident that Chef Nava is committed to his guests’ sense of satisfaction which shows as he asks my guest and me if we had any preferences of entrée items to try that evening. We decide to allow Chef Nava the essential opportunity to serve us his recommendations to gain a more personal perspective of his creative freedom as an executive chef. He informs us that he will be preparing and serving all of our entrees for the evening, and we are gracious for his sense of generosity and personal interaction that never falters throughout our time together.
We are fortunate enough to have him take time for a more personal dialogue, as we immediately dive into a conversation concerning his culinary career and his tenure at Chart House. For 16 years, Chef Nava has passionately worked for the restaurant, 9 of those being executive chef. During our conversation, it is apparent that he truly loves cooking with the freshest of ingredients and seems to have a personal admiration for the fresh fish that he proudly shares with us. He’s not one to favor a certain entrée or ingredient, as his philosophy is deeply rooted in the passion for preparing all types of food and ensuring that his zeal is conveyed in every single dish.
Chef Nava materializes from the kitchen and approaches our table with the first appetizer, Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail that is unprecedented by its mere visual presentation atop a beautiful silver-plated bowl in ice with trails of hazy smoke courtesy of the hidden dry ice. Tucked underneath a platter of ice, is a beautiful black square plate that brings contrast to the bright orange shrimp and the cocktail sauce that it’s plucked in. Upon my first bite, the cocktail sauce offers a perfect blend of spice that heightens the sweet shrimp and its chilled and firm texture.
While finishing our shrimp cocktail, we are served our next appetizer, Fried Asparagus that sits on lemon-shallot butter, topped with chunky tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. Completely foreign to fried asparagus, I take my first bite and find that the crunch of the light batter engulfs the crunchy asparagus that is utterly idyllic accompanied by the tangy bleu cheese and fresh, mild tomatoes. I bathe my asparagus in the lemon-shallot butter that bursts in my mouth with the interesting union of flavorful components. The lemon hits your senses by both smell and taste, and offers a refreshing quality to the crisp asparagus.
Chef Nava brings us a signature appetizer, East Meets West Tuna, which displays tuna two ways. The long platter is essentially an edible story form, showing a tuna tartare portion drizzled with wasabi cream and the other lightly seared with fresh slices of avocado. The dish encompasses an array of vivid colors, each accenting one another seamlessly. The seared tuna rests on a bed of kim chee slaw, and the two dishes are separated by slices of bright yellow plantain chips that are served fried and crisp. I go for the kim chee slaw first, unaided, and am immediately hit with the Asian-influenced spices and crunchy cabbage. I quickly move a piece of seared tuna to my plate and find the trio of ingredients to be irresistible together as the textures bring crunch by the cabbage, and then a softer harmony from the avocado and seared tuna.
The tuna tartare is diced in proportional cubes, essentially mimicking chopped tomatoes by both its deep color and stature of presentation. The freshness of this tuna is unparalleled, and the tuna bursts with flavor all on its own but especially by the wasabi cream that gives my palette the unflawed amount of fiery creaminess to flatter the fresh tuna. A bite of the plantain chips creates a needed contrast from the soft textures of tuna and has the familiar crunch of a potato chip, except lightly sweeter from the plantain.
Prepared tableside, Peter then brings us Spinach Salad. The salad is served on a large black, circular plate with a presentation reminding me of cobb salad. The beautiful and bright green spinach is chopped rather finely with a row of sautéed mushrooms, fresh radishes, diced boiled eggs, and bacon. Peter then bathes the salad with just-made warm bacon dressing and mixes the salad melodiously together. I gravitate to the wonderful smell of the fried bacon that is both in the salad and dressing. My first bite is nothing less of enjoyment as the sweet dressing enhances every single ingredient. This salad fuses opposite flavors into unanimity--pure and bright. The spinach is fresh and crisp and with each bite, my taste-buds are moving from sweet to salty with textures moving from crunchy to chewy.
Chef Nava then brings out an item called Best of Soup, which encompasses a trio of soup varieties that include: Clam Chowder, Lobster Bisque and Gazpacho. I am attracted to the Gazpacho’s appearance with its dollop of sour cream and stock of celery casually placed inside the bowl. I take in the range of fresh onions and tomatoes immersed in tomato broth and am pleased to find how refreshing it is after my first spoonful. This chilled soup is reminiscent of a fresh tomato-salsa and the creamy texture of the sour cream creates a pleasing contrast to the bold flavors in the soup.
I look to the Lobster Bisque next and find myself spooning the meaty chunks of alluring lobster that rests atop the bisque into my mouth where I am greeted with a pleasant sweetness of the meat. I am careful to amass as much creamy bisque onto my spoon and even prior to tasting can smell hints of dry sherry within the soup. The bisque manages to explode with flavor yet maintains a smooth and velvety consistency.
I move to the Clam Chowder and grasp why this gem has brought Chart House many accolades and praise. The aroma of the soup is extremely impressive in its impeccable balance of clams and comforting smell of potatoes. The clams certainly steal the show with their abundant, meaty presence within the rich chowder but the bites of soft potatoes blend with the chewier texture of the clams to enhance this savory and immeasurable delight.
Chef Nava brings our first entrée, Blue Cheese Filet Mignon. This gorgeous piece of meat is drizzled with a layer of melted blue cheese and served with Yukon mashed potatoes that are lightly topped with crispy sweet potato pieces. Chef Nava prepares the filet in his desired fashion, as we politely asked of him, so the meat is prepared medium. The first bite of the filet presents an extremely tender piece of meat that is powerfully joined by a scrumptious demi glaze, and is meticulously heightened by the melted blue cheese. After sampling the potatoes, my mouth is engrossed by the flavor profile of the mild Yukon potatoes and the crunch of the sweet potatoes.
As a menu choice, Chef Nava prepares the Macadamia Crusted White Sea Bass but instead used halibut in our dish for a special treat for me and my guest. The presentation of the macadamia crusted halibut serves as the centerpiece with its mango relish topping. The vivid shades of orange and red from the mangos work beautifully in contrast of the white piece of fish. The halibut is placed in a peanut sauce with a soy drizzle and is served alongside green beans that are topped with a soy glaze. I carefully fork a piece of flaky halibut that has been placed in the peanut sauce and am cautious to gather an ample amount of the mango relish before finally tasting. I am initially met with the sweetness of the fresh mango that then highlights the brilliantly fresh piece of halibut providing texture from the crusted exterior of the fish.
Still in awe from our halibut dish, Chef Nava brings us a platter of three other popular dinner items which include Lobster Francese, Pan Seared Scallops and Baked Struffed Shrimp. We decide to start with the scallops which the chef has prepared with a special parmesan orzo, which he notes he prepared particularly for us that evening. The scallops sit atop a ginger sauce that is laced by a drizzle of wasabi cream. The scallops are lightly seared, and very plump in size. I cut the scallop in half and find it to be mildly sweet and light on its own but scrupulously enjoy glazing it with the wasabi cream and ginger soy sauce for added spice and flavors. The parmesan orzo is superbly tender and livened by the sweet parmesan and striking blend of wasabi and ginger soy underneath.
The Lobster Francese is planted between the scallops and shrimp and I find it appealing that Chef Nava kept its crustacean telson although the lobster meat has been detached to be lightly breaded and fried. Angel hair pasta is placed at the top of dish that has been tossed with spinach, mushrooms, asparagus and tomatoes. I taste the pasta first and enjoy the many facets of vegetables I initially savor and also enjoy how colorful the pasta is with its touches of reds and greens and the occasional light brown from the large mushrooms. I cut off a piece of the breaded lobster tail and promptly enjoy the light texture variation from the bread crumbs and find that it blends with the thicker piece of tail meat.
I move to the Baked Stuffed Shrimp that is placed in the lemon-shallot butter. The crab stuffing is lightly fried and completely covers the fleshy shrimp. The lemon-shallot butter again offers the appropriate zest of lemon that seems to highlight any dish it is served with. In this scenario, both the shrimp and crab taste even sweeter and tastier in this inventive duo.
All of these dishes have been executed in a way that makes Chart House exceptionally distinct and memorable for their interpretation of seafood and Pacific-inspired cuisine. After having a conversation with Chef Nava about his style and technique of using simple and fresh ingredients in all of his dishes, I conclude that I can see his simplistic vision fairly executed within every dish.
As we approach the end of our dining experience, I notice that the sun is preparing to set and Peter properly captures this moment by opening the glass window completely. I became speechless as the sun rays bask the room as the sound of the ocean waves tickles my ears. Just a few feet away from us the sight of energized surfers are still riding the crashing waves before the setting of the sun. The liveliness of Cardiff’s locale is alive in smiling faces and content spectators. Peter jokingly refers to himself as a rookie to Chart House, “only” working at this establishment for 24 years. He then nonchalantly points out a group of servers and workers that like him have been a part of the Chart House family for decades. I find this truly incredible, if not a true testament to the integrity of Chart House’s family culture that is shown through smiling faces and a team of people committed to serve and impress.
Chef Nava walks out with an elongated platter of dessert samples. The platter begins with their signature dessert, Hot Chocolate Lava Cake. A small square of Cheesecake, New York-Style is served and topped with fresh whipped cream and a fresh strawberry, and drizzles of strawberry sauce circle the cheesecake. A piece of Key Lime Pie is next--beside a saucer of Crème Brûlée.
I start with the Hot Chocolate Lava Cake first because my nose is seduced by the freshly baked chocolate scent, spooning the chocolaty cake that is served with creamy vanilla ice-cream. The cake is delicately rich with a molten center that literally melts in your mouth with the cool vanilla ice-cream. For a proper topping, the ice-cream is topped with bits of Heath bar that provide a fantastic crunch to the other counterparts. The toffee bits blend superbly with this entire dish and I am addicted from the first bite to the last.
The cheesecake is simple and rich from the creamed cheese, but the graham cracker crust completes this dessert with flair of crunchy texture that livens the filling. The whipped cream is light and airy and the strawberry sauce is potent yet subtle enough to add a refreshing and fruitful flavor to the cheesecake.
The Key Lime Pie is unlike any other, with a more custard-like consistency that is extremely light. The graham cracker crust shows up again with a wonderful crunch to the Key Lime filling that is tart and buttery.
Our dining experience commences with our last item, which is the Crème Brûlée. It is torched to perfection, served with a mint garnish. Inserting my spoon I hear the expected crackle of the crystallized topping, and find the light vanilla custard to be light and lovely. The crystallized topping gives the dessert a wonderful crunch that truly accents the creamy texture of the custard. In just moments, we find that our desserts have been quickly devoured, in similar fashion to everything else we had the pleasure of enjoying courtesy of Chef Nava and his impeccable team of cooks and chefs.
As I realized my extraordinary dining experience was meeting its end, Chef Nava came back to our table for one last surprise which was a to go box of all of the desserts we had sampled for another round of enjoyment at home. I thanked him for his generosity and gave my final farewell to David and his amazing staff, and personally thanked Peter for his attentive service. While walking throughout the door, I gave one final look to Cardiff’s beautiful seaside and knew that a dining experience like this would be tremendously difficult to match.
Chart House is located off of S. Coastway 101, directly on the waterfront. Parking should most definitely be left to their magnificent valet service as street parking isn’t an option and a secondary parking lot is not on the restaurant’s property. Chart House also serves a Happy Hour Monday-Friday from 3:30-6:30pm. Small plates at most are $6 and select glasses of wine are just $5.