Nestled in a welcoming brick façade on a bustling block in the heart of downtown Del Mar, Del Mar Rendezvous answers to the beach community’s pressing need for upscale Chinese and Asian Fusion cuisine. Truly a culinary voyage of the senses through Asia’s exotic flavors and spices, this charming neighborhood eatery has built a strong reputation on quality food and superb service. Aptly named Del Mar “Rendezvous,” it serves as a gathering place where friends, family, and couples can come to enjoy a myriad selection of noodles, rice, soups, and entrees from both land and sea. They also take special care to cater to customers’ unique dietary preferences by offering a wide variety of menu options that encompass-- but are not limited to-- vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes.
Inside the dining room, small touches accent even the most subtle objects, from the Zen-like stone-shaped salt and pepper shakers adorning each table to the fanciful flora depicted in calming hues on modest canvases. Large sparkling floor-to-ceiling windows lead out to a quaint outdoor patio where diners can enjoy San Diego’s mild climate all year long under the protective cover of the sun’s warm rays or shielding heat lamps. If you let your gaze wander to the opposite side of the street and down a steep hill, a thin cerulean stretch of ocean blinks calmly by, steady and perpetual in its swirling beauty. I find myself not only physically immersed in the serene atmosphere, but my mind and spirit are equally touched. Back inside the restaurant, an open kitchen showcases Sous Chef Tony’s precision and agility with a chopping knife. Mimicking the knife’s jubilant rhythm, conversation flows animatedly from every occupied table.
Dan Schreiber, one of the two managers who ensure Del Mar Rendezvous upholds and even surpasses its commitment to excellence, is our knowledgeable guide through this evening’s meal. He begins by providing a brief history for the Tsing Tao we order: it is a Chinese pilsner beer originally founded by German settlers in 1903. The beer is light and well paired with the Sesame Crusted Seared Ahi, which arrives on a long plate harmonious to the tuna’s rectangular form. Sitting on a bed of spring mix lettuce with a house vinaigrette, the thin cut slices of Ahi fold over each other like dominoes, exposing a deep red color beneath an aromatic golden-crusted exterior. Seared tuna can be a touchy dish to order as it’s easily overcooked and can be strongly affected by the quality of the meat, but in this case it’s a nearly transcending experience. Bright green wasabi aioli that’s been drizzled across the plate in a Jackson Pollock-like gesture briefly penetrates my nasal passage in a burst of heat, then is subdued just as quickly as the mild flavor of the fresh tuna and the nuttiness of the sesame seeds step in. The buttery consistency of the fleshy tuna coupled with the crackling of the sesame seeds is a melodious dance in texture.
The Crabmeat Mango Salad, one of Del Mar Rendezvous’ signature items, instantly captures our attention for the current seasonality of its ingredients. Flawlessly cylindrical in shape, the salad arrives in the form of a well compressed cake atop a bed of the house spring mix lettuce. The crisp taste of fresh crab is the first flavor to hit my mouth; the pulpy sweetness of mango follows closely behind whispering tropical secrets of distant lands and hot summers. I barely detect the tiny morsels of red bell pepper and celery that contribute to the mosaic of color contrasting against the snowy whiteness of the crab, but the overall effect is light and fresh.
Unable to resist trying out some of the many varieties of dumplings offered here, we opt for the Steamed Pork Dumplings and the Ha Gau and Siu Mai combination. Despite the fact that these Asian tapas are prepared steamed, their presentations are like night and day, thus giving us a nice feel for their versatility. The pork dumplings win us over with their simple yet elegant presentation in a silver tin, which we learn is actually a steamer. The doughy pouches are twisted to a fine point, and reveal nothing of their inner secrets. After attempting to grasp an elusive dumpling between my chopsticks, and failing, I pull a rookie stunt and end up using them as prongs to fork the bundle from the tin into a dipping sauce, and finally into my mouth. The tangy soy-based sauce advertised as “medium spice” provides less kick than I anticipated, yet is just right for the flavor-packed chewy filling of the dumpling. Interestingly, the infusion of chicken stock, green onions, and pork in the filling brings fond memories of the stews my mother used to cook up for me as a child.
The handmade Ha Gau and Siu Mai dumplings are served on a long and narrow black plate like those used to flaunt sushi rolls in Japanese restaurants. Different in appearance, the Ha Gau are white in color and resemble tiny, pleated bonnets, while the Siu Mai peek out perkily from yellow flour shells. The overall presentation is a reminder that art and food share much in common. In single file, the two varieties alternate bursts of yellow with subdued white. To top it off, thinly shredded lettuce and carrots, diced tomatoes, and a brown glaze mingle over everything like sprightly confetti on Chinese New Year.
The playfulness of the dish is not limited to its appearance, but extends to the flavors as well. The Ha Gau, filled with mild-tasting shrimp, is chewy from the outside and slightly crunchy on the inside, which is an indicator that this blushing crustacean isn’t over-cooked. The bold Siu Mai dumplings take things a step further; the filling is a seemingly unlikely combination of shrimp and pork that charms the taste buds in all the right ways.
At last ready to move to the main course, Dan helps us select entrees based on their loyal following by satisfied diners that have come before us. The Walnut Shrimp entrée arrives heaping with seven piping hot, lightly breaded pieces of whole shrimp scattered in and around crunchy walnuts and peas. The fragrance wafting up from the plate tingles our nostrils with the mysterious aroma of the white sauce delicately coating each morsel. To my delight, the walnuts are caramelized, accentuating the sweetness of the creamy glaze that so coquettishly seduced us with its inviting scent. The shrimp are crispy and subtle, and are a nice contrast to the sweetly nutty crunchiness of the walnuts and the tender freshness of the snow peas.
Our final entrée (which we had been eyeing on the plates of neighboring tables since the seared Ahi made its striking entrance) announces its arrival not visually but olfactory. As one of my dining partners so aptly puts it, “It smells like Hawaii.” In this case, Hawaii, as we can’t help but call it for the rest of the evening and into the following day, is the Chilean Sea Bass with a Yu Hsian Sauce. The 8 oz grilled filet arrives on a bed of sautéed baby bok choy and a scoop of brown rice, which we had opted for as the more health conscious choice. A thin tangerine colored sauce speckled with chili pieces and a hefty amount of garlic is lightly drizzled over the sea bass, pooling down and around the plate and creating a shallow moat between the food and the edges of the plate. The flavors are heavenly and near tangible; the tender and flaky texture of the fish screams quality and freshness and embraces the sharp intensity of the garlic and the vivid kick from the chili. To bring the competing flavors together, Chef Sun has created a sweet backdrop in the orange-hued sauce, which fuses the ingredients in a harmonious tango.
For dessert, we choose the Xango, the more traditionally Asian influenced item. Served on a long narrow plate, three generous pieces of the pastry-wrapped confection arrive drizzled in caramel and a dark chocolate sauce, making it convenient for us all to share. Strong aromas of cinnamon swirl into the air mingling with the happy buzz of conversation filling the dining room. The crisp pastry is finely coated with a thin layer of cinnamon and sugar, and crunches audibly as my spoon dips into the first bite. The filling, a banana cheesecake concoction, is creamy and smooth and mixes the tropical flavors of the fruit with the comforting taste of sugar and spice. The overall result is spectacular and ends the evening on a lavish note.
On our way out, I stop to admire the large smiling Buddha who, full of good cheer, seems to have had a part in making us feel so welcome on our culinary journey this evening. I grab a fortune cookie by the entrance -- the auspicious message is a silent incarnation of Del Mar Rendezvous’ amicable philosophy. It says simply, “The shortest distance between two people is a smile."