The intersection of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar in Del Mar is a charming, pedestrian-friendly intersection peppered with restaurants and shops, the type of place that makes you want to abandon your car and spend the afternoon wandering by foot. The ocean is just a block away, and a public park at the foot of 15th Street seems ideal for a picnic, tossing a baseball, or just taking a moment to stare at the ocean and contemplate the graceful moments in life.
But walk down the south side of 15th Street, and you may not make it to the ocean. Just about a block before the street’s end sits Sbicca, the neighborhood bistro opened by Dan and Susan Sbicca in 1998. On any given evening, well before the sun goes down, its glass windows are sure to reveal a lively, jovial crowd that will surely pique your curiosity enough to step inside.
There are two entrances to Sbicca—two doors side by side that lead into different sections of the restaurant—to the left a gated door leads to an outdoor, formal dining area, where tables are draped in white linen and topped with flickering candles; to the right, a glass door leads to the long, narrow bar, a casual space that is nearly always filled with a jolly crowd of regulars and locals.
The thing about Sbicca is that it has two lives. First, it is a fine-dining restaurant, with a menu so creative, a chef so committed, and ingredients of such quality that it's worth a drive from anywhere in the county. But second, it serves as a neighborhood gathering place, a friendly watering hole with daily specials and an affordable selection of casual bar fare that makes it a favorite among locals.
Indeed, when we arrive, guests are taking advantage of the daily happy hour, featuring at least 30% off most of the dishes on the bar menu. This seems an unrivaled deal—especially on a Tuesday or a Thursday, when most wines by the bottle are half off. A quick scan of the bar menu suggests you could share a gourmet array such as Roasted Artichoke Tomato Bruschetta, a Warm Spinach and Wild Mushroom Salad, and New Zealand Green-Lip Mussels accompanied by a solid bottle of Paso Robles Syrah all for about $35. No wonder the bar is so crowded.
Of course, there is much more to Sbicca than the bar. The restaurant's layout is quintessentially Californian, the spaces within the property blurring the line between indoors and out. The first-floor dining area is outdoors, but sheltered by the cool Pacific winds by two walls and a roof. Past the first -floor dining area is a back walkway, where guests pass by the kitchen and climb an outdoor staircase to the second floor. Here is where the ambiance of Sbicca shines. A private room with enormous glass windows is an elegantly appointed space, surrounded by dark wood and wine bottles and affording a stunning view of the ocean. But the best space in the restaurant is the second floor dining area, which sits on a large rooftop patio allowing in the cool ocean breezes accompanied by undeterred views of the sprawling Pacific. Tables are close together, but angled so to optimize the number of guests that receive ocean views. Large space heaters and oversized umbrellas pepper the space between tables, providing both heat and shelter when needed.
As we take a seat early in the evening, the sun's rays lend a cheerful, carefree vibe to the dining space and suddenly, even though we've driven less than 10 miles to get here, we feel as if we are on vacation. We are quickly greeted by our gracious server, who brings warm bread, cool water, and, at our request, two “Shrimp Shooters” from the bar—plump shrimp bathed in a pool of spicy chipotle cocktail sauce.
The menus arrive, but my attention first turns to the wine list, which is hand-selected by Dan and Susan and is the recipient of repeated Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. For a Wine-Spectator-recognized list, the selection is surprisingly approachable, just long enough to offer variety but not too long to overwhelm. The list leans red, with about 10-25 options for each common varietal, as well as a short list of more eclectic reds and whites. Selected wines are also available by the half bottle, but we are enticed by the by-the-glass selection, thanks to the excellent descriptions that accompany each wine on the list.
Because the sun is shining and the sea is within eyesight, we opt for light whites: a Tolloy Pinot Grigio and an excellent Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc. It's time to turn our attention to the main reason we are excited: the food.
Susan Sbicca's approach to food is natural and organic, her style a culmination of over 30 years of hands-on experience. She is inspired by local, organic produce, sustainable seafood, and an eclectic array of influences that includes the flavors of the Mediterranean, Asia, and Mexico. The Sesame Seared Ahi is a quintessential example of her bold, fresh style, a dish that is wildly creative but somehow also seems ordered and calculated.
Four long slivers of sushi-grade Ahi are draped across the plate, barely seared at the edges. Black and white sesame seeds coat the sear, but otherwise the fish is left unadorned, its pale, fresh flavor unmasked. Unmasked, that is, until the flesh comes into contact with the wildly diverse flavors on the rest of the plate. First, there's the cucumber serrano salsa, with sharp, piquant flavors that lend a tangy finish between bites. Then, there’s a decadent duo of sauces: a pale white wasabi cream and a dark fuscia-colored raspberry sauce. The two are intertwined, drizzled over one half of the ahi slices, mingling a sweet creaminess backed by a subtle wasabi spice, and a tart, fresh raspberry flavor. My first impression is that the duo is decadent enough to be on a dessert plate, but then a rush of wasabi bursts forth, reminding me this is still the first course.
The Louisiana Blue Crab Cakes pay homage to a quintessential American comfort food. Four small crab cakes sit in a pool of chive-chipotle remoulade, glistening a golden cornbread-brown. To say this dish is excellently composed is to not do it justice. The components work so well together—their ratio, their quality, their size—that the crab cake actually seems as if it existed as one complete entity that was plucked from the sea and served on the plate. Each bite of sweet moist flesh backed by subtly spicy remoulade is a decadent treat.
A new dish for summer, Pesto and Brie Crusted Halibut, is another creative but calculated creation, a delicate union of rich ingredients. A large filet of halibut sits beneath a witty layer of melted brie studded with pine nuts—it takes a moment after the dish arrives to realize the brie is not the skin of the fish. A crisp, bright orange tortilla-like crisp visually divides the halibut from its bed of pesto mashed potatoes. While my instinct would be to avoid pairing white fish and mashed potatoes—they seem a little too similar in both texture and color—Chef Sbicca not only pulls it off, she shows why they deserve to be on the same plate. The two components stand drastically distinct, the pesto dominating the potatoes both in flavor and color and the brie lending a richness to the halibut, infusing its normally subtle taste with creamy decadence.
The Maple Roasted Pork Prime Rib is a dish for the hungriest of appetites. The "Flintstones-sized" cut of meat absolutely commands the plate, a double-cut rib complete with perfect grill marks. A pool of bourbon chantilly sauce surrounds the amber-seared pork, and the unmistakable aroma of maple wafts up from across the table. As if the dish weren't rich enough, a pool of melt-in-the-mouth mashed sweet potatoes is so decadent it could be pie filling, especially when I discover a bite that has captured a pool of melted creole-pecan butter. The pork is pale and tender, eagerly embracing the strong flavors of maple, pecan, and sweet potatoes. Again, it is a dish that proves each ingredient's worth, demonstrating how such distinct flavors seem to belong together.
All of the desserts at Sbicca are made in house, save for the ice cream. The Key Lime Torte is as rewarding as a house-made dessert can be. Like every dish that precedes it, the flavors are forward and real, the carefully selected components combined in such a way to bring out the best of each of them. A four-inch round tart is filled with electric green key lime, a tangy, sharp filling that that embraces the puckering quality of key limes. But it is the shell that wins us over, made of crumbled macadamia nuts and fresh coconut, pressed in a dense form. The flavors are complex, elusive, and make us realize the amazing inherent qualities of each ingredient.
Sbicca doesn't just serve up quality food, it pays homage to it. Each dish is a tribute to its ingredients, put together in a way that elevates each component to its highest potential. In a world increasingly full of restaurants each day, it is refreshing to find one that prioritizes quality ingredients and simple presentations that showcase the best that our earth has to offer.