In Del Mar, the tables are covered with culinary gold. With its inviting counter, old-fashioned paned windows, and tables piled high with muffins and breads like grandma used to make, Americana looks for all the world like a village coffee shop.
And indeed, it is just that . during daylight hours. Breakfast is a big, good-morning bearhug of a meal, with savory egg creations, cheesy grits and a heavenly waffle made with homemade granola, caramelized bananas and gobs of freshly whipped cream.
Lunch is classic: a robust cobb, turkey club and BLT with beer-battered onion rings and hand-cut fries on the side.
But, come evening, it’s pixie dust time at Americana. Crisp white cloths and brown butcher paper drape the powder coated metal tables. Flickering votives cast a pleasing glow on the shades-of-celadon walls. And the short but sweet menu tempts with stylish, sophisticated creations that are meticulously executed and reasonable priced.
Chef-owner Randy Gruber, who cooked at Boston’s famed Biba before moving to San Diego to open his “dream restaurant,” likes to keep things simple. A bowl of eggplant soup is a rich, smooth, smoky celebration of summer. Warm grilled pears add a soupcon of sweetness to a slightly bitter mix of radicchio, endive and arugula. Plump pan-seared sea scallops are regal on their throne of red lentils and sautéed fresh spinach.
Gruber, a New Yorker whose family counts four generations of restaurateurs, also knows how to dress things up, but the result is always more Grace Kelly than Cher.
One night, he patted a chunky baseball cut of ahi tuna with toasted coriander seeds and set it atop a pile of warm cannelloni bens flecked with arugula and cherry tomatoes. The seeds cracked with every bite, releasing their assertive aroma to mingle with the ahi’s fresh ocean flavor.
Gruber also worked wonders with seared duck breast, transforming the tender slices into a gastronomic “10″ with the addition of pearly Israeli couscous, sun-dried cranberries and pine nuts.
Though Americana’s dinner menu is amply spiced with such upscale treats as foie gras, tuna tartare and broccoli rabe, there remains a refreshing sense of simplicity. New York steak is served with french fries and chimichurri sauce (olive oil, vinegar and herbs). A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers gets the traditional Greek lemon-oregano dressing. Steamed mussels are pristine in garlicky white wine broth. And there’s something terribly endearing about “sides” of caramelized onion mashed potatoes and roasted corn with garlic that cost just $3.50.
The short wine list offers very approachable wines that marry well with the food and are reasonably priced. And there’s a thoughtful selection of beers on tap.
Dessert lovers at Americana will be hard pressed to decide among the voguish (gingersnaps with Stilton cheese and preserves), the virtuous (fresh berries with a tiny medallion of cream-cheesy coeur a la crème) or the downright voluptuous – a caramelized banana tarte tatin that mingles soft, gooshy fruit with burnt sugary nubbins and a melting scoop of dulce de leche ice cream.
From furnishings to food, Del Mar’s newest eatery (it has been open for dinner for less than a month) offers Americana with a twist. The grilled cheese sandwich is bumped from ordinary to awesome with roast tomatoes, sautéed spinach and paper-thin prosciutto. The quaint, cozy L-shaped room is spruced up with interesting art pieces and fresh daisies. And the inviting counter/bar, where Gruber sprawled the read the newspaper on a recent morning, is topped with plates of bakery “samples.”
Americana, the beautiful.
By Leslie James
Randy Gruber named his restaurant Americana, so when he plans a picnic, you might expect a star-spangled lineup of fried chicken, potato salad and deviled eggs.
“When I say ‘American,’ I’m not talking about meatloaf and apple pie,” he said. “To me, America is a melting pot of ethnic cuisines and international influences. I named the restaurant Americana, but I’m free to cook just about anything in there.”
In the summer, San Diegans tend to gravitate toward the water for picnics — gathering at poolside, at the beach or on an ocean-view bluff. Gruber is no exception.
For a sunset picnic at the ocean with his wife, Caron; their 15-month-old daughter, Lina; and his wife’s family, he whipped up a Mediterranean-influenced menu. It included grilled lamb chops with roasted eggplant, sesame-accented green beans, red potatoes with capers and a dill-mustard vinaigrette, and an arugula salad with pears and shaved parmesan.
“When you go on a picnic, you don’t want food that’s too heavy,” Gruber said. “I wanted it to be a summery, light and easy menu for people to enjoy and not feel over-starched or bogged down after the meal.”Another consideration: “It’s all stuff that can be served at room temperature and can be held for a while.”
Gruber and his wife, an anesthesiologist, get together often with her family over a meal. Her dad, Sydney Selati, president of Barbecues Galore, is a wine aficionado, and her mom, Denise, is an accomplished cook. Caron’s sister, Romy Loseke, also has a culinary bent.
“We eat and drink. We all like food,” Gruber said. “It’s a reason for us to get together and spend time together and talk about our week.”
Gathering in Del Mar’s Seagrove Park to watch the sun set over the Pacific is a natural for the Grubers, who live just up the hill.
“There are so many people in Del Mar and other parts of this region who go to the coast to watch the sun go down,” Gruber said. “It’s a time frame when everyone’s work is done and they can get together and have a cocktail or a glass of wine. It’s a celebration.”
Gruber, 36, a fourth-generation restaurateur, started out working for his dad, who operated a chain of coffee shops in New York. Gruber graduated from Tulane Business School, then attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
He worked for notable East Coast chefs, including Matthew Kenney at Monzu in New York and Lydia Shire at Biba in Boston before coming to California a few years ago. Gruber was a manager at Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach before opening his own restaurant in a spot at the corner of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar that had housed a branch of Cafe 222.
Americana at first offered just breakfast and lunch, but now it also serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The eclectic dinner offerings range from sesame salmon to seared duck breast to grilled New Zealand rack of lamb.
The lamb is a hit with Americana patrons. So grilled baby lamb chops were a natural choice as a picnic entree.
“The nice thing is that you can pick them up like a lollipop and just eat them,” Gruber said. “They’re very easy to consume.”
Instead of the mayonnaise-dressed potato salad that is a picnic fixture, he created a Mediterranean version enlivened with capers and a dill-mustard vinaigrette.
“It’s refreshing,” he noted. “You feel the grains of mustard in your mouth. It’s kind of rough and rustic.”
The recipe for green beans with toasted sesame dressing was inspired by a salad Gruber used to grab from a deli while summering in Sagaponack, N.Y. “It was a great little picknicky thing to eat at the beach,” he recalled.
He looked closer to home for inspiration for a green salad. “I try to use seasonal local and regional ingredients, if possible,” he explained. He teamed peppery California arugula with pears, pine nuts and shaved parmesan.
Rounding out the spread were loaves of crusty bread and a bowl of the marinated olives — picholine, kalamata, nicoise and other varieties — that are placed on each table at Americana.
Dessert was a large version of the individual lemon tarts served at the restaurant.
While the tart was a refreshing finale to a summery meal, in retrospect Gruber pronounced it “maybe not the best thing for a picnic” because it was delicate and difficult to transport. A better option might be to make individual small tarts, or to keep the lemon curd in a cooler, then fill the tart crust at the picnic site, he said. Keep it simple.
Gruber brought along two wines to toast the sunset. “For a picnic, you want to serve something easy, something casual — a simple country kind of wine,” he said. “You don’t need a big wine or anything really expensive.”
He poured a Rosemount shiraz-cabernet, “a light blend that goes well with lamb. Lamb has a strong flavor, but you don’t have to have a big cabernet to go with it.” For those who prefer white, there was a Morgan sauvignon blanc.
When it comes to serving picnic fare, paper plates and plastic cutlery are a work-saving option. For more splash, many stores offer brightly colored plastic plates and acrylic glasses.
But Gruber prefers to take things up a step when dining alfresco.
“I don’t like plastic silverware. I don’t like plastic plates or cups,” he said. “When I drink wine or a beverage, I like to put my lips to glass. I always feel like there’s no reason you can’t carry along the real thing.
His best plates and glassware stay at home, he added, “but there’s always a set that’s fun and colorful and that works for a picnic.”
Gruber arranged the picnic fare on platters and in bowls at home, then wrapped them snugly with plastic wrap and transported them by car the short distance to the park. But for a longer haul, it’s more practical to transport the food in plastic containers in a cooler, then arrange it in serving vessels once you get to the picnic spot.
Gruber noted that foods shouldn’t sit out for more than a couple of hours — less if it’s a warm day. “There is a danger zone from 40 degrees and 140 degrees, which is the perfect temperature for bacteria to grow,” he said. To be on the safe side, discard any food that is left sitting too long.
Gruber’s menu was far from complicated, but for an even simpler and more portable picnic, he likes to toss together an assortment of meats, cheeses, breads and fruits.
“I’ll take things like various cheeses, some smoked sausage, prosciutto, some nice fresh fruit — grapes, melons and figs,” he said. It’s the kind of casual meal he enjoyed when he and Caron traveled in Europe.
“It was fun to go to the different merchants and buy cheese and sausage and go to a winery and buy wine and just pull over in the car and have a little picnic.”
Margaret King is the Union-Tribune food editor.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from Ron James,
Content Manager, SignOnSanDiego.com, a Union-Tribune Publishing Co.