Walking up to beautifully lighted Crudo by Pascal Lorange in the early evening and looking in the front door is almost awe-inspiring. You’re enthralled by the light, white, airy, grand space with 18′ ceilings and the simple, tasteful, modern decor. A touch of flowy classicism causes you to scan longingly around the dining room, nurturing the not unrealistic expectation that Zeus, Poseidon and the rest of the Greek gods might materialize with wine chalices in hand at any moment.
When presented with two table options, you choose what appears to be the lesser of two seating evils in the main flight path six feet from the kitchen door (choice #1 was crammed into a corner next to a partition – you opted for the extra elbow room). Only then do you notice that the crowded, funky table layout is better suited for getting a server’s butt in the face rather than their actual attention. Adventure ensues, as your table is squeezed between both the kitchen door and expedite station. In hindsight, coveralls might have been an appropriate clothing choice for this seating, as sporadic brushing and bumping by staff coming and going causes food and drink to detour from its intended path to your mouth onto floor, table and clothing.
In fact, your entire experience at Crudo by Pascal Lorange is a bit surreal – like watching a tight-rope walker working 3 inches above the sidewalk. Certainly, skill, technique and other talented things things are going on at Crudo that can’t be accomplished by mere mortals, right? Perhaps. But, with terra firma mere inches away in case of mis-step, you quickly perceive that there is no real risk being taken and therefore no possibility of greatness present. The evening drifts by, not quickly enough, in a fog of safe, perfect for sheltered suburbanites, middling food and service.
And so began our date night at Crudo by Pascal Lorange, as though we were in a slowly developing, debilitating dream where we knew we were dreaming, but couldn’t find our way to the surface.
Nothing that a good drink couldn’t fix, though. So, we started our meal as we normally do – a dirty Absolut martini for me to blunt the remnants of the preceding week and a glass of 2013 Talbott Pinot Noir ($13) from the Santa Lucia Highlands for Fluffy Unicorn which seemed like it might marry well with the upcoming fare. Oops. Five minutes later we were told “No Absolut vodka and we’re out of the Talbott Pinot.” No worries, let’s change the vodka to Tito’s and what’re our other choices for a Central Coast Pinot, I asked, as I opened the wine menu to take another look.
“Oh, the $23 glass is wonderful…”
Yes, I’m sure it would be…
Fine, then. On to Plan B – the food would make us forget about the crude-o wine upsell, for sure. Our orders for the night mostly aligned with our server’s recommendations, not the norm for us, but since her recos were along the same vein as my pre-meal menu research, an easy choice. Crudotinis (Crudo’s clever wordplay on crostinis), crudo and carpaccio starters followed by entree classics of curry Chilean sea bass and a simple Branzino a la plancha were ordered. The idea was to get full exposure to chef’s unique blend of Mediterranean and Asian flavors without a lot of other extraneous ingredients littering the path.
The first few bites revealed, puzzlingly so, that the blended flavors were simply not…flavorful, that is. There was certainly a unique flavor profile present, of an earthy, herbal nature, but it was watered down, trespassing on bland. A trio of complimentary dipping sauces perfectly highlighted the overall theme of the evening. What should have been aggressive, pungent, herbaceous and unique combinations of ingredients like 5 spice and Harissa, Kumquat, ginger and cilantro and soy sauce laced balsamic instead combined to make mono-dimensional, lethargic compounds that lacked complexity. They were like chocolate milk, offering no distinctness between the ingredients or hair raising “wow” factor. Instead, they presented as blended, mundane concoctions better suited to washing the flavor of the cold medicine out of your mouth while sniffling on the couch in your sweats on a rainy, wintry day.
The toppings on the crudotini were far overpowered by the toast they were served on and the crudo, well, it should have been great, it looked great, but, instead, it just kinda laid there, toppings not much more than a colorful, gratuitous covering. The culprit, in my opinion, was the absence of any acid in any of the dishes we had. The balsamic vinegar was too sweet for the soy sauce, the cherry tomatoes, while fresh and luscious, were also sweet and the julienned apples, well…you get the picture. Not a lemon slice or a even a splash of rice wine vinegar was seen all evening.
In fact, the only real standout of the night was the curried seabass. It was the one thing I had been a bit hesitant to order, as I was afraid the heavy curry flavors might disguise the real nature of what chef was trying to accomplish. Ummm…they did. For the most part, technical execution of the dishes was fairly spot on, although some of the textures were off. The hot off the plancha, beautifully cooked, crispy skinned, albeit underseasoned Branzino dish, was served with a tepid, wet scoop of mealy, slightly gummy, once again bland, couscous. Our server confirmed that this is how it’s meant to be served. It shouldn’t be.
And then there was the lobster “carpaccio” incident. Ordered on our server’s recommendation as “the most popular item on the menu,” I should have known better. Rarely is the most popular item on any menu the best offering. In fact, it’s usually the most popular only because it’s the most recommended. But, there are few things more decadent than lobster carpaccio – raw, tender crustacean meat lightly cooking in the marinating acids while absorbing the aromas and flavors from the accompanying oils, herbs and spices. The mere thought of it put a sparkle in our eye…
…which was abruptly squelched when, instead of translucent, melt in your mouth, saline, fleshy, carpaccio’d goodness, five or six slices of cooked lobster sprinkled with an ounce or so of julienned fruit and microgreens was placed in front of us. Ummm, that’s not carpaccio…heck, it doesn’t even qualify as a lobster salad. The dish itself was actually good. It presented with a nice balance of sugar and acid, although none of it actually got absorbed into the pre-cooked meat. Again, checking with our server, she said that’s how it’s meant to be served, meaning cooked. 0 for 2…
Somewhere around the third time we flagged down a wandering staff member for a water refill, the manager of Crudo by Pascal Lorange, (Laurent, I believe he said), came to the table to ask about our experience. By this time I had plenty to take issue with, but I stuck with the carpaccio question, as in, “Might it be a good idea to train your servers to tell people your lobster “carpaccio” is a cooked dish before they order it?” He explained that, where he’s from, “carpaccio” really only means thinly sliced…and has nothing to do with raw meat.
Huh? By that definition, wouldn’t prosciutto, deli meats and potato chips then be considered carpaccio? Laurent’s response, “Excuse me, but I am from the South of France, so I know this thing and I am right about it.”
Hey, he could be right – you could fill volumes with the things I don’t know about the South of France. But, ever a stickler for accuracy, I couldn’t find one instance where “raw or uncooked meat or fish” is not specifically mentioned in addition to “thinly sliced or pounded” when googling terms like “carpaccio” “definition of carpaccio” and “carpaccio south of france”.
Then, I thought, maybe this is a micro-regional thing I don’t know about. So, I texted my question and the response I received to a friend, a 5th generation French master chef with 18 Michelin stars on his resume, who also hails from the South of France and has a namesake restaurant. His response, “Wrong, a carpaccio is always raw, can be scallops, beef, venison…” He even followed up with an example, using almost the exact same wording I used, “Carpaccio of prosciutto?? Nope.”
I may still be wrong, and I say that only because Laurent seemed so certain he was right. If I am, accept my mea culpa now. But, if I’m not, then the restaurant and its management are being a bit too clever, deceptively so, with their food descriptions. And, that is even more wrong than the food that they’re serving and the way they’re serving it.
Here’s the rundown on Crudo by Pascal Lorange:
Ambience/Location – Crudo by Pascal Lorange is located in deep suburbia, in an upscale shopping center off the beaten path in Carmel Valley. It’s easy access from the 56 with plentiful free parking. The space is stunning in it’s simple decor with modern design and light, airy finishes. The interior dining room spills out onto two exterior patios. Unfortunately, table placement is cramped and awkward, causing traffic issues and far too much body contact with staff.
Service/Front of House – Service was friendly and willing, but inexperienced and poorly trained. Our server positioned herself so that she could read the specials board at the front of the restaurant as a teleprompter for her breathless spiel on the evenings’ specials. Water glasses went largely unfilled until we waved down someone who then wandered off to search for a pitcher, even though we could see three of them, chilled and sitting on the bar 10 feet away. Servers seemed to have as hard a time navigating the tables as we had eating at them.
Food/Cost – I get the distinct feeling that Crudo by Pascal Lorange is more of an ode to the Housewives of OC or the San Diego equivalent, where cool, pretty people can go to give off and be fed the illusion that they are worldly, enjoying cutting edge cuisine, tasting one of a kind flavors and experiencing the pinnacle of fine dining…without actually doing any of the above. The flavors are there – just not nearly as developed as they should be. The textures – maybe it’s me, but serving a crispy skinned, steaming Branzino, even under-seasoned as it was, with a scoop of soggy, lower than room temperature but not quite chilled, gummy couscous is not inventive. It’s just mean.
Regarding cost, I’ve had more than my fair share of dang expensive meals and hardly ever feel like they weren’t worth it. In other words, I don’t go to a place that charges fine dining prices, generally, without having reasonable information and expectations that they will deliver on the experience. And, if they don’t, well, it was still my decision and I live with it. But, I abhor the idea of spending even a penny on something that doesn’t fulfill its value because it’s misleading, in this case, $17 on a misrepresented, mediocre lobster dish.
Bottom line: For $100+ per person, with food and wine, there are other dining options in San Diego that will blow your mind and leave you with enough money left over for a movie and an uber ride home. Give me a shout if you need some recos. Cheers, my friends!
The Village at Pacific Highland Ranch
5965 Village Way
Suite E 107
San Diego, CA 92130