A write up about a place called Campfire should be a perfect fit for the 241st birthday of the United States Marine Corps (Happy Birthday, Marines!). Except, I can’t remember even once in the Marine Corps eating a meal cooked over open flames, unless you count trying to cook a Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) over a heat tab. That effort was always far more likely to heat your temper rather than any of the actual food. Trying to feed a bunch of hungry Marines after a day of humping 80 lb packs up and down hills for fun requires something a little more predictable and less time consuming than a campfire.
If you’re a camper, you know what I mean. Even under the best conditions, it only takes one partially burnt marshmallow slowly sliding down the skewer to a certain fiery demise, smoky black on one side, cool and untouched on the other, to understand how imprecise a method cooking over open flames can be. Add in the time and skill needed to even build a decent campfire – Dig the pit, carry the stones to line it, gather the wood, strike and stoke the fire, let the bed of coals develop, take a leap of faith as to how hot the fire is followed by a wild ass guess as to how long the food should be left over the flames…
…and, that’s if you have a really good cook in your camp along with some daylight left to cook by. Those of us who are camping veterans know better. Break out the gas fired camp stove and charcoal grill – it’s the only way to ensure everyone around your campfire gets decently prepared food in their bellies in a reasonable amount of time.
Campfire, Carlsbad’s newest casual dining addition, is hitting all the right pressure points to bring at least part of that experience to San Diego North County. You’re not going to be fooled into thinking you’re on a camping trip here, the only open flames you’ll see as a guest are the candles on the tables. There’s no dirt, sand, snow, trails or any of the other things that might bring that outdoor activity feeling to your meal, either. Then again, you won’t be rained out, sun burnt, eaten alive by bugs or have to sit patiently while that chicken you thought looked so cool hanging over the fire on a pointy stick laughs at you at it slowly warms its way into tomorrow.
Instead, you’ll be seated indoors at a version of a picnic table, appropriately sized for your party, in a rustically adorned, recycled quonset hut. Surprisingly well trained servers, especially considering the short amount of time Campfire has been open, will then talk you through a menu that’s as diverse as the bevy of camping experiences you might decide to partake in before dining. The rustic fare, ranging from seafood to vegetarian, is simple in presentation and versatile in its sourcing. It’s also bursting with flavor. Nothing tastes better than camping food after a day outdoors, and Campfire, on that point, has nailed their mission.
There is smoke and char incorporated in every dish at Campfire. In fact, those elements are present in their pretty spectacular cocktail program, too. That could be a good thing or a bad thing at a lot of places. At Campfire, it’s a great thing, with the smoke and char presenting not so much as an overwhelming theme as judiciously and conservatively utilized spices. You won’t leave Campfire smelling like you just fell into one, rather with a wispy, lingering, vaporous memory that beckons you back even as you’re leaving to enjoy the rest of your smoke free evening.
Menu items like the grilled oysters at Campfire are not a new thing. Back home in South Louisiana, they’re a staple. There are also maybe a handful of places locally that have started doing them with varying degrees of success. But, the grilled oysters at Campfire are a revelation, heated just to the point of being lightly cooked, retaining their fresh texture, but also absorbing a hint of smoke that sets off the added mignonette bath which enhances the natural briny liqueur of the oysters…the only thing that could possibly be better than an order of four of these would be a dozen at the same price…heck, almost at any price.
They’re also your first inkling of the precision and control that Executive Chef Andrew Bachelier (recently of Addison and Cucina Enoteca) is exercising over the flames. The food at Campfire incorporates eyebrow raising flavors, heavily complemented with forward acidic notes that cut through the smokiness of the food – not that much cutting is needed. The hit parade continues, pretty much through the entire menu.
Long beans shipped in from the Central Valley retain their fresh snap, concentrated by the flame cooking, but also accentuated by a light char at the edges giving them a slightly charred, toothy texture to chew on while processing and absorbing the warm vinaigrette-like dressing that they are slathered with. This dish is served with perfectly soft boiled eggs and a fresh piece of the fish of the day. They could probably lose the fish. There are other fish offerings on the menu like the grilled striped bass that will knock your socks off and the long beans are a standout on their own.
What Campfire is doing in Carlsbad is neither new or unique in the grand scheme of things. In fact, cooking over fire is what dragged mankind out of the stone ages. The ability to heat our food, thereby tenderizing it and making the process of chewing and digesting so much easier and faster, allows us to focus on all those other things like arts, technology, the human condition… Rather than spending the majority of our days, like all other species, foraging and hunting, then chewing and tearing at raw food stuffs, we let the heat do the work so we can get on with ours.
But, there’s always that primal part of us that is captivated by flames licking at anything. Food cooked over an open fire…our most basic need fulfilled by the most basic element. Save the campfire for those marshmallows, though. And those MRE’s…we ate ’em cold, with our dirty fingers, right out of the plastic packs they came in. Campfire, Carlsbad, is your easy button for some of the best food in town that would be just as good served on fine china as a paper plate. Enjoy and Cheers, my friends!
2725 State St.
Carlsbad, CA 92008