One of the things I love about writing this column is the ability to recommend a salt-of-the-earth kind of place like Philippe’s French Dip one week and follow it with a high-end feast for the culinary senses as I’m about to with Ponto Lago, the new fine-dining restaurant at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad.
I get equal satisfaction from both types of experiences and having that culinary mix in my life is essential.
Ponto Lago replaces the former Vivace restaurant, which closed during a $50 million, 18-month renovation at the resort that was completed last year. The resort itself is spectacular and should be added to your list of local places to go out big in a spectacular setting with amazing views.
There is also the whole golf attraction and while that’s not my thing so much, I’ve been told it’s quite impressive. Of course, there is also a spa and other amenities that could appeal to locals as well.
The menu concept at Ponto Lago is the creation of French-born executive chef Pierre Albaladejo and combines global flavors mixed with inventive Baja California-inspired cuisine.
Albaladejo works his magic in a show kitchen that allows guests to get a behind-the-scenes look at this wide-open, sizable culinary playground, highlighted by an amazing world-class Mibrasa wood-burning grill from Spain that burns oak for heat and mesquite for flavor.
That makes me very happy as I will not buy another gas grill, relying exclusively on my Weber and a similar mix of wood for the ultimate in flavor and aroma. It really does make all the difference, so slow down, light some charcoal and wood, and experience the flavor difference it makes.
However, let’s start with the bar program first, which is creative and fun. There is a section called the “Tequila Trail” that offers “Highlands vs Lowlands,” letting you explore the differences that the growing regions impart on the agave.
The Highlands is known for its floral and sweeter style with the Lowlands more for its spicy, earthy and herbaceous style. This information was all new to me and the accompanying tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails look spectacular as well. I’m planning a trip back via Uber or Lyft to explore this Tequila Trail further.
I was with my charter boat captain friend as my dining companion, so we had to explore the Baja Crudo Bar to start. There is a raw bar separate from the kitchen that was so visually appealing it made me want to explore everything available from it.
And seriously folks, we probably could have been completely satisfied sticking to that portion of the menu. We started with the Yellowtail Jalapeno Crudo, which was one of the most beautifully presented seafood dishes I’ve experienced. Sliced yellowtail, garlic puree, jalapeno with a kumquat micro mix, ponzu and aji amarillo aioli. As pretty as it was, it tasted even better, a really stellar way to begin our dining experience.
Next, from the Crudo Bar was the Batiquitos Roll with a foundation of crab, cucumber and tuna that was delightful. I’m a big fan of ceviche and have to say that the “Ceviche Tour” featuring Tuna Ceviche, Kampachi Ceviche, and Baja Seafood Cocktail in three separate bowls was the best I’ve experienced. Just the variety was amazing.
By the way, kampachi is high-value yellowtail and also a member of the “jack” family and it is delicious. Oysters are also available, but we had more food coming so had to save room.
The salad or “Botanas” section of the menu includes a nice-looking TJ Caesar Salad that is meant to emulate the original from Caesars in Tijuana in a style unique to Ponto Lago. We went with the Octopus Zarandeado with chorizo aioli, chicharron, kumquat and celery watercress. And of course, it was perfectly cooked.
Being fans of creating our own surf and turf experience, we turned next to the “Brasa y Lena” (which translates to “ember and firewood”) portion of the menu, much of it cooked to perfection on that wood burning grill I mentioned.
Pacific Manilla Clams with winter rice was the surf portion and the 20-ounce Bone-in Prime Brandt Beef Rib Eye with green garlic, Iberico fat flambe and caramelized cipollini provided the turf.
The rib-eye was cooked to perfection and sliced for our convenience to split, which was a nice touch. It was an entrée full of wood-fired goodness and left us nodding silently in mutual manly approval, no words needed.
Our very knowledgeable server suggested the Ponto Churros with spiced Mayan chocolate sauce and a mixed berry compote, so we went with that and the Ecuadorian Flan with Mezcal lime mango salsa, caramelized banana and mango jalapeno coulis. It was also fun to pair it with an Inniskillin Ice Wine from the Niagara Peninsula in Canada. A new wine experience for me and delightful with the dessert.
I should note that there is private dining for groups and special occasions along with a “Chef’s Corner” where your dining experience is preceded by an exploratory phone call with the chef who gets a feel for your dining desires. I love that touch!
Oh, and if you are a local, they will validate your valet parking, a nice touch to begin and end an epic dining experience at a world-class resort right in our backyard.
All the details are at www.parkhyattaviara.com