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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

San Diego Restaurant Week 2012 Preview: Rendezvous Del Mar

I grew up in the Bay Area where there are more Chinese restaurants than there are Starbucks and the food is consistently authentic.  San Diego also has some great Chinese food, mostly in the Convoy Street area, but if you're in the North County there really hasn't been much choice.  OK, sure there are PF Changs but those who know Chinese know that PF's the El Torito of Chinese food.  Worse is Pei Wei, and don't even get me started on Panda Express.

So with so many McChinese restaurants in North County (yes, even Chin's Szechuan falls into that category), excuse me for not trying Rendezvous in Del Mar.  A Chinese "bistro" setting, I thought it was a PF knockoff and avoided it for years.  Well, I was wrong.

For San Diego Restaurant Week 2012, Rendezvous is offering a $30 meal that includes an appetizer, and entree, and a dessert.  It's one of the better deals as unlike PF Changs the portions are big and the food, well, let's talk about that.

The seared ahi appetizer might not be a traditional Chinese offering but the quality and quantity was impressive.  Underneath the ahi was a refreshing salad with a touch of ginger and rice vinegar, really nice.  This appetizer is an entree in any other restaurant and a good pick for seafood lovers.

We also ordered the Honey Glazed Spare Ribs dusted with five spice.  These were good but a bit less moist than I had hoped.  I'd get them again as I could tell they had the potential to be great.

Next up was the Honey Walnut Shrimp.  Now let me tell you, I have had this dish in more restaurants than I can remember and most of them were terrible.  For this dish to succeed the shrimp must be huge, they must be crispy, and the mayonnaise based sauce must be delicate enough that you don't even taste the mayo.  These shrimp succeeded on all levels, without a doubt the best Honey Walnut Shrimp I have ever had.  Outrageously good and again, a huge portion.  I went to Pei Wei (don't laugh, I was hungry) the week before and their portion size was more appropriate for a Happy Meal so it was great to see portions like you would see in a "real" Chinese restaurant.

Wait - is Rendezvous not a real Chinese restaurant?  From a food perspective, absolutely solid.  They also own the Dumpling House in Convoy, a tiny place with authentic foods and long lines of Asians and foodies waiting outside.  It's one of San Diego's best dim sum houses and totally authentic, so Rendezvous has the creds.  But unlike the Convoy restaurants where service can be confusing and chaotic and the dining area down home and sometimes weird, Rendezvous is upscale enough that you can take your date or spouse here without having to act like you're a crazy foodie nut on the hunt for authentic food no matter what the setting.  Come in jeans and you'll be fine, though a pair of slacks works nicely here as well.

And also unlike most Chinese restaurants where the wine selection is worse than Applebees, Rendezvous has a great wine and beer selection.  In fact, if you like what you're drinking or picking up food to go they will even sell you a bottle at near retail price.  That's really good to know as I hate it when you find a good restaurant wine but can never find it again in a retail store.

Next up was the rack of lamb with a nice "Mongolian" sauce on it.  Marinated four hours, topped with teriyaki sauce, it was another winner.  Order rare as the meat continues to cook once cut and our medium rare was a bit closer to medium once we ate it, but maybe you're not taking as many photos of your food before you dine as I do ;-)

Now here's a crazy dish - Three Cup Chicken done up Taiwanese style.  It's wings with the ends chopped off so the bone marrow flavors the broth.  The flavors are deep and complex and the dish as authentic as Chinese home cooking, which is where the chef usually makes this dish.  It's a hard one to do in a restaurant setting and the respect for the dish shines through.  Outstanding!  Get this one - it's truly authentic and very delicious.  You won't find this one at PF McChangs.

They also do a lot of vegan and vegetarian dishes and the whole gluten free thing for your Prius driving friends.  I ordered the tofu and eggplant because I love tofu..  It wasn't until it arrived in the hot pot that I remembered that Panda Express does a tofu and eggplant dish.  A really average tofu and eggplant dish.  But this one wasn't average at all, it was fantastic.  A bit of spice, a lot of flavors, and steaming hot.  Good pick and great for your even your non-vegetarian friends. 

Last but not least, dessert.  Chinese restaurants often have terrible desserts so my expectations were very low.  I ordered a banana rolled in eggroll skin, deep fried and dusted with cinnamon sugar  with whipped cream and caramel sauce.  OK, let me tell you that this was the best dessert I have had in a long time.  Better than Thomas Keller's desserts in Napa.  Better than George's at the Cove.  Simply one of the best desserts period.  The crispy outside first reminds you of the fair (good thing), but then the soft sweetness of the cooked banana comes through.  A dip into the whipped cream and caramel and there is simply nothing better, a playful yet sophisticated dessert that you would never expect in a Chinese restaurant.  It's worth coming here for Restaurant Week just for this dessert.  Trust me!

So in the end, did I like Rendezvous enough to go back?  Absolutely.  Though not every dish was fully successful, the ones that were far exceeded my high standards.  Unlike the chain Chinese restaurants where every dish is an American adaptation, I like that Rendezvous worked hard to keep their standards up and didn't dumb down the dishes to fit a McChinese audience, which would have been very easy to do in an upscale Del Mar location.  Authentic Chinese in a nice setting, it's a winner.

So when you're trying to decide where to go for Restaurant Week, make sure Rendezvous is on your list.  And get that dessert!

Local Wally

Coming soon:, the complete guide to San Diego microbreweries!

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