Now Playing

Photography by Ethan Pines

’Lap It Up

by Troy Johnson | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | October 21, 2011

During the 1980s indoor-mall boom, a prevailing design idea was the hell-to-heaven approach. Shoppers were forced to traverse a long, smoldering parking lot, dodging irate minivanners and aiming toward nothing more than a boring, beige box. Immediately inside the doors, however, they were overcome by an oasis of festive lights, central AC, music and circus-worthy glee.

Who in their right mind would want to leave?

For an example, look at North County Fair. Or, in the restaurant world, Burlap.

Burlap is the hot new thing in Del Mar Highlands, a top-notch mall with a fresh $20 million makeover. But even the best malls don’t inspire architectural walking tours. Unless valet parking ($4), Burlap diners must park in the hinter-lot and pound some asphalt. Once inside, however, they’re rewarded with an orgy of “Asian cowboy” festivity. Dragon masks leer like mythical, Technicolor drunks. Taxidermy heads add hunting-lodge bravado. Wall-sized screens are etched with Marlboro Man iconography.

It’s joyful chaos of off-duty suburbia.

From the frosted glass of the front to the bamboo-lined patio, you’re blissfully unaware that within 100 feet in any direction are an IHOP and pools of Range Rover radiator fluid.

It’s the second of three fabric-themed restaurants in S.D. by nightclub impresario James Brennan (Stingaree), chef Brian Malarkey (ex-Oceanaire) and designer Thomas Schoos (Tao in Vegas). Their first, downtown’s Searsucker, is killing it. The model? A feast of cheeky, reclaimed interior design, gourmet share-plates and a killer bar scene.

Reservations at Burlap are dicey. Our 6:45 turns into a 7:25 seating (the next night, Friday, they’re on time). It is a hot spot. But if they run that far behind often, taking reservations is pointless and off-putting.

Malarkey’s menu is exhaustive, with Raw (hamachi-jalapeño crudo), Stick (miso salmon belly), Green (a Dungeness Louie), Bowl, Ocean, Land, Rotisserie and Ours (specialties). Seventy-eight menu items, not counting dessert. The possibilities are endless! And maddening!

Ben Lieberman (ex-Katsuya in Brentwood) executes the menu while Malarkey roves and focuses on empire-building. Each table is a swashbuckle of forks. The best dishes include a venison carpaccio—an excellent (if tiny) example of game rendered correctly with truffle soy aioli, capers and pecorino. Malarkey’s swimmers are also top-quality—from a raw hamachi-jalapeño that survives excessive ponzu to his fantastic angry snapper, fried whole with serranos, orange aioli, garlic, basil and, well, eyes. Do not skip the cheek meat. His scallops with foie gras are also commendable, even if foie would make shoes edible.

His pork shoulder rotisserie has a sweet glaze and a good bark, but is a bit on the dry side. Though the accompanying buns (basically steamed bread, a Chinese specialty) are soft, sweet pillows, a delight to eat. The warm-fuzzy moment of the menu comes from his excellent miso chowder with yams, a bowl of perfectly brackish comfort.

Two wins on dessert. A large bowl of coconut tapioca with frozen kiwi, passion fruit sorbet and chunks of mango is to be shared, as long as your companions are of the hygienic persuasion. The condensed milk cake with green tea mousse and caramelized rice puffs is also very good (and vaguely Asian).

Portions are small, and a bill can ratchet up fairly quickly. Lieberman’s handling too much volume to do four-star cooking. That said, it’s good enough and creative enough that, when taken in concert with the design, the festive mob scene and the reclaimed Clint Eastwood-meets-Kurosawa design, warrants repeat visits. It’s officially the hottest game in Del Mar.

12995 El Camino Real

Traffic Report
Beware: It’s always busy. Carmel Valley cougars in jersey dresses arrive nightly to pick at raw-menu starters and slurp cocktails.

Reclaim to Fame
When L.A. designer Thomas Schoos renovated his office, he emptied the contents into Burlap, which might explain its schizophrenic design. Oh, look! A moose head! A saint statue! Chinese lanterns!

Appetizers, $6-$12 (avg.); share plates $10-$14 (avg.); entrées, $22-$35; desserts, $3-$10


Lunch daily 11:30AM-2PM; dinner Sun.-Wed., 5-9PM, Thu.-Sat., 5-11PM; brunch Sat.-Sun., 11AM-2PM