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Seared diver scallops with carrot caponata, citrus and spiced cocoa. Photo: Andrea Bricco

Making Waves

by Kersten Wehde | Riviera San Diego magazine | November 21, 2012

If Robert Hohmann is feeling any pressure, you wouldn’t know it. The new chef de cuisine at 1500 Ocean, the premier kitchen at one of the most famous properties in the continental U.S., has a relaxed flair for intensifying the approachable with bold, sophisticated flavors. One spoonful of his ambrosia pudding—a gingery mélange of Israeli couscous cooked in buttermilk and almond milk and cradling peppery poached fruit—confirms what the preceding meal strongly suggests: This guy is one to watch. Closely, so he can’t make a break for it.

The Hotel Del’s signature restaurant has been loved and left by more than one man in the last two years (Aaron Martinez left the kitchen for San Francisco; before him, the well-liked Brian Sinnott abandoned ship), which explains why some locals may be a bit gun-shy about handing over their hearts to yet another super-hyped toque. Though 1500 Ocean has toned down its aristocrats-only air, keeping the white tablecloths and impeccable service but adopting a “casual elegant” dress code and an accessible Southland coastal menu—focusing on “food that isn’t interesting for the sake of being interesting,” as gregarious General Manager Ben Kephart puts it—it will take time to rebrand the Del as a place to dine again and again, rather than solely on anniversaries. Will this young chef with experience and ambition hightail it off the island before locals can be lured across the bridge? “I’ll be here for at least five years,” Hohmann answers. You heard it here first: We have him for half a decade. Verbal contract, totally binding.

Hohmann has arrived in Coronado with an A-list résumé of former cohorts (Batali, Keller, Pepin…). Most recently, he was wowing the Yountville set with Michael Chiarello at Bottega. Today, Hohmann’s dishes are bold in both presentation and execution, but never aggressive. Few starters anywhere can compete with rich duck liver mousse made with mascarpone and crème fraîche. Spread on crostini and cut with puckering cherry confiture, a generous scoop of the stuff makes it clear that this is the rightful successor to the foie gras throne. Fantastic Skuna Bay salmon crudo is served with fleshy elf mushrooms, pickled peppers and bright Meyer lemon, all on a painted streak of kalamata olive. The only starter that feels phoned in is the bland piquillo pepper soup, which tastes healthy, not in a good way.

With blue cheese and port, the fig and fennel salad is all the more pleasing because of Hohmann’s motivation for it. “It’s something very much from my childhood,” he says. “At some point in the meal, almost every single day, it was raw fennel, raw figs, some kind of espresso or red wine.” The result is a medley of these in a dish that’s both luxurious and feather-light.

An inventive take on Cal-Med cuisine is showcased in several entrées, from the inside-out version of veal tonnato (Hohmann’s is served warm on a bed of arugula, caper berries and tuna emulsion, unlike the traditional, chilled version) to a buttery Chilean sea bass with wild fennel dressing and Sicilian spice. A wonderful menu special, the intense lamb carpaccio, is served with an egg that’s been soft-boiled, breaded and deep-fried. And though citrus threatens to overtake the pleasingly meaty, perfectly seared diver scallops, a clever sprinkle of spiced cocoa saves the dish.

Even dessert turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts. The chocolate polenta cake—basically a baked meringue topped with poached cherries—mimics a soufflé’s texture and sits upon a crust of coconut, walnut, sugar, butter and graham cracker crust. Finally, there’s Hohmann’s cheesecake for people who don’t like cheesecake, the recipe for which belonged to his grandparents and has remained secret until now.
Promised tenure notwithstanding, you know how chefs are. There’s no time like the present to meet San Diego’s newest culinary star.

1500 Ocean
1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, 619.522.8490, hoteldel.com

Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10pm
Appetizers: $12-$15
Entrées: $25-$36
Desserts: $10-$12

Where to Sit
It’s the best oceanfront dining in the city, but beware: Noise reaches Spinal Tap levels when helicopters head back to base.

Garden Variety
Hohmann pulls herbs and veggies directly from the Del garden outside.

The $21 Pour
GM Ben Kephart, who earned local fame as the de facto sommelier at Cucina Urbana, makes an excellent case for the especially delicious Diatom Hamon chardonnay: It’s the only restaurant in SoCal to offer the ultra-acidic, super-lush sip by the glass.

Who’s There
Nametagged conventioneers, heavily accented Europeans and families with toddlers.