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Roasted halibut with cara cara zabaione, asparagus and morel mushroom vinaigrette

Va-Va Vivace

by Amy Finley | Photography by Jessica Sample | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | May 29, 2014

Carlsbad was the last place I ever expected to make a celebrity sighting. But when my husband, Greg, and I stepped to our fireside seats at the Park Hyatt Aviara’s signature restaurant, Vivace, I couldn’t help but notice the well-dressed gent (and his decked-out companion) sitting at the table next to ours. “Isn’t that David Alan Grier?” I whispered to Greg. As if on cue, the gentleman’s date—about 4 feet tall and dressed in a flouncy frock covered in rose petals—said something that made her famous father burst into his unmistakable giggle. “No doubt,” said Greg.

By evening’s end, we were starstruck. But not by Grier (nor by another diner who may or may not have been Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar, often seen about town in North County).

Instead, as course after course arrived, our anticipation mounting as each refined dish proved even more remarkable than the last, we knew we’d found a true luminary in chef Jason Seibert and his extraordinarily talented kitchen.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock. In the early aughts, Seibert opened Cafe Cerise downtown. During its too-short existence, it was the toast of San Diego foodies, at that time just beginning to assert their gourmet sensibilities in a town best known for taco shops. Years later, I can still recall the savory intensity of a pistachio-studded pork terrine I’d often order there. I’d just moved back to S.D. from France, and my Paris longings were tempered by Seibert’s deftly executed charcuterie. When the craze for house cures eventually swept San Diego and every chef in town was trying their hand at saucisson and rustic pâté, I’d inevitably measure their efforts against Cafe Cerise’s.

Happily, Seibert’s still got a hankering for ham. At Vivace, he exploits a wood-burning oven to gently crisp thin wisps of smoky pancetta (yes, I know that’s not ham—allow a writer some liberties), and then tops them with a warm artichoke salad laced with preserved lemon. It’s a dish that captures his culinary bilingualism. Seibert turned out convincing French fare at Cerise. At Vivace, he’s internalized the resto’s tradition of interpretive Italian. He can speak both languages convincingly because each values a harmonic balance of clean, fresh flavors, something that depends on access to impeccable ingredients. Even back in his Cafe Cerise days, before it was de rigueur, Seibert was farmer-friendly. Now, all of those relationships, nurtured even while the chef was working out of town in L.A. and New York, are coming to fruition. Seibert tells me he may soon swap out the bright, acidic artichokes on that pancetta dish for tangy cherries. I nearly swooned at the idea, salivating and chuckling over what a great inside joke that will be among Cafe Cerise-venerating, old-school San Diego eaters.

In addition to a la carte dining, Vivace offers four types of tasting menus, and if you bring your appetite (and a pair of stretchy pants—being mindful, of course, that there’s a strict dress code), the adagio—two appetizers, pasta, entree and a choice of dessert or cheese—is the way to go.

Yes, that’s a lot of food, but the kitchen scales the portions appropriately so as not to overwhelm diners when you order such an extensive tasting. Take the bucatini al nero di seppia, for example, and you’ll get just a tantalizing twist of jet-black squid ink pasta topped with pink-hued, shell-on Caledonian prawns. Ippoglosso con asparagi arrostiti summons a few perfect mouthfuls of roasted Pacific halibut with morel mushrooms and green and white asparagus (Seibert says this year has been the best ever for local asparagus). And, if you’re lucky, risotto al limone will still be on the seasonally driven menu—the unconventional dish tops a dollop of lemon risotto with a poached egg, so that the unctuous yolk melds with the creamy rice, producing velvet sensations in the mouth. Marshall, the restaurant’s veteran server, is ace at wine selections. Let him guide your pairings for the evening. And don’t—don’t!—skip dessert. Greg raved about the sea salt caramel tart all the way out the restaurant door, through the cavernous hotel lobby, up the elevator and down the corridor to our room. The next morning, he wanted it again for breakfast. 

Yes, we spent the night. And that’s my final Vivace suggestion: Make an adventure of it. Indulge. Eat too much. Drink too much. Be too satisfied to care that the dining room is a little fussy, and too happy to count the calories as you feast on some of the finest cooking in San Diego. Chair-dance to the musicians sending out groovy vibes. Have a nightcap at the bar after dinner. Kiss good night on a balcony overlooking the lagoon. Sleep like the dead and wake the next morning feeling like a kingpin.

No celebrity status required.

7100 Aviara Resort Drive, Carlsbad, 760.448.1234
Mon.-Sat., 5:30-9:30pm
Starters, $12-$17; pasta, $19-38; entrees, $26-$38; desserts, $10; cheese course, $14

The Shoe In

Sure, it’s North County, but flip-flops in the dining room are specifically prohibited, as are ripped jeans, baseball caps, sports jerseys, T-shirts and tank tops. Don your chic grown-up attire.

The Sip

The new summer wine list is like a European vacay: Continental wines make up 90% of the list, with a focus on Italy and France.

The Sounds

Catch a live guitarist performing in the dining room Thursdays through Saturday.

The Seat

Even in the heat of summer, the cozy fireside tables are our favorite seats in the house, closely followed by one of the plush purple velvet banquettes.