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Dining at Burlap!

It’s all the rage up here in Carmel Valley and my wife wanted to give it a try. Malarkey doesn’t get much love on this board and I was reluctant based on that but in the interest of marital harmony agreed to go. I was also reluctant to take the kids but my wife wanted to spend our money on food and not babysitters. She called and asked if it was “kid friendly” and the hostess said “yes” but suggested we come early. So we arrived at 5:00 on a Friday evening and there were already several dozen people waiting for them to open.

The Setting

One can only describe the setting of Burlap as a complete failure and I certainly would not have chosen this particular location. First of all, it’s in the Del Mar Highlands mall, which is a nice place for daily shopping and services but not a great environment for fine dining, IMHO. Burlap is in the corner of the mall with limited access and thus parking is a real challenge. They have a valet but the limited access makes getting in and out challenging and there were a lot of frustrated people and confused valet attendants. Chaos! IMO, this is an important part of the fine dining experience. Compare this to arriving at say Addison in the peaceful, very low stress environment there.

Second, Burlap is in the corner of the mall closest to the intersection of Del Mar Heights and El Camino Real. Both major thoroughfares and each is six lanes wide. Burlap’s open air section is just next to this intersection. Though it’s walled off by thick glass and the traffic din is not that bad, you definitely hear it when a truck or Harley goes by. Certainly not conducive to fine dining and conversation.

The Décor

The décor at Burlap is kinda overdone Asian tchotchke. Above the interior bar are several of the very colorful dragon heads that you’d see on a Chinese New Year dragon. There’s a large dragon suspended over the dining tables. The exterior bar is done up in Asian woods with a lot of Asian knick-knacks scattered about. They’ve installed a koi pond in the outdoor section. There’s also a gazebo/palapa in the outdoor section that is somewhat separate but wouldn’t be described as private. On the plus side, the kitchen is visible through glass walls. IMO, the décor, while all of the individual aspects are interesting, comes across as overdone and to me, too visually stimulating and not conducive to fine dining.

The Vibe

Burlap is not so much a restaurant but a restaurant-nightclub hybrid. To me the nightclub aspect detracts significantly from the dining experience as they’re pumping loud, heavy music into the dining area. It’s crowded and noisy with a lot of non-diners drinking and speaking loudly. And of course, being in Carmel Valley, the crowd has been described as “Cougar-ish” ;) .

The Beer

I have to give Burlap credit for focusing their four taps on local craft brews. Including the smaller, more rare breweries such as Iron Fist and Airdale. These were the two I had and both were very good and properly served. I’d decided to stick with beer given focus on spicy Asian flavors.

The Wine

Burlap has what can only be described as a very eclectic wine list. They have “interesting” wines from various winegrowing regions around the world. There were very few wines on the list that I could even recognize (and I’d condsider myself very vell versed in wine) and thus I cannot comment on quality or price point. I suspect that it’s by design that they’ve developed such a wine list.

The Food

Sweet potato fries – Well done! Cooked to crispy and not soggy at all. Served with a garlic-ginger aoli that was delicious and not heavy. Everyone, including the kids, enjoyed immensely.

Sticks – Burlaps term for skewered meats. We ordered a number of these as the kids are fans and each came with a paired sauce: chicken balls (balsamic teriyaki), chicken satay (peanut sauce), beef sirloin (chipotle-eel BBQ sauce), Asian pork sausage (“cowboy remoulade”) and salmon belly (sweet miso). The kids ate most of this and loved all of them, liking the Asian sausage the best. Though my wife and I also tried each one and were favorably impressed across the board!. The meats were all cooked nicely, moist, not overcooked. All of the sauces, while creative and “non-traditional” paired very well.

Hamachi and jalapeno – A Nobu specialty and we’ve had this at Nobu or Matsuhisa restaurants several times. Burlap served with an onion ponzu sauce. We both agreed that this was at least as good as if not better than Nobu’s. Large fresh, tender pieces of fish!

Spicy tuna on crispy rice – This was an out of the ordinary dish (though when I described to a friend she mentioned that they did something similar in Puerto Rico). Essentially a spicy albacore with a chili caper mayonnaise on top of a block of rice like a nigiri sushi, but the rice is crispy. This was the highlight of the evening. The flavor was very interesting, spicy but not too much so, and the contrast between the soft fish and crispy rice was very enticing! Knock your socks off good!

Foie gras – Served with a blackberry marmalade. This appeared well done but we had a “sequencing” issue here. Having the foie gras after the two spicy fish dishes made it difficult to fully experience the subtle flavors and textures. I’ll not comment further on the quality. It was a mistake to order in this sequence. A sharp server may have caught this but the fault lies with us.

Sesame crusted brie – This was a sesame seed (black and white) crusted brie baked and served with a mango jam. This was the one dish that seemed to miss the mark. I found it to be a good combination of flavors but a poor combination of textures. The sesame crust was very rigid and well, crusty, whilst the baked brie was runny as expected. Made it difficult to enjoy. I’m not sure if this was cooked longer than it was supposed to be or not. Perhaps it was a kitchen error and not a bad recipe. We mentioned to our server and he was going to inquire (though we didn’t leave him much of a sample) but we or he neglected to follow up.

The Service

I have to say that in our experience the service was excellent. Our waiter was engaging and knowledgeable about the menu and dishes without being overbearing. The accessory servers (noticeably all beautiful young women, BTW) were all on the ball. We were impressed enough to leave a very good tip.

The Verdict

Overall, the food here ranged from very good to knock-your-socks-off good! I was very impressed by the food. On the other hand, the setting, décor and nightclub atmosphere are definite drawbacks IMO. On the whole, I’m not very interested in returning. If I were to return for the food, I’d likely visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday to avoid the nightclub crowd.

My $0.02.

-----
Nobu
207 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101

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  1. thanks for the report! been curious to try the food but the rumors of a nightclub-cougar atmosphere has been a limiting factor. after a long week at work, it's hard to tolerate a loud environment.

    1. Thanks for the great review and it's really time for us to visit some of his restaurants. Only one comment - I am not sure if I would call Burlap fine dining and I doubt that they would call
      themselves fine dining.

      1 Reply
      1. re: honkman

        I'd agree that it's not fine dining and perhaps that was my misconception going in.

      2. What I like about them is they're different, lots of unique dishes on the menu or at least things you don't find much elsewhere. The ones I've tried sound strange but actually work. Pho broth with ramen and raw egg on top - my favorite dish there. Ribeye cheesesteak (using bleu cheese).

        Service was excellent as mentioned. I'd agree with honkman it's not fine dining to the point where they will help you on your food sequencing, but their personal recommendations were all good.

        We always had lunch, and the time you go is really going to determine he crowd. I know people gripe about the location, but this is one of the easier places to park and not far off the freeway. DM Highlands wasn't a place for dining, but this year alone 5 concept restaurants including Burlap simultaneously opened. None of them franchises or generic by any measure, and including two wine bars. This was part of the mall's renovation project.

        1 Reply
        1. re: royaljester

          I agree and I also enjoy the creativity and the unique dishes. The nite we were there, parking was a serious issue even with the valet. Perhaps it's getting better and if you're a regular at DM Highlands you know you can park up top and take the stairs down and avoid that mess.

          I'm also looking forward to trying some of the newer restaurants. It's good to have more choices right in Carmel Valley and not need to drive, particularly on weeknights when traffic is an issue.

        2. Great report steve..

          The cougar den with the copious botox, fish lips, pajama jeans and the faux Prada bags would make me lose my appetite in a rejuvederme minute!

          4 Replies
          1. re: Beach Chick

            ha! this is why i love you...and your perfect characterization of the female population of Carmel Valley is precisely why i never quite fit in there. you know, being a cosmetic surgery virgin & all :)

            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              I agree that the "cougar"-type is over-represented in Carmel Valley. However, to be fair to the female population of CV as a whole, the vast majority of women here are your typical, non-surgically nor cosmetically enhanced people who are very family oriented. Though the cougars do seem to flock to the local niteclubs.

                1. re: Beach Chick

                  back atcha, chica...and sadly it will be a very long time before i make it back to CA for a visit. i've been jonesing for good sushi and a decent fish taco!

            2. Nice write up Steve. I've had a similar experiences with the service, it was excellent. Had some minor issues with the food, over use of the low quality steamed buns (bao) served both with the bone marrow and the rotisserie duck, skin not crispy on duck as promised, and the liquid viagra was killed with too much ponzu. We are in the area quite often and will be back, hamichi was good as was my wife's halibut and the brussel sprouts were quite good, ala David Chang fish sauce vinaigrette. Also glad to see Rimel's is open with lines out the door, the center would be a great place for another Home Grown meats.