By Daniel K. LewSan Diego’s Balboa Park is renowned for its museums and gorgeous setting, so it’s only fitting that the park’s only full-service restaurant — The Prado at Balboa Park — offers its own sense of culture with California-modern cuisine blended with international influences. Like the draw of attractions or arts events at Balboa Park, The Prado can be considered a destination restaurant. It is located at the heart of the park inside the architecturally-grand House of Hospitality building, a historic landmark.
Executive Chef Jonathan Hale said he has created a menu with “fresh, bold flavors” which compliment the location, ambiance and decor. "There is something for everyone,” Hale said of the “eclectic but accessible” cuisine. In addition to innovative, American dishes with French, Spanish and Asian touches, the menu carries familiar, comfort-food favorites in its appetizers, sandwiches, salads, meat and seafood entrees, vegetarian options, and desserts. All are served with great presentation and seasonal ingredients whenever possible.
Popular appetizers reflecting the menu’s diverse flavors and international influences include Spicy Calamari Fries (with Korean chili sauce and napa-cabbage slaw), Prado Sea Cake, and Kobe Beef Sushi Roll.
Not the usual crab cake, Prado Sea Cake consists of crab, shrimp and cod with South Asian sambal remoulade, Spanish piquillo aioli; and served with a refreshing apple-jicama slaw.
The Beef Sushi Roll has a good balance of textures and flavors with the soft sushi rice, crunchy asparagus, bold zing in the wasabi cream, a hint of citrus in the ponzu dipping sauce, along with flavorful tobiko aioli.
Some of the salads and greens likewise involve changing ingredients based on the season. A popular winter salad is the 3 “P” Salad. Thin-shaved, orange-colored persimmon are beautifully arranged and topped with sliced pears, chopped pecans, watercress, mint, and a honey-ginger vinaigrette. The result is a light and tasty combination.
One of the more fitting entree choices — based on the restaurant’s Spanish architecture — is the house-favorite Prado Seafood Paella. Fish, mussels, shrimp, calamari, chicken and chorizo are simmered with a twist on tradition by using a lobster-saffron broth.
Seafood dishes include local fish, like the Pan-Roasted White Sea Bass. It is served with French green lentils, baby spinach, pancetta, star-anise emulsion and topped with fine-shaved fennel — resulting in a California-modern dish with a touch of French and Asian ingredients. “Lentils are great in the fall with a great, Earthy flavor,” Hale said. “The accompanying carrots have some vibrant colors; there is a sweetness in the sauce, and the big-flakes in the fish give some nice texture.”
Braised Beef Short Ribs is a signature dish in which its preparation and accompaniments may change seasonally. Hale said the rich and intense flavors of the beef are balanced with horseradish mashed potatoes to give sharpness to the dish; an Italian gremolata mixture of roasted garlic, parsley and citrus; and grilled asparagus for texture. The short ribs are slow-roasted for hours and so tender that a knife is not needed.
Beef lovers would also be wise to choose the Grilled 16-ounce Bone in Ribeye (with truffled mac ‘n cheese, and green peppercorn sauce), or Shrimp and Filet (Grilled Angus petite filet, marinated grilled shrimp, garlic potato puree, green beans, crispy challots, harts of palm, and bordelaise sauce).
One of the top vegetarian dishes is a Thai-Style Yellow Curry Red Pepper Pappardelle with Tofu (coconut milk, lemongrass, lime leaf, peas, cauliflower, and spinach), which is also available with chicken.
Lunchtime choices include the addition of comfort foods, such as Artisan Sourdough Grilled-Cheese Sandwich and Soup (serrano ham, tomatoes, french fries, and chunky tomato-basil soup), and a twist on a classic: Slow-Cooked Short Rib Pot Pie (marsala wine, peas, carrots, and cipollini onions, topped with a giant puffed-pastry lid).
For dessert, the Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Bar can be a sweet ending to a fine meal. Rich chocolate cake is layered with a soft chocolate mousse, praline crunch, and bacon-hazelnut tuille in which pieces of Applewood smoked bacon give a subtle, salty balance to the sweetness.
Another dessert great for sharing is the “over the top” Tres Leches, Hale said. Traditional “three milk"-soaked sponge cake has baked pistachio meringue filled with caramel bananas and vanilla-bean ice cream.
The spacious restaurant offers dining in several areas: a trendy bar/lounge; garden terrace with skylights and views of the park’s greenery; expansive patio overlooking one of the park’s lush valleys; and the main dining room filled with hand-crafted decor, Latin architecture, Spanish ceiling tiles; and glowing, romantic lighting in the evening. A large ballroom and banquet rooms are also available.
Reservations are highly recommended, especially for weekends and tourist seasons, when there are special events at the park, and days when The Old Globe Theatre holds performances.
The Prado at Balboa Park
• Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego
• Phone: (619) 557-9441
• Website: www.pradobalboa.com
• The Vibe: Cultural, casually elegant, romantic, eclectic, relaxing
• Signature Dishes: Sea Cake, Beef Sushi Roll, Seafood Paella, Pan-Roasted White Sea Bass, Braised Beef Short Ribs, Shrimp and Filet
• Open since: 1999
• Reservations: Recommended
• Patio Seating: Yes
• Take Out: No
• Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. and 8-10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 4-6 p.m. and 8-11 p.m. Friday, 8-11 p.m. Saturday
• Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
• Dinner: 5 p.m. to close
• Holiday Hours: Inquire
• On The Menu Recipe:Each week you’ll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. Just click Get The Recipe at the bottom of the story.
This week: The Prado at Balboa Park’s Pan-Roasted White Sea Bass