The Stonehouse Revival

It’s official: after two and a half years and $25 million in renovation and restoration, San Ysidro Ranch announced the reopening of Stonehouse Restaurant and began welcoming guests on December 4. An electrical fire in the kitchen prompted the closure of both the Stonehouse and its downstairs neighbor, the Plow and Angel restaurant, in April 2004, and a complete kitchen rebuild and restaurant refurbishment has resulted – alongside a full $150-million restoration of the hotel property by Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts. The Plow and Angel is slated to reopen in January or February 2007.

A new entryway leading up to San Ysidro Ranch now boasts a gravel driveway lined with symmetrical rows of mature olive trees and lavender, all of which is up-lit for a dramatic evening drive up to the hotel property. Gracious and informed staff check in and welcome visitors and guests at each step.

Chef John Trotta was retained throughout the closure and reports he had plenty to do. “We still had a lot of employees on, so we still fed them everyday. I kept myself busy, I did private parties and made (orange) marmalade for everybody – about five hundred jars – and gave them out to the community and neighbors as a reminder not to forget about us,” says Trotta, pointing out that most of the oranges came from his on-site garden that produces a harvest of seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables year-round.

“I worked on designing the kitchen, selecting equipment, and pretty much helping out around the property – it was pretty relaxing too,” Trotta goes on. “We did a lot of tastings for the staff, employees and executives. Everybody is excited – I’m excited. It was a long wait.”

The new two-story kitchen is impressively expansive and well-appointed. It services both restaurants, 40 cottages “that are more than gorgeous,” says Trotta, room service, banquets and private dining. Bright, tiled, spacious and orderly, the upstairs holds the hotline, pantry and pastry area, and downstairs is the production, dry storage, and baking area with all the walk-in refrigeration. “John basically put this whole kitchen together,” says Sous-Chef Mike Blackwell. “We make everything in-house here, including breads and desserts. Everything you see here is brand new – everything down to the pots, pans and gadgets. It’s an all brand new building; the only thing that is original are the Stonehouse walls, which are historical landmarks.”

A tour of the kitchen reveals bells and whistles, including French tops, grills, fryers, an array of copper pans, meat grinders, braisers for stock, mixers and three huge walk-ins. “Everything is divided – dairy and meat all have their own place and appropriate temperatures, the produce fridge walks into our walk-in freezer, which is kept at minus ten degrees, and our third walk-in is for food service and beverages,” says Blackwell. “We’re having a good time back here.”

The Menu

“San Ysidro Ranch’s famous chicken tortilla soup is still on the menu. We’re excited to bring it back – people had to wait two and a half years,” says Trotta, adding that the recipe has been with the Ranch for at least 20 years. “The menu is seasonal, there are specials every night, and we use a lot of local produce.”

One of Trotta’s current favorite items on the menu is the “local spiny lobster that comes in live fresh right off the boat. The guy I buy from sets his traps right off the (Channel) Islands.”

Winter menu items currently feature appetizers, including grilled foie gras with toasted brioche, Montecito Orchard stone fruit chutney and balsamic reduction ($19), caramelized onion, Spring Hill Jersey cheddar and wild mushroom tart ($13). Entrees include grilled marinated tofu ($21), duck leg confit ($28) and pan-seared ribeye ($30). The dessert menu flaunts lemon trifle with fresh berries, pumpkin and toasted hazelnut baked custard and caramelized banana cream tart.

The wine list is 18 pages long and boasts 16 wines offered by the glass. A door just outside the restaurant’s entrance opens to a long sandstone staircase leading down to a whole new underground wine cellar. “Sandstone was brought down from the local mountains and each piece was hand-chiseled. Guys were out there chiseling stone all day long,” says Sommelier Jerry Lee, who has his cellar wine set up in four vertical library-style bins: domestic reds and whites and imported reds and whites. A selection of high-end Bordeaux and Champagne is stored behind a wrought-iron gate and a notable assortment of half bottles, dessert and local wines complete the picture. At its fullest capacity, the cellar will hold 800 bottles. “We’re building a world-class wine cellar; there are only a few here in town and we’re going to be one of them,” says Lee. “One of the things you won’t see around town except for here is that we’re pouring 2002 Chateau d’Yquem by the glass – actually by the ounce ($28).”

The cellar is also stocked with high-end Champagne like the Bruno Paillard Premiere Cru that gets popped on New Year’s Eve.

The Dining Room

The Stonehouse interior is renewed, redesigned, and still has a classic, warm, welcoming and familiar feel. It is located in a former 19th century citrus packing house. The lounge is filled with overstuffed cognac-colored leather chairs and sofas with brass nailhead trim and an oversized French copper potbellied stove warms the room. The dining room features a large stone fireplace and is finely appointed with paintings from Ty Warner’s private art collection, an enormous square rug that fills the space, and all of the tables and chairs are either handmade or antiques. The original walls and open beams were previously painted white and have been stripped to reveal their natural beauty. The main dining room seats 40, the outdoor patio with ocean views, a new stone deck with underfloor heating seats 46, and restaurant General Manager Thomas Johnson believes they will eventually have to spill out into the lounge for additional seating.

Tables are set with white table cloths, Riedel stemware and lit with votive candles. Both sweet and salted butter is offered with freshly baked bread, and attentive service staff remark each course with fine silverware. Both front and back of the house staff move as a group of well-trained and experienced food and wine enthusiasts whose training grounds encompass an impressive tour of well-respected local and international restaurants and hotel properties. “It’s a difficult balance to get right,” says Duncan Graham, managing director of the Ranch. “I come from a five-star European background, and you get butler-style service here, but we are a ranch in California, after all, so we want to be friendly too. It’s special – we’re catering to regulars and locals as well as people spending a lot of money to stay here. Getting the informal piece right has to be balanced.”

The Stonehouse Restaurant is currently open for dinner. For more information contact Thomas Johnson at 565-1721. Visit the hotel’s website at www.sanysidroranch.com.