Editor’s note: this review of Herb & Sea took place just before shelter-in-place orders were issued in mid-March
High-profile chef and restaurateur Brian Malarkey has opened numerous eateries over the past decade. In the early days, he sometimes shoe-horned ready-made concepts into communities, but in bringing a spinoff of Little Italy’s Herb & Wood to Encinitas, he and business partner Chris Puffer have done an exemplary job of adjusting their concept to match the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Resultingly, Herb & Sea has been well received.
The dining room is bathed in beachy appeal care of white Windsor chairs, seafoam banquettes, and framed beach-ball art delivering Malarkey-grade whimsy, augmented by modern class with eclectic light fixtures, including beaded chandeliers and disco-ball-like paper lanterns. The space is regularly packed, yet the informed staff keeps patrons engaged and dishes gliding in from the center-stage kitchen. That showpiece is the domain of executive chef and partner Sara Harris, a half-decade Puffer Malarkey Collective veteran, whose menu is extensive and lighter on the wallet and waistline than one might expect.
An oven pumps out a variety of pizzas — Margherita, fennel sausage and broccolini, duck and chèvre — that, with sumptuous texture (gluten-free crust made with Caputo flour is also available) and plenty of toppings, qualify as decadent, but Harris gets far more use out of that wood-fired vessel. It blisters tomatoes for a burrata appetizer and adds Maillard reaction depth to vegetable and protein-forward entrées like crispy-skinned, olive-dressed branzino. It’s also key to a riff on an outstanding oysters Rockefeller that subs kale for spinach, Gruyère for Parmesan, and introduces roasted bone marrow. Place it all atop a garlic-buttered slice of baguette and prepare for ecstasy.
Oysters and clams on the half shell are also available from Herb & Sea’s raw bar, along with a Baja shrimp cocktail, beef tartare, and a citrusy hamachi crudo given pops of crunch from toasted sunflower seeds. Other highlights of the starter section include shrimp toast with tangy lemons, zingy Fresno chiles (a popular ingredient at H&S), and spicy “Old Bayonnaise,” while avocado joins classic Crab Louie atop well-browned pullman bread.
Crab linguini salted with sea greens heads a trio of pastas. Mains include accoutrements (Vadouvan-spiced mustard and apples for a pork chop, Greek yogurt and pepper relish for salmon, and lobster butter for an off-menu bone-in ribeye), but ordering from the menu’s vegetable section is essential and enjoyable. Roasted carrots with Aleppo yogurt and carrot-top pesto hail from Herb & Wood, Harris’ crispy garlic-topped portobellos are plump and earthy, and her cauliflower gratin is a gooey, cheesy revelation given unique punch from salty capers and sweet raisins. It’s not often that cauliflower is worth such a caloric splurge, but it is here.
Staying on the splurge front, Herb & Sea’s dessert menu is a list of straightforward sweets that feels like a hug delivered by grandma in her oven-warmed kitchen. A jar of butterscotch pudding is silky smooth and accented by floral lavender cream. A lemon meringue pie is fluffy and traditional. Meanwhile, crème brûlée is infused with rosemary, and a chocolate lava cake is spongy rather than dense and topped with a scoop of vanilla from cross-street neighbor, Gelato 101.
Malarkey hallmarks abound, but Harris has made herself right at home in Encinitas. Few are the restaurants that feel as much like an extension of the towns that house them as Herb & Sea. 760.704.8300, herbandsea.com
Culinary Innovation: 3
Food Quality: 4
Wine List: 4
Craft Cocktail Program: 5