It wasn’t the best of times—and it may have been the worst of times—to open posh Andrea in November 2008. But what else to do? Years and millions of dollars in the making, the elegant Resort at Pelican Hill had little choice but to dive headlong into an economic storm that still roils today.
Three years and as many chefs later, Andrea now is the temple of graceful Italian cuisine it originally aspired to be. Though the expansive, luxuriant setting looks virtually unchanged from those sometimes awkward, forlorn early years, fundamental elements have matured for the better. Namely the superb cooking from chef Luca Cesarini, born and educated in Italy, who arrived in fall 2010, and veteran executive chef Jean-Pierre Dubray. Their food is elevated by thoughtful service and thrilling wine options, and the room I remember as tasteful but uptight is noticeably buoyant on recent visits. More diners surely lift the energy level, but the front-of-the-house crew also seems warmly confident and less reverential than before. One early evening, timed to catch the color-saturated ocean sunset, a flute of Moet rosé makes for delightful sipping at the grand marble bar. And at $29, it also sets the trajectory for a spendy, if stellar, meal.
Unintentionally, the final sips of the bubbly pair idyllically with the amuse-bouche that arrives once we’re seated in the dining room’s ecru booths—a solitary simple bite of early fall’s late bounty of ripe cherry tomato, oozing fresh burrata, grains of sea salt, and an emerald trickle of olive oil. It’s like tasting sunshine.
Masterfully rolled and baked breadsticks, more than a foot long and glinting with salt crystals, are next; they beg for nibbling even as sweet butter and a basket of warm bread and rolls materialize. A terrine of foie gras is love at first bite, and pretty much an easy A, this version with caramelized apples, chewy walnut bread, and darkly sweet vincotto—wood-aged wine reduction. Foie gras is typically the headiest of starts for a feast, so the utter opulence of the next appetizer, eggplant parmigiana, flabbergasts me. A miniature cocotte—a classic French iron casserole—encases layers of compressed, seasoned eggplant stacked with zippy fresh tomato sauce and aged cheese. An aromatic steam cloud escapes when the tiny lid comes off, and instantly triggers visceral hunger pangs despite the buttery rich foie gras. Rustic in nature, the eggplant-cheese-tomato trinity soars because every element, from ingredients to preparation, is meticulously considered.
Pasta leads the must-try category here. Hand made, air-dried, and fashioned with Old World care, every pasta has integrity and soul matched only by sauces that showcase the shapes offered on any given day. I am still regularly recalling the trofie, a Ligurian quill-like tube, paired with wine-imbued lamb ragout made with gutsy lamb sausage, pine nuts, and lemon zest. When that memory becomes intolerable, I pine for yet another glorious pasta, the impossibly tender spinach ravioli full of bufala ricotta spilling out into melted sweet butter strewn with fresh, earthy sage leaves.
It’s hard to imagine any better treatment of fresh wild sea bass, its subtle flavor delicately set off by lightly roasted squash, a bit of rosemary, and a vibrant, faintly tangy giardiniera. Roasted fingerling potatoes have the correct caramelization and starchy mildness to accentuate the fat-laced richness of the seared Wagyu filet, the chief reason to indulge in the king of marbled steaks. If Wagyu is too effete, veal osso buco delivers big on its promise of hearty, traditional cooking, complete with gremolata and creamy polenta.
Peruse the dessert menu if you must, but I say go straight for the first-rate, flavor-dense gelatos. Ice cream is serious business here—an onsite gelateria makes Andrea’s intention clear. Winning flavors rotate through the seasons and include cinnamon, pistachio, hazelnut, and coffee, alone or in combination. Don’t forget the post-dessert mignardise, tiny confections presented on a silver tree. They’re precious overkill, but completely in sync with Andrea’s sumptuous approach.
A bumpy start in rocky times presents a steep climb for any restaurant, let alone a pricey resort venue. But Andrea isn’t just hanging on, it’s flourishing. A genuine “Bravo!” is in order.
Foie gras terrine, eggplant parmigiana, Parmesan-stirred risotto, quill pasta with lamb ragout, wild sea bass with roasted vegetables, seared Wagyu beef filet, house-made gelatos.
Lunch, $12 to $22; dinner, $18 to $39.
Plush raised booths against the south wall, or tables on the heated terrace, overlooking Ocean South Golf Course’s 17th and 18th holes and the blue Pacific beyond.
Treat your valentine to Il Menu dell’ Amore, a lovers’ menu by chef Luca Cesarini, offered through February: $95 per person, or $145 per person with wine pairing, plus tax and tip.
The Resort at Pelican Hill
22701 Pelican Hill Road S.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.