The neighborhood has changed drastically since he arrived. When Alberto Mestre opened Candelas Restaurant on Third Avenue, adjacent to the Gaslamp District, it was way off the beaten path. There were no other restaurants nearby. Tourists had no compelling reason to stroll down the street and Mestre couldn't count on walk-by business to fall into the restaurant. It took courage and conviction to open there.
Mestre had to build Candelas Restaurant as a destination. People had to come there purposefully. He became successful by offering novel and excellent cuisine in a romantic, comfortable setting.
Now the neighborhood has condominium projects all around, sprouting like metal-ribbed mushrooms. Candelas is becoming as much a neighborhood restaurant as a destination eatery. Throughout all this time, the quality and ambiance have maintained their high standards.
The cuisine is labeled "Mexican Nouvelle" but you won't find a taco or tortilla anywhere. The orientation is towards French styles. Chef Eduardo Baeza trained at Maxime's, a renowned French restaurant in Mexico City before joining Mestre years ago in this venture. He has been the chef since the doors opened.
Candelas Restaurant's door opens onto the street, except for a small patio in front of its new section. The restaurant expanded from its original size over a year ago, converting the location next door to the original site into a bar/club area and a second large dining room. This area is often used for private functions and corporate events.
The restaurant walls have an earthy terra cotta tone. The tables and chairs are wooden and feel as if they were handmade for the location. Large candles (the name Candelas means candles in Spanish) dripped from racks on the walls, forming white waxy stalagmites which are very picturesque. A table towards the back is semienclosed by tall wine racks for limited privacy. Pin lights illuminate the interior, casting interesting shadows during the evening that give the place a romantic, intimate feel.
Service at Candelas is outstanding. During the early part of the evening I was there, it seemed that there was more staff than customers. Servers wear distinctive white coats and are very professional.
Little touches really add to the experience of dining at Candelas. For example, the menu is printed on special antiqued paper that looks like it could contain a treasure map for a sunken galleon. Servers bring bread in a large basket, with three choices of marvelous crusty rolls. Pewter base plates hold dishes until the entrees are served. All these details give the restaurant a sense of class that is not found commonly.
The appetizers are guaranteed to stimulate one's taste. Estructura de Aguacate is a structure of Hass avocado fanned and stuffed with a combination of scallops, crab, shrimp and parsley, flavored with serrano chile with a mango and basil vinaigrette. It comes attractively compressed into a tall cylinder containing all the ingredients. The flavors blend beautifully in the mouth. Mejillones estilo Jalisco is an eye-pleasing dish of fresh mussels flamed with aged tequila, red onion, leeks, potatoes and sour cream. It tastes as good as it looks.
Seafood is emphasized in the entrees, although duck, veal and prime angus steak are also offered. Langosta Baeza is the chef's creation, fresh lobster in it's own shell stuffed with mushrooms, jalapeno chiles, onions and bacon, aged tequila creating an exquisite combination of Mexican flavors. It is worth savoring. Huachinango Governador, grilled red snapper saut?ed with olive oil, over a chopped tomato bed mix with capers and guero chile, garnished with a balsamic vinegar demi-glace, reminded me of my nights on the beach in Puerto Vallara, eating this delicious fish under the stars. My server proudly announced that Chilean Sea Bass was a special that night. This fish is often hard to find.
Candelas Restaurant has an excellent wine list from which to select wines that will complement a meal. The list includes offerings from France, Spain and Latin America as well as local vintages. Red wines from Spain and Latin America were particularly well selected. I chose a Terra Rosa Cabernet '99 from Chile (by the glass) that had a deep tannin taste with light acidity that went very well with Filete de res Franco, a tasty grilled 12 oz. black angus filet grill marked and served over mashed potatoes, with fresh vegetables in a white wine cream sauce.
The bar area turns into a club from 10 pm to closing on Thursday through Sunday. Diners at the restaurant are admitted free. A DJ from Los Angeles spins melodies while people drink and talk. There is even dancing. A late night menu at the bar gets late diners through the night.
Candelas Restaurant is expensive but the unique ambiance and cuisine definitely will make an evening memorable. Reservations are recommended. The restaurant is located at 416 Third Avenue. Call 619-702-4455 for information and reservations.
Speaking of Spanish wines, the government of Spain threw a media party at The Prado this week to introduce wines of Rioja, a region in the northwest section of the country. The elevation and weather produce great grapes. In the past twenty years, new lines of grapes have been planted and new techniques for storing and aging wine been employed that result in marvelous products.
Doug Cross, a highly respected sommelier and scholar discussed the history of the region. Food samples were provided for the tastings and pairing by Deborah Scott of Indigo Grill and Kemo Sabe as well as other restaurants of the Cohn Restaurant Group. Jeremy Cohn, manager of Dakota Grill, offered good suggestions of which wine to enjoy with which food. The Rioja region's wines are well worth searching for at your favorite wine shop to add to your collection and pleasure.