Uncovering a good Thyme in the Ranch

Have you ever stumbled upon a great restaurant and wondered how you could have gone so long without ever knowing it was there? I recently had the pleasure of unearthing such a treasure and, in this case, the reasons for it escaping my probing gastronomically-tuned radar were both plentiful and obvious.

For starters, this gem - Thyme In The Ranch - is tucked away in the heart of Rancho Santa Fe's downtown Village Area, a destination reachable from the west only by careening along vast expanses of narrow, twisting, foliage-flanked roads. As if that weren't enough, Thyme is nestled literally in the shadow of Mille Fleurs, the Ranch's most popular and lauded dining establishment. Yet, despite all these obstacles, this spot has built such a solid and extensive base of faithful patrons that finding a seat inside this cozy cottage (or its two outside dining areas) can often be as challenging as finding your way to this hideaway, which is every bit as quaint, lovely and charming as the community that houses it.

Just like its hindrances, the reasons for Thyme's popularity are also plentiful and obvious and can be summed up in two words: fresh-baked bliss. OK, so it's one word and a two-word hyphenate, but such details become trivial the second you sink your teeth into a piece of from-scratch pumpkin pie or a slice of brown sugary sweet bread so moist and overflowing with almonds and chunks of fresh apple it can barely keep from crumbling. Then there's the triple-chocolate brownies and the assortment of fresh-baked bundt cakes. Oh, and the sweet-tart lemon bars and fresh raspberry-apple crisp. And did I forget to mention quite possibly the best chocolate-dipped macaroons on the planet?

I could go on and on about this extraordinary line of baked goods, but instead let's focus on the best of it, starting with a cookie selection that includes classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin as well as inventive varieties like a spectacular wafer-thin white chocolate toffee creation (it really only tastes like toffee, but considering how over-the-top sweet and buttery that flavor is, the lack of albino chocolate potency is reduced to another inconsequential and overlookable detail). Thyme's muffins also feature innovative flavor combinations such as raspberry-mango, chocolate-pear and raspberry-sweet corn.

Next up are the simple and expertly-crafted cakes (coconut cream, toffee crunch, chocolate chip cookie, espresso, lemon, orange and more), which are delicately and naturally flavored, heavenly light and adorned with decadently thick, rich buttercream and chocolate ganache frostings. The best of the lot has to be the carrot cake, which is rife with bright orange flecks of fresh-from-the-market carrots. That same freshness of ingredients carries over to Thyme's breakfast and lunch menus, both of which are driven by a variety of stunning seasonal vegetables and, of course, herbs (it is "Thyme" In The Ranch after all).

At lunch, a wide variety of sandwiches are available. The most impressive are those incorporating Thyme's assorted chicken, tuna and crab salad recipes, all of which are brought to life with herbs, spices and condiments based on the restaurant's unique and well-balanced recipes. These salads are also available sans bread, but with selections like the albacore tuna salad, which reaches the table mounded inside a hollowed out beefsteak tomato with a beautiful platescape comprised of cascading carrot and cucumber slices, avocado and shaved jicama, you won't miss those floury carbs one bit. But if you do go the sandwich route, you can't go wrong with Thyme's specialty foccacia varieties. All are served on fresh-baked bread imparted with a blend of herbs that pairs exceptionally well with the pesto and balsamic vinaigrette used to dress them up.

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