Three seared Sea of Cortez scallops, two inches thick, displayed browned surfaces lightly crusted with kosher salt. Their texture proved closer to tender meat than to the marshmallowy Atlantic scallops served at most upscale local restaurants, but the flavor is sweet and fresh. The chef decided to use these local mollusks after noting the deterioration in the flavor of Maine scallops over the last few years. (Other local chefs -- and this writer -- have also made this observation.) Here, the scallops come with tiny, dark-crusted herb gnocchi with chartreuse centers (they have a pleasantly starchy resilience) and a satiny purée of cauliflower, served the same day the heads are harvested. (The taste is strikingly different from the middle-aged cauliflower at my neighborhood grocery.)
I ordered a roast free-range chicken breast mainly to taste a substance I've read about but never had a chance to try: farro, an ancient Tuscan peasant grain currently enjoying a mad vogue in Manhattan's upscale Italian restaurants. In English, it's called spelt (you'll find it in "health food" breakfast cereals). It consists of long-grained hulled wheat, and was reputedly used for the original "Roman Meal" that fed the Roman army. I found the grains chewy and resilient, like brown rice, but with an emphatic wheaty flavor. It's served here with a mixture of pearl onions, oyster mushrooms, and firm diced pumpkin or carrots (depending on availability). The chicken itself is a sliced airline cut (the breast and the wing drumettes), the meat moist and the skin deliciously crisp, rubbed with black pepper, fresh thyme, and salt.
A more conservative entrée places four medallions of lamb loin atop braised lamb shoulder over a bed of salty baby spinach. The garnishes around the edge of the plate -- lamb au jus, curry oil, and yogurt -- aren't just for looks, but add flavor and moisture to the meat when used as dips. A mound of couscous studded with golden raisins is touched with curry spices and snipped chives, bringing this often-bland grain to life. Another standard dish is the thick, near-raw steak of sesame-coated tuna (yellowfin) loin, seared along one edge -- a treatment that came into fashion about 15 years ago, and that, for me, has since lost its novelty. It's well executed here, served with baby bok choy, shiitake slices, and a tangy, spicy eggplant-miso purée.
You can't win them all, though, and one of our dishes lost. A shelled, whole tail of local spiny lobster is stuffed with bread crumbs and wrapped in pancetta. The lobster is tenderly cooked and sweet at the center, but the pancetta seeps into the meat, pervading it with salt and pork fat. Browned oyster mushrooms, roasted beets, strong greens, and an acerbic cranberry vinaigrette knock the poor crustacean senseless. Patrons at George's expect their lobster gussied up, but this went too far.
Simple side dishes showcase local vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichokes, which are rarely found on local menus. These sunflower relatives (no kin to regular artichokes) look like ginger roots and taste vaguely like potatoes. Trey roasts them in their skins, an optimal treatment for showing off their earthy-sweet flavor.
The talented pastry chef, Yolanda Santos, falls into the Jack Fisher (Region) and Laufa Huffnagel (California Cuisine) school of dessert explorers. Dishes like lime-coconut pavlova with curried banana fritters and warm apple crisp with candied fennel are original, even challenging in their sweet way.
"Well," said Lynne as we left, "I'm sold. I didn't think it'd be this good. It is." Three heads nodded in agreement.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Trey Foshee was born in Hawaii and grew up in Ojai, north of Los Angeles. He slipped into the restaurant business as a busboy to support his surfing habit. "I wasn't very outgoing," he says, "so I ended up moving back into the kitchen. I didn't have any thoughts of making a career of it, but as I kept doing it, I enjoyed it more and more. Eventually it showed itself as a career path for me.
"After working in a couple of places in Ojai, I went back to Hawaii to surf some more. One day, I had an epiphany that I should do something with myself, for myself, and decided that cooking school was the right thing for me. I went to Culinary Institute of America in New York."
After graduation he worked at Roland Passot's La Folie in San Francisco for about a year and a half. "Roland is really a chef's chef," he says, "and he influenced me about what it really meant to be a chef. I picked up a lot of techniques from him, and I respected his food a lot, but mainly we would all work 12, 14 hours a day, and he'd always be there first and [leave] last. He wasn't the kind who'd just stroll in at service time, yell at everybody in the kitchen, and take a bow in the front.
"Hans Röckenwagner called me when he was opening his new Röckenwagner restaurant in Santa Monica, and asked if I thought I was ready for the chef's job there. At 24, with a lot of cooking background but not a lot of management background, I said, 'Sure, I'll do that.' I spent three years with Hans. It was pretty intense. Then I took a year off to relax, cooking freelance, then running a small restaurant in L.A. The Mauna Lani Hotel on the Big Island was looking for someone to do California cuisine at their restaurant, and I ran that for two years. Then I went to Sundance [Robert Redford's resort] to head the kitchen there. It was similar in some ways to George's -- we had sophisticated, well-traveled people expecting very cosmopolitan cuisine, but we also had locals dropping in with their families, looking for simple, good food. George [Hauer, owner of George's] recruited me from there. It'll be six years in March."
Trey has won numerous culinary awards in recent years, including Food & Wine magazine's America's Ten Best New Chefs in 1998, and the Golden Dish award from GQ magazine. He has served as guest chef at James Beard House in New York.