11480 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
If this were February, I'd be writing about a Valentine's Day destination. But don't overlook the romantic A.R. Valentien as a stunning in-spot to take special guests during the holidays. Set in a Craftsman-style lodge on a golf course overlooking Torrey Pines State Beach, the restaurant rambles through several intimate wood-beamed rooms. A.R. Valentien was an early-20th-century local painter-ceramist, and his ornate vases and sunny Impressionistic landscapes decorate the niches and walls. As the host leads you to your table, you can't help but notice that diners are spread evenly through the rooms (rather than jammed together). The heavy tables, leather-seated chairs, and plush booths are also well spaced, so you probably won't overhear other tables' conversations (unless they happen to be loud talkers or chronic gigglers), and they won't hear yours. The lighting is subdued but bright enough that you can read the menu without a keychain LED -- and see your food. Or you can eat outside on the heated patio, which offers views of the stone-walled lodge, the pool, and glimpses of the greens.
You'll see plenty of pretty greens on your plate, too. Chef Jeff Jackson changes the menu every day to showcase local produce that's been pulled from the ground mere hours before. The rest is all natural luxury: hormone-free poultry, top-quality meats, seafood at the peak of its season, everything prepared with a minimum of "gussying up" and a maximum of flavor. If you're getting burned out on the fancy, fatty food of the holidays, this approach will prove a relief as well as a delight.
The attitude here is generous and genuinely hospitable. You notice this first when servers bring a dish of mixed olives marinated with orange zest (we had to pay eight bucks for these at Laurel two weeks ago) to the table, along with country-style sunflower-seed bread and thin-sliced rustic whole wheat or sourdough. Dinners begin with a complimentary "amuse," which changes nightly. One evening it was a bite of French boudin blanc (chicken sausage) with caramelized onions. A few nights later, we received two miniature lobster ravioli, with crunchy vegetables in the filling rather than cream or cheese, and a mini-mound of balsamic-dressed frisée on the side. (I hate to kick a gift horse, but the pasta was rolled out a bit too thick.)
One rare treat that's only in season during late autumn is fresh black European truffles -- the underground "mushroom" that grows under oak trees, where it's found by the sensitive noses of pigs and specially trained dogs. (Dogs are now preferred as truffle-hunters: Hogs like to eat their catch and are difficult to leash-train.) The flavor is so subtle it can't be described, so unique it defies comparisons. It has the quality that Japanese call umame, "meatiness," that enhances whatever food it's cooked with. Jackson heaps generous shavings of these earthy gems atop a flawless risotto tossed with truffle oil, chives, and chervil (a fresh herb with a faint aniselike flavor). This appetizer is on the costly side ($24), but if you try it, you won't forget it.
A fixture of the menu since day one, tuna carpaccio -- Italian sashimi -- offers silky, paper-thin slices of crimson bluefin embedded with cooked parsley and fried capers, plated over pungent horseradish cream. Piled onto crunchy buttered country-bread toast, the combination is as vivid as curtains-up on a Broadway musical. The same toast accompanies a French charcuterie platter of three house-made pâtés, served with small mounds of whole-grain mustard, cranberry compote, julienned celeriac, and thin-sliced pickled green-and-gold zucchini. A chicken-liver mousse is a suave, creamy classic, while a duck-pistachio country-style pâté offers multiple textures, from chewy-coarse to smooth to crunchy with nuts. "Potted" beef short-rib meat makes a soulful terrine, a deep-flavored delight to spread on the toast with mustard. Anyone who's picnicked in Paris will thrill at this plate. Never been? Save the jet lag and picnic here.
Vegetable-based starters are equally creative. Normally, I shy away from the frilly endive called frisée, a staple of French bistros, but here it's the basis of a festive salad with roasted Gala apples, braised pork belly, chopped hazelnuts, and a creamy cider vinaigrette. The apples and the dressing tame the bitterness of the frisée, while the pork belly makes an entertaining change from bacon lardoons: Some pieces are crisp and fatty like cracklings, others are as moist and shreddy as the best carnitas. A caramelized pumpkin salad was disappointing, though: My partner and I hoped for something like the soft candied-pumpkin appetizer of Afghan restaurants. Instead, thin pumpkin slices were brittle and a bit charred, hiding with prosciutto slices under a take-charge stack of bitter red dandelion leaves.
At one meal, I decided to invest in the tasting menu. (The tasting dishes aren't listed on the à la carte menu, but all are available singly upon request.) The array began with a pair of miniature ravioli, again with too-thick pasta skins, filled with chopped beef short-rib meat, and served over a dull cannellini bean purée. The second appetizer was better, pristine guerrero negro scallops from nearby Baja in tarragon cream sauce, with soft-braised fennel julienne and a topping of bright young green beans punctuated with preserved Meyer lemon zest. The modest portion was just the right size.
After an interlude of cranberry-ginger sorbet (graciously served gratis to everyone at the table to keep us all on the same schedule), my tasting entrée was a gorgeous "hot-date--marinated Colorado rack of lamb." Its hot date left the lamb in a very good mood -- that is, chopped dates were rubbed into the top of the lamb before it was cooked. The two large, thick rib chops were served rare without my even asking, and the scrupulously trimmed meat was clean-tasting and tender in a pool of its own jus made slightly sweet from the tryst with the dates. "I've never tasted lamb this good," said one of my tablemates. "It's -- like butter." The meat came with soft, dark-green Swiss chard dotted with garnet pomegranate seeds, looking very Christmasy next to the rosy meat. In this dish and many others here, the food is not only delicious, but for restaurant cooking, unusually healthy, with little added fat and only "good carbs." Instead of heavy sauces, a few exquisite ingredients glory in their natural flavors.