910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
California cuisine as it's often cooked in San Diego can be a big bore, with featureless combinations and all-too-familiar fusiony flavorings. I was bored last week (last month, last year) -- but I wasn't bored for one moment during a recent dinner at Nine-Ten. Plate after plate, I thought I'd been whisked off to San Francisco, New York, or foodie heaven. It's not just that the dishes were delicious and the ingredients fresh and fine. It was also the joy of encountering daring, modern ideas and the courage to put them on the plate.
The restaurant has always been more than good, but recent changes have made it better. When opening chef Michael Stebner departed to open Region, he took dessert chef Jack Fisher and about half of Nine-Ten's waitstaff with him. Executive Chef Jason Knibb, a protégé of Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove, replaced Stebner in September '03. Last February, I enjoyed a tasty meal of his cooking, but the service had degenerated into frenzied idiocy. Since then, the restaurant has turned around. Jack Fisher returned to Nine-Ten to work with Knibb, and the collaboration has sparked some extraordinary cooking. As always, the kitchen emphasizes seasonal dishes, highlighting local small-farm produce (sustainably raised or organic), wild seafood, and mainly natural meats, but now the preparations are growing more adventurous.
The decor still has the same bistro styling, with lots of dark wood, recessed lighting, small tables, and unfortunate acoustics. "I can hear that table over there better than I hear you," my partner told me. A woman at "that table" promptly twisted around to look at him. But the restaurant has a brand-new manager of the front of the house, and servers who are not only better trained, but bright and observant enough to genuinely enhance your meal.
The human mind loves the number three, and here, the menu accommodates; it's divided into a trinity (plus a later sheet of desserts and cheeses). The "first course" section offers one soup and many salads. Don't skip this section because the dishes look light -- the flavors are bigger than you'd imagine. "Second course" has small plates that can be either substantial appetizers or mini-mains. The triad concludes with "entrées."
With posse-mates Dave and Marty joining us, we began with a salad of house-cured salami and fresh figs. The thin rounds of salami barely resembled commercial products. "Fatty, not too spicy. Meaty, but delicate," said Dave, a connoisseur of New York deli. The meat was matched with luscious raw local figs touched with white truffle honey, an entrancing combination of sweetness and faint funkiness. This, and most other plates, presented a trinity of central flavors: Part three of this salad's story consisted of baby arugula sprinkled with nutty-sweet shaved Parmesan, which brought the other ingredients into sharp focus.
The idea for a Chino Farms heirloom tomato salad spins off the familiar Italian insalata caprese, but it's done here the way it ought to be -- and then some. The tomatoes were ripe and bursting with shades of tomato personality, from earthy-tart to sugary, from firm to pillowy. The mozzarella, which Fisher makes in-house, was velvet. The accompaniments included shaved torpedo (white) onions, pine nuts, and mysterious garnet-color dice. Dave initially mistook them for beets. "No, they're soft! Ethereal! I've never tasted anything like this!" Marty said. Nobody at the table could guess their real identity. They turned out to be cubes of "balsamic jelly" -- think grown-up Jell-O, not sweet and fake-tasting, but sweet-tart and genuine, while less stiff than any gelatin product: They're thickened with pectin instead, so they're stable at room temperature but melt in your mouth. (Fisher created the jellies, Knibb decided to include them in this salad.) The dressing was a white balsamic vinaigrette, and it was perfect.
The "seasonal soup" du jour was a cream-free "cream" of wild mushroom, a thick purée of portobellos and dried porcini touched by several members of the onion family and diffused with vegetable stock. It tasted like "essence of forest," driven wilder yet by a hint of white truffle oil.
Our second course choices added triumph to triumph. Harissa-marinated Mexican white shrimp had absorbed a dusting of semi-hot paprika, coarse-ground black pepper, and other subtle spices. Alongside were watermelon batons and puffs of feta cheese, with a lemon-feta vinaigrette. The trick is: bite into all three at once. The watermelon and the shrimp love each other; surprisingly, so do the watermelon and cheese. This is one joyous ménage à trois.
Poached Maine lobster vaulted even higher on the scale of delight -- and we were already hitting clouds. Trembling-soft lobster meat sat next to a cylinder of delicate corn custard, the texture of the lightest panna cotta. A ragout of leeks was as silky as perfectly poached baby spinach, but with a mild onion flavor. Again, three flavors were in exquisite partnership. "This is the best lobster I've tasted in my whole life," raved Marty. "I have to agree," said my partner. Everyone was getting a little swoony, and I include myself.
It's hard to top great appetizers -- especially that lobster -- but entrées (the menu's third leg) weren't a letdown. A Tasmanian sea trout was prepared with all the panache of the big name chefs of New York or Chicago. This is a warm-water salmon trout with flavorful dark-orange flesh -- milder than Alaskan salmon, stronger than freshwater trout. The skin, crisped to crackling, was served separately from the meat, like the skin of a Peking duck in a serious Chinese restaurant, the better to savor the texture. The fish-flesh was moist. The accompaniments were a leap forward for San Diego. There were slender green beans and tiny swirls of mild dark greenery that highlighted the trace of natural sugar in the beans -- and a wee bit of stone-ground polenta from the South's celebrated Anson Mills, with a touch of oniony sauce not mentioned on the menu. (I learned later that it's artichoke cooking water, reduced with shallots and swirled with butter.)