Jack's La Jolla has been on my "must do" list ever since it opened well over a year ago, but the daunting question was always "which Jack's?" The restaurant offers three distinct venues -- the casual carnivore's moderately priced Grille; the seafoody top-floor Ocean Room, complete with view and sushi bar (with a sushi chef formerly at Ota); and the most formal venue, the Dining Room. Only way I could do them all would be to spend a week at a cheap motel in La Jolla. There are no cheap motels in La Jolla.

But then the Lynnester and Samurai Jim ate in the Dining Room during Restaurant Week and came back all a-rave. Three days of wrestling with TurboTax had yielded a nice refund [sound effect: slot machine paying off], which deserved a celebratory splurge dinner, so the Dining Room was the destination. Jack's now has an actual Jack -- dessert chef Jack Fisher, fleeing from Addison. Jack may jump restaurants a little too swiftly (a jumping Jack indeed), but I love his avant-garde desserts, and his move spurred me to head to La Jolla with the Lynnester branch of the posse in tow.

We mounted the dozen-odd black steps to the entry of a handsome white building and were shown to a chic but cozy room done in blacks, whites, and greys, with a choice of semicircular booths and regular tables. On the same floor, in the back, is an atriumlike area leading to an open kitchen (inaudible from the Dining Room); farther forward and to one side is a casual bar-lounge serving upscale pub grub (the inevitable Kobe sliders, etc.), and a staircase to the higher realms. A piano player spins out jazzy vintage pop (Sinatra tunes, "Girl from Ipanema," etc.) that you hear in the dining room as a civilized accompaniment to conversation, not an invasion of it.

All the dishes on the menu, start to finish, have adventurous touches. The starter we loved best was a work of creative comfort food that, alas, is out of season and off-menu now: a creamy celery-root soup topped with a "butterscotch froth" (made with a touch of maple syrup, and balsamic vinegar to cut the sweetness). The soup concealed crunchy diced fresh celery and earthy house-made mini-ravioli with a filling of shaved fresh black truffles and truffle juice, baked potato pulp, crème fraîche, and a little agar-agar (to bind it). This soup is just the kind of food San Diego needs more of, sensual and approachable but unexpected. Its replacement is a green garlic soup that I'd love to try.

An appetizer of poached Maine lobster brings two tender, shelled claws in a lobster stock enhanced by tangy Kaffir lime juice, and other Asian flavors, and fresh herbs, gentled by risotto rice but sparked by the acidity of sweet-tart sticks of Fuji apple. It's small but lovely.

Lynne loves the daily changing appetizer pastas here, and that evening's choice was a have-to-have-it of twisty spiral macaroni (packaged, but from Italy) in a sort of Vietnamese seafood bouillabaisse that turned out to feature an intriguing vegetarian stock (made by simmering garlic, chiles, and ginger with Asian and Western condiments and herbs in tomato-water, then straining out the solids to leave a tangy golden broth). The soup was swimming with sweet shrimp (ama ebi in sushi lingo), shrimp, mussel meats, and baby octopus. The broth was thicker and sweeter than classic fish-based bouillabaisse, with a crunch of sautéed leeks -- sexy both in taste and texture. Sometimes "food porn" is not in the words but in the mouth. Even the tiny octopi were tender, which means you can give in to the temptation of the baby octopus and fava salad (which we didn't try) with no fear of finding a plateful of rubber tarantulas.

Peekytoe crab salad sounded better than it tasted: "Fennel, sake, sea urchin broth," the menu said, plus a topping of tiny pieces of rosy sea urchin with vinaigrette. But I found the broth tart and too plentiful for the crab, and without warning, it proved spicy with Thai chilies. Much as I love hot pepper, which can do so much for the ubiquitous blue crab, it seemed excessive in the context of this delicate New England species.

The entrées were even better than the starters -- no letdown, no coasting. Muscovy duck breast was the canvas for a dish so brilliant it struck several of us as funny. The breast slices were "rosy" as ordered, tender and rich, rubbed with star anise and accompanied by parsnips and a sweet kumquat confit in which each dainty slice of fruit was individually visible. But the Zen-foodie joke lay in an irresistible pile of toasted ground cocoa nibs: flour, butter, and sugar, baked and then seasoned with toasted ground cloves and run through a Cuisinart-equivalent. It's as though the chef had pared down the classic Mex-haute combo of mole poblano with turkey -- this was cocoa and game bird reduced to essentials, a logical but original combination that tasted stunning.

Crispy Jidori chicken was another killer. As Kobe is to beef and Berkshire hogs are to pork, the black-legged Asian Jidori is to chickens -- a breed raised for flavor, not fast growth or big breasts. And the cooks did it proud -- not an overcooked morsel on either the upper or lower quarter of the half-chicken. The skin was as crisp as the menu advertised, and the tender meat tasted the way chicken used to taste, when it was a Sunday treat rather than a cheap commodity. (I'd bet Jidoris don't live the miserable life of "factory chickens" either.) Matching it strength for strength were well-conceived accompaniments of butternut squash ravioli (encased in delicate house-made pasta skins), black trumpet mushrooms, gently cooked greens, and rich brown butter tanged with Meyer lemon juice.

When we saw line-caught Maine cod on the menu, we all sat up. In New England, where cod has been a staple since colonial times, the species is now nearly extinct through overfishing. "Line caught" means, first, that it wasn't captured in one of the miles-long gillnets that have nearly wiped out the species -- and also, that it's likely to have reached port fresh, the day it was caught. "This is the best cod I've ever eaten," said Mary Ann. For me -- second best, only to the time I saw a dayboat delivering cod to the waterfront dock of a seaside restaurant in Gloucester and decided to lunch there. (Tasted like sugar.) Delivered within 48 hours of its arrival on land, this was slow-cooked and tender, topped Portuguese-style with sweet peppers and slices of spicy chorizo, with a tropical-looking "leaf" of parsley purée painted along one side of the plate. Clams are supposedly part of the array, and in my doggie-bagged take-home, I even found one.

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