1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
I've always been curious about Azul La Jolla. Although it's one of the Brigantines, other restaurants in this group bespeak a chain of semiprecious metal, rather than the standard dross: Zocalo is tasty fun, and Miguel's Cocina, with its tender Mexican-style seafood, is my favorite place to take visitors with kids. Perched above the La Jolla Cove, Azul is the semiofficial flagship, with the most ambitious menu and a thick, serious wine list. On my current quest for restaurants with great views coupled with food worth eating, its time had come.
The restaurant looks highly appealing. From the handsome tiled-floor entry, looking out to an attractive interior eating patio, you pass through the bar and then the small, open kitchen, where you can gape at a huge, flaming, wood-fired oven. A few steps farther is the carpeted dining room. A full wall of windows looks down to the Cove, where swooping seabirds and miniature kayakers are part of the entertainment. Even the cozy semicircular banquettes on the raised rear tier of the dining room floor capture the seascape, while window tables have a vertiginous straight-down view. Perhaps those windows are the culprits in the noise level, which forces diners to converse in shouts, adding to the dinnertime din.
The patrons on a weekday evening ranged from chic businesswomen entertaining colleagues to polo-shirted families -- the latter a bit surprising once I looked at the prices on the menu (entrées average about $36), which aren't given on the website's sample menu. It turns out that when kids come in, a kiddie menu is whipped out, and even older youngsters can be accommodated with less-costly dishes like pastas sized especially for them.
The menu changes daily and with the seasons. It's a trifle more conservative in summer, the chef later told me, because tourists are even shyer about strange foods than locals. Seafood dominates the appetizer choices, fittingly, as it's always been a forte of the Brigantines. The best of our starters was a huge, leggy softshell crab, deep-fried in batter to a pleasing crunch, served with sweet fresh corn fritters and avocado slices over a rusty-colored sauce in which Asian chili oil plays an evident part, diffused in something milder.
The Seattle-born chef (his French last name comes from his Louisiana-born father -- if his étouffé is on the menu, order it) began his professional life with a French-style cooking apprenticeship in his hometown -- in the mode of native-born French chefs (and few American ones), he's an all-rounder whose expertise includes baking. Proof came with the flaky palmier pastries stuffed with a luxurious mixture of crab and artichoke heart, accompanied by "spiced lemon butter" -- that is, smooth beurre-blanc sauce edged at the rim of the plate with a trace of a rusty-orange semi-spicy sauce. "Luscious!" exclaimed one of my companions.
Sea scallop pot stickers offered Asian noodle wrappers stretched around large Atlantic scallops and a few shreds of shiitake, pine nuts, and pork bits in a thin brownish broth with scallion bits and more mushroom shreds. The wrappers were pan fried semicrisp, in genuine pot-sticker mode, but the dough remained sticky; we also felt that the broth lacked the vibrancy of the best Chinese stocks. (As a certifiable Chinese-food maniac, I'm awfully picky when gwei lo chefs -- including me -- attempt Asian flavors.) The scallops inside were large, plump, and tender, but I've been spoiled rotten during the last few weeks by sweet local scallops fresh up the road from Baja. These seemed, in contrast, tired by their transcontinental trek.
Speaking of Baja, a ceviche of lobster, shrimp, bay scallops, thick cucumber slices, and avocado slices was bathed in a lime-juice cure, dotted with fresh chervil sprigs (for a faint anise flavor) and served on a long rectangular plate. The lobster and shrimp were a tad tough, the scallops the sole textural survivors. I couldn't help but compare this austere and stately preparation to Ensenada's riotous street-cart Campeche-style ceviche (with octopus in place of lobster), where exuberant flavors are pumped up by onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Sorry, but Señora Guadalupe's two-buck tostada has this $16 version beat by cien kilometros. Keep your lobster, give me life.
By luck, we arrived on a Wednesday, when most wines on Azul's list are half price. I was torn between two favorite whites that were suddenly affordable -- a Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and a Louis Latour Meursault (for nearly twice the Duckhorn's price). Our waitress, Summer, is also a sommelier, a true pro who unselfishly advised that "a Sauvignon would go better with your appetizers." She was right -- the chile oil, batters, and citruses would have stomped all over the subtle Meursault, while the sunny, expansive Duckhorn met them head on. (Upon learning that we'd be sharing our dishes, she brought tablespoons for serving appetizer sauces and then steak knives for everyone. What a paragon!) Sam had brought a lovely Pommard (corkage is a reasonable $15). Coincidentally, this is one of my favorite red Burgundies (dark, plushy, slightly tannic but mellow -- beautifully balanced, compared to some of the crankier regions around Beaune). To honor it, we selected our main courses with the wine in mind.
The standout was "Kyoto-style" wild Alaskan salmon steak, moist-smoked and quick-roasted in the roaring oven on a cedar plank. It was a succulent, flaky, medium-rare, with a woody overlay from the smoking and the cedar. It came with asparagus spears and small Peruvian purple potatoes, which resembled an overhead view of the seal pups in the Children's Pool. But what it really came with was that Pommard. Salmon is a species that wipes out most whites but canoodles joyously with Pinot Noir.
I enjoyed the playful "Tunisian barbecued lamb," partly because it tasted like something I'd want to cook myself on an ambitious night. The surfaces of the block of loin were a vivid orange from the house-made harissa, a North African spice rub, crisscrossed with black grillmarks. The same aromatic spices painted the plate. The interior was rare as ordered, meaty and juicy. The entrée included a zingy green purée of fresh herbs for dipping, and a "Napoleon" made of flying saucers of crisp filo, set one atop the other and layered with roasted tomatoes, eggplant purée, and lavender feta cheese with an herbal-flowery flavor.