Then -- thud. We'd hit Azul on a night when the chef was away at a Brigantine staff wine-tasting, followed by a few days of vacation. (Had I returned the next night, it wouldn't have helped.) Two entrées went wrong in his absence. A huge "Iowa pork chop," which we requested "rosy, medium-rare," was browned through -- a waste of good pig. (The chef tells me that he directs the line cooks to serve pork to a default of medium-rare, the way we wanted it -- so somebody was a very bad boy. But during the summer tourist season, he also tells them to cook everything 5 degrees extra. In this case, it was 35 degrees extra.) It came with a slick of thick, sweet Cumberland sauce made with cranberries and a mound of banana soufflé. When it comes to the oily-sweet heft of banana versus the airiness of fluffed egg white -- you can't have both and still maintain enough banana flavor to savor. In this case, the banana won the wrestling match. The soufflé wasn't light, but it was tasty.
And "duck cooked two ways" was a big fib that night, when this menu stalwart went seriously awry. There were four or five -- six, max -- slices of rosy duck breast strewn around middens of crisp-surfaced mashed potatoes, which concealed in their depths bits of dried-out duck-leg meat, tasting less like duck confit than old quacker leftovers. Around the edge was a gooey syrup dotted with stewed, sweetly glazed, whole kumquats. It seemed simply perverse. I'm sure this isn't the way it's meant to be.
Alerted by the fine palmier pastry in the crab appetizer, we decided it was worth trying some desserts. The ploy paid off handsomely. A strawberry Napoleon consisted of layers of thin, frangible pastry interspersed with ripe chopped berries and mascarpone cream. (It was garnished with a robe of very sweet whipped cream, which only got in the way until we shooed it off.) A nectarine crisp resembled home baking at its best -- a crunchy topping over slightly tart fruit slices, the sweetness of the pastry set off by the slight sourness of the nectarines. For a change, dessert was our best course.
How does Azul La Jolla stand in the ranks of "view" restaurants with food worth eating? The daily changing menu makes any meal a bit of a gamble, and the kitchen isn't as finely controlled as at some top destinations with chefs who've been there longer. But the restaurant's heart is in the right place -- the most disappointing dishes at our meal were glitches of execution rather than of aspiration. At San Diego's many atrocious scenery-reliant venues, owners know they're serving slop and warn their chefs (or cooks) off trying too hard or (worse yet) spending a lot for good ingredients. Not a problem here.
There's no question but that the ambition at Azul is to please well-honed palates, to give culinary value along with a visual feast. Food prices are very high, about the same as at next-door California Modern (née George's), but the cooking here is chancier, and Azul is a louder room. On the other hand, it's easier to get a reservation, wine prices are merciful, kids are welcome (not just on holidays), and there's no Armani-suited "Barrage of Bankers" to intimidate you into duding up with fancier clothes than you feel comfortable wearing. Plus, the cooking is more adventurous (usually an asset, but see "gamble," above). I would definitely go back for a second try -- not necessarily tomorrow, but in the off-season, when there ain't nobody here but us locals.
ABOUT THE CHEF
At age 14, chef Orion Balliet (now aged 34) took a part-time dishwashing job at Gerard's, a famed local French restaurant in his hometown, Seattle. The chef was Gerard Perot, a member of the elite Relais Gourmands and a disciple of the renowned Paul Bocuse. Balliett worked hard and was promoted from sink duty to something like a classic French cooking apprenticeship, and in the process he caught cooking fever. "I didn't even know that I was interested in cooking, but once I started cooking a little bit, I discovered that I really liked it.
"I've had a lot of luck in my life. I was working at the Hilton in L.A., and one of my mentors there, Eric Wolf, told me I needed to go to culinary school. It just happened that my mom sold her house then and remarried her current husband. With the influx of money from the house, she asked me if I wanted to go to school, so that enabled me to go to California Culinary Academy in San Francisco." While studying, he worked under celeb chef Jeremiah Tower (in his crumbling final years) at Stars and Stars Cafe in San Francisco, where Tower's reliable chefs de cuisine taught Balliet a great deal more. His mentor in L.A. had also advised him to travel as much as possible, so he and his then-girlfriend (another culinary school student) spent time in Thailand and Indonesia savoring the cuisines, and he also took a cooking course in Venice.
By 1994, at the age of 21, Orion graduated and immediately got a job as executive chef at the Fisherman Bar and Grill in North Beach. After a brief run-in with a newly paroled Mafia capo who'd just bought the controlling interest in the restaurant, he discreetly departed for Dallas's renowned Cafe Pacific, then took it easy for a while with a sous-chef job in Truckee -- the first time since he started cooking professionally that he had the leisure to enjoy life. "I was always the guy who was too busy cooking to go to a party. So from there I went on a European excursion with my girlfriend at the time, eating at all these little holes-in-the-wall, and when I came back, I had a new, reinvigorated passion for what I wanted to do."
He became executive chef of the four-star Bellevue Club back in Washington State. From there, he went to work at Napa's Villagio Inn and Spa until the Brigantine recruited him to take over the kitchen at Azul La Jolla. With the departure of the chain's executive chef, Balliet now influences the menus of all the Brigantines. He is largely free to purchase produce, fish, and other goods according to his own judgment -- hence, the sweet corn from serious-chef mainstay Specialty Produce, rather than one of the less quality-oriented restaurant supply sources.