7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, 11th Floor, La Jolla
It started with an e-mail from an unknown sender -- "Who's rojo?" I wondered -- friend, Viagra-pusher, virus-carrier? A friend I'd never met, it turned out -- a reader who shares my tastes, suggesting that I try Clay's, another "view" restaurant, at the top of the towering Hotel La Jolla. That's a space that has been through so many incarnations under its previous name, Elario's, that I'd come to view it with permanent suspicion. (In its final incarnation, I heard, Elario's was serving the worst sort of hotel food, including the same precut packaged "Sysco veggie medley" with every entrée.) But Bobbie, who sent the e-mail, was so articulate in her praises of the year-old Clay's that I rounded up the posse and we made a reservation. And were we ever glad we did!
To revisit the film Ratatouille, at the climax, a snooty restaurant critic is won over by a simple peasant dish, overcome by its sheer deliciousness. In my business, it's easy to forget that, ultimately, deliciousness counts most. So there are chefs whose work I respect as high culinary art, and of course they get the big four stars on up. But there are also chefs whose food I love, whose finely tuned palates make them masters of vivacious flavors. I wish I could color-code the stars -- black for "respect the art," but hot pink, chartreuse, or turquoise (maybe with some little graphic whiz-bangs, like the movie's depiction of culinary joy) for the chefs whose work sings with flavor -- chefs like Patrick Ponsaty (Bernard'O), Brian Sinnott (1500 Ocean), Jason Knibb (910), pastry chef Jack Fisher (Jack's La Jolla), and whoever makes the Peking duck at China Max, to name a few. People often forget the art they ate but may be haunted forever by cravings for another bite of the dishes that tasted the best.
Clay Bordan seems to be one of these chefs. Not every dish we tried was perfect, but a powerful seven of ten were terrific, with vibrant flavors gently borrowing from great cuisines worldwide. The setting for Bordan's cooking is a long, oddly cozy penthouse with low ceilings, thick carpeting, and wide windows facing west, with light curtains that are lifted at sunset to reveal a panorama of La Jolla stretching down to the sea. It's comfortable and attractive but not excessively formal -- you can dress for fun in your cutest new outfit without worrying if it's fancy enough for prime time. (I don't mean that new Calvin wife-beater, guys.) On the way in, you pass a large glassed-in open kitchen, affording the visual entertainment of watching the line, but with none of the clatter. Some of the seating is at banquettes, but we preferred the sightlines from a windowside table. Since there's live music in the lounge almost every night, the sound level depends on who's playing -- it was quiet background sound the weeknight we went, but if you don't like loud, avoid Sunday nights when there's usually a retro big band.
Lynne, Jim, and Michelle had all been to Clay's for happy hour drinks and snacks, but this was the first time they'd settled in for serious eating. (Again, the curse of Elario's.) As we read the menu, a genuinely amusing "amuse" arrived -- a hospitable round of Kir Royales (champagne with crème de cassis). What could be better? The bubbles wash away the day's stresses -- begone, dull care!
Samurai Jim recommended the ahi tuna tower appetizer he'd enjoyed at happy hour. The concept (raw tuna, mango, and cucumber rounds) may be a cliché, but the execution was spiffy: The layers were piled atop a grilled cake of Thai purple rice, which softened as it absorbed the drippings to a tasty, crunchy-surfaced mush. The zesty seasonings in the tuna included a sharp hit of Thai chile oil and a glaze combining blood orange with English and Dijon mustards. On the side were fried wonton wrappers to scoop with if you wanted to. Not boring at all.
Tiger prawns were swaddled in a layer of pancetta and set on skewers that arose from an edible base of ripe, sweet pineapple, surrounded by a crunchy, spicy raw fennel salad with a hot-sweet "vindaloo" glaze of Indian spices and sweet-sour tamarind.
Sake-seared sea scallops were sweet, plump Mano de León specimens from Ensenada. They were set atop pedestals of mashed Peruvian purple potatoes mixed with parsnip purée -- a clever idea, since the parsnip offered a moist lightness, sweetness, and texture to cut the starchiness of these good-looking but dry potatoes. Surrounding them were a deliriously sensual Turkish apricot crème fraîche and a pomegranate-ginger reduction glazing the plate. The wine that hit the spot with all the appetizers was an old favorite, Edna Valley (Santa Barbara) Chardonnay -- an unpretentious but serious rendition of "delicious." (Cost Plus often carries it on sale, for about a third of the restaurant price. All my tablemates said they'd be looking to buy it by the case.) For the entrées, we switched to miscellaneous pours by the glass, since we'd ordered both fish and meat.
After having read the menu online, I consumed the appetizers with as much relief as joy. Through bitter experience, I've grown leery of non-Asian chefs doing "fusion" by throwing exotic ingredients willy-nilly into their cooking, or worse yet, coming up with creative "improvements" over traditional recipes that need no improving. Poorly done fusion is a form of cultural misappropriation -- that is, ripping off non-European cuisines to get ego points: "Thanks for the sansho pepper, Butterfly honey -- gotta run now." But there are no soy-drenched mudholes at Clay's -- when this chef incorporates global flavors to enliven his cooking, he employs them intelligently and gracefully where they do the most good.
Not fusion-y at all, however, a perfectly conventional "signature" lobster bisque shouldn't be a signature. The most disappointing of our starters, it was short on lobster flavor -- creamy comfort food without much personality, even with the cute little pedigreed--goat cheese dumpling floating in the middle. If "it takes a heap of livin' to make a house a home," then it takes a load of lobster to make a bisque a thrill. There's no lobster on Clay's' menu, which means the kitchen isn't awash in leftover carapaces and spare parts but has to purchase lobster bodies for the base of the broth. I've never yet loved a bisque from a restaurant that doesn't have lobster on its menu -- it's not the same as the bisque from a kitchen swamped with leftover shells, swimmerets, and an extra live lobster or two to throw into the pot.