1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
The search continues apace for "view restaurants" with cuisine to equal their eye-candy appeal. California Modern, the newly remodeled former dining room at George's at the Cove, is another winner. As soon as the decor and name changes were complete, the foodie e-mails started trickling in, saying that chef Trey Foshee seemed better than ever, free at last to be truly Trey. Foshee has always been an exponent of modern California cuisine, turning out dishes with subtle flavor combinations, garnished with perfect seasonal vegetables from Chino Farms. His style hasn't radically changed but seems intensified with a new, more flexible menu that adapts to the best produce and seafood available in any week.
Physically, the change in the room is striking. The reception area is now as high tech and computerized as a bank lobby, with long, dark tables topped by monitors and telephones and staffed by numerous hostesses. One whole wall features a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in wine cellar. Although the aim of the renovation was to de-emphasize formality and introduce a casual, breezy feeling, the expensively suited white males of old continue to mill about the reception area, waiting for their colleagues. That's their choice, since when I showed up with half my party ten minutes before our reservation time, we were allowed to claim our table immediately. In the dining room, what used to be a wall with a few windows is now a panoramic wall of windows, affording every table a view of the ocean off the cove, and tables are well spaced, reducing noise. (There are also two smaller dining rooms deeper inside the building, sans scenery. When the rooms aren't occupied by private parties, last-minute reservers are sentenced to those purgatories.) Soon, Esther, Alan, and grown daughter Jenna arrived to join Dave, Marty, and me. "The Wall of Wine needed Windex," quipped Esther as she sat down. "Then we went through the Barrage of Bankers."
The cocktails are seasonal recipes created by the chef, so we had to try a few to fully experience Trey's artistry. A Bellini afforded a chance to taste Chino Farms' ripe nectarines, puréed with Prosecco (which I prefer to the harsher bubbles of Champagne). It was intensely fruity, not oversweet. The fusion-y "Bee Sting" (vodka with honey, ginger, lemongrass, and whole kumquats) was sweet but complex. A dark red hibiscus mojito was colored and flavored by tangy hibiscus-flower syrup (aka sorrel or jamaica, best known as the flavoring and colorant of Red Zinger tea). In the weeks to come, look for a new twist on Pisco Sour, which will debut as soon as Trey finishes inventing it.
We fell in love with a cold appetizer composed of several varieties and colors of silky grilled Asian eggplants from Chino Farms, garnished with at least two breeds of cherry tomatoes, a slick of white bean purée, and a "spicy pepper confit" that wasn't really spicy, just zingy. Veggies like these make you forget you're a carnivore. A green garlic and morel soup was subtle, a mildly garlicky chicken broth amended with asparagus and irresistible morel mushrooms. Best of all was a technical feat as delicious as it was impressive: a "crispy poached egg" -- soft-poached egg dipped in a light panko batter and so carefully deep-fried that the yolk remained liquid, ready to burst when you cut into its package. (Now I ask you, is that fun, or isn't it? It's like Scotch eggs, but less cooked and minus the greasy sausage meat.) If you want a bit more salt in your soup (or on anything else), a mini-saucer is divided between coarse-ground white sea salt and a tan mixture amended by the chef's blend of 12 spices. (Sprinkle it on ripe watermelon and you'll wear a thousand-watt smile.)
Even flashier than the soup-egg was a hazelnut-crusted softshell crab, which redoubled the crispness of the shell with a buttery crushed-nut crust. Instead of an interesting act of nature (the odd texture of a softshell's shell), the crackly carapace became an edible work of art. (It reminded me of the jewel-encrusted turtle in the old "decadent" French novel Au Rebours. ) "Best softshell I've ever tasted," said Alan, to nods all around.
A charming octopus carpaccio had delicate rounds of tender octopus plated over thin, mirroring circles of cold potato dressed in romesco sauce (tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and ground toasted nuts). Ultra-fresh Mano de León scallops, farm-raised south of Ensenada, appeared in a ceviche, thinly sliced and dressed with cardamom oil, amended with jalapeño (not enough even to nip), cilantro, and tangerines. The sweetness of the fruit played up the sweetness of the scallops. But citrus-cured hamachi (yellowtail) is a dish that's approaching the cliché-appetizer status of seared ahi. "It's been done to death," said Jenna. (I preferred Azzura Point's version, with its darker, complex marinade.)
I usually avoid ordering halibut, considering it the WASPiest of fishes -- as white as Wonder bread, it swims in expensive prep schools and golfs at the country club. Trey finds it too bland himself (he prefers stronger-flavored species, such as local sardines -- unavailable that week due to red tide), but it's a crowd-pleaser and big seller, so he turns the blandness into a virtue. His air-shipped, bone-in Alaskan halibut steak was a thick hunk (with a couple of large, easily removed bones) cooked to flaky, opalescent tenderness. Surrounding it were wilted pea tendrils and "chowder," a creamy sauce studded with tiny whole clams, bacon, diced potatoes, and kernels of supersweet Chino corn. The playful personality of the accompaniment compensated for the mildness of the fish.
An opulent lobster seafood stew included shrimp and pieces of fin-fish in a creamy sauce served with aoli over "toasted pasta" (Italian whole-wheat fregoli) with slivered almonds. Unfortunately, it reached me last as it made its way around the table, and "my" fregoli were long gone by then. (That's one reason Chinese restaurants serve communal-dish family dinners at big, round tables instead of long rectangles -- so everyone can see everyone else to converse, and Nonna can stop Junior from grabbing all the claw-pieces of the Lobster Cantonese.)