Lamb "two ways" was a favorite, featuring two slim rib chops with a spicy mint rub, plus a mound of melting lamb osso buco (shank) on the bone. (Trey is a master at bringing out the best in red meat stewing-cuts; his winter dish of braised Kobe beef short ribs is memorable.) Alongside were lightly curried carrots of two colors (orange and pale yellow) plus white beans mingled with diced orange carrots and yogurt. Everything on the plate worked together, like a well-rehearsed chamber orchestra.
"Peking-Style Duck Breast" is slightly deceiving. First, it's not all breast, since the portion includes a drumstick (or perhaps a large wing drumette), which is fine. More to the point, if you're a maniacal Chinese food fan, don't hope for the Asian miracle bird, its skin subcutaneously inflated (through a straw or a bicycle pump) before being glazed and blow-dried. This is not the addictive version at China Max, but a more gwei lo take that's still, Trey says, a work in progress. At our dinner, the skin was a bit soft, although succulent with its Asian spice rub and thin underlay of luscious fat. The meat was tender, the flavors fine. It comes with sugar peas, rhubarb and fennel salad, and white jasmine rice with a hint of ginger and coconut, which lends interesting undertones.
Niman Ranch pork tenderloin arrived absolutely tender, cooked to our order of "rosy" (135û--140ûF). "Like buttah," we kidded. It came with cider-braised cipollini onions, a ragout of black trumpet mushrooms, peas and ramps (wild scallions), and best of all, a slick of trumpet mushroom purée, the haunting quintessence of mushroom flavor. It also boasted an itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie square of firm polenta.
Then, too, I would have loved to plunge into more than the mini-portion of smoked mashed potatoes that come with the beef dishes. Who could imagine that taters were smokable -- and so seductive with this treatment? Our steak (a 21-day aged strip, also from Niman) was tender, with a good red-wine sauce and marinated mushrooms -- but it's still merely meat, while the spuds are stars.
In fact, anyone on a carb-counting diet is pretty safe with the entrées here. Unlike many old-fashioned local eateries, with their cheap meats surrounded by mountains of mash or piles of pasta, Trey serves proteins generously but metes out starches sparingly. I'd have liked a bit more of them to distract me from the wickedly tempting Bread & Cie baguettes in the bread basket. Most starches and several of the vegetable garnishes are available in larger portions as side dishes for a few dollars extra.
Our waiter was excellent, knowledgeable about the food and wine. (He's a sometime chef himself, hence a full-out foodie -- which always makes a dinner more fun.) On a wine list where most bottles run $50 and up, our "find" that evening was Chile's Casa Lapostolle Merlot (a frequent Wine Spectator rave) at $45. That's not exactly cheap -- Fiore's, the fine dining restaurant at Harrah's in Valley Center, was selling it for under $25 a couple of years ago -- but here it's among the most affordable bottles. It's a comfort food of a wine, as smooth, velvety, and food-friendly as you'd ever wish. It went well with the lamb and the pork and tasted made-to-order for the duck. (For the beef, I'd have preferred a more tannic red, e.g., a Cab.) For the white, I encountered a rarely seen old friend, Château Carbonnieux white Bordeaux, a crisp sauvignon-semillion blend.
The simplest of our desserts was the most satisfying: a consommé of Chino strawberries, the soupy essence of late spring, garnished with frozen crème frâiche and strawberry sorbet, along with small, hard croutons of pound cake (which we found disposable at best, as the cold soup didn't soften them). The other sweets were a little disappointing: A warm chocolate tart was cakelike, with a firm, grainy texture, scattered with delightful candied orange zest and topped with white chocolate espresso ice cream, but we'd have liked it more were it baked a few minutes less, for a squishier texture. The same was true of a slightly dry pineapple upside-down cake, where the garnishes were the highlights -- a drizzle of exotic saffron syrup and a scoop of remarkable basil ice cream. (A few at my table found it too weird; the rest, including me, were smitten.)
The search for restaurants with scenic views and serious food will continue in weeks to come. Some additional recommendations based on wonderful past meals are Bertrand at Mr. A's, Marine Room, and 1500 Ocean (although the last's chef just left; presumably they'll find an equally adept replacement). A notch down in cuisine but a lot of fun are Coronado Boathouse, Island Prime, Peohe's, and for brunch, Brockton Villa. Any suggestions? You can foodblog away on the new, interactive www.SanDiegoReader.com website -- we're California Modern ourselves!
ABOUT THE CHEF
I asked Trey about the ideas behind the renovation and name change of the restaurant and what the changes meant to him as a chef. "I'm affected a lot by the environment I'm in, the space I'm in," he said. "Through the years, I've tried to gear my food to the environment of the restaurant. With the renovation, we consciously made the decision to shake off the shackles of being 'George's at the Cove Fine Dining Restaurant' -- the place to celebrate graduations and anniversaries.
"What the changes have done is to allow us to put whatever we want on the menu. It's a style that encompasses everything that we really want to do. I do feel freer -- that's how we all feel in the kitchen. The format now allows us to change the menu whenever we want. I used to make many changes on Thursdays; that's just the way the system was comfortable. But now I can change the menu in an hour. If we get a great shipment of Oregon porcini, and we're only going to get one for the week, I want to put it on the menu for two days and then take them off and put something else on. It allows us a lot more flexibility.