1044 Wall Street, La Jolla
First it was Fresh, a pricey seafood house owned by Sammy Ladecki (of Roppongi and pizza-chain fame). Then Ladecki sold it in August 2006 to Arturo Kassel, and it became Fresher, still a seafood house, with chef Ryan Johnston at the range. It was still good, maybe even better than before, but perhaps La Jolla simply didn’t want an upscale seafood house. The restaurant shut down for months of renovation and then reopened with a different style of cooking and a new name — not Refresh (as you might expect) but the awfully gemütlich Whisknladle (named after an underground foodie supper club in Brooklyn), which sounds to me like an overstocked cookware store with rag-stuffed “kitchen witches” hanging from every beam and rafter.
What’s in a name? For a restaurant, possibly the odds of survival. But by any other name, Whisknladle would smell as — savory. Its new focus is the kind of cooking that urban America is increasingly learning to cherish: ambitiously artisanal “slow food,” highlighting natural and local ingredients, with the kitchen crew rediscovering the skills of a hardworking farmwife of 150 years ago. They bake the breads, cut up 200-pound pig-halves, cure and/or smoke the pork, make several of the cheeses (with more on the way, as they learn the skills), and all the ice creams and sorbets.
The results? Tasty, exciting, worth watching, and much less costly than it used to be — good to eat and good for you as well. In six months, the food will be even better. In a year or two, probably better yet — the chef is still relatively young (34), and he and his crew are still learning the relatively arcane culinary arts they’re drawing on in this kitchen. We’ve got a serious contender here.
As for the physical setup, all the dining is on a sheltered, roofed, sidewalk patio. Only the bar remains inside (it’s been moved toward the front), along with a gleaming open kitchen. On the first night of a brief heat wave, a welcome break from May Gray, I was delighted to eat outside. Our server, Jenny, was not your standard San Diego “rather-be- surfing” wait-sylph. A smart, sturdy, clever, non-glam Cape Codder with a strong “Bahston” accent and evident abilities to communicate and to think on her feet, she clearly cared about our getting the best meal possible for our preferences. I liked her enough to mentally dub her with a nom de posse — “Pirate Jenny,” after Lotte Lenya’s subversive role in The Threepenny Opera.
The menu is a small tri-folded flyer printed on coarse brown recycled paper. It includes wines by the glass (there’s also a long, separate wine list), craft beers, and cocktails, with a centerfold labeled “Food.” But at the top of the right-hand fold, just north of the beers, is a short section called “More Food(ies).” Start here. These are the necessary dishes; skip them and you haven’t really eaten here.
First, the oysters on the half-shell come from Carlsbad. They’re meaty and very briny, saltier than most northern oysters. They come with a pleasant mignonette and lemon quarters. To my taste, the lemon alone seemed best at balancing the salt and highlighting these oysters’ distinctive flavor.
Chorizo and date fritters are obviously going to rank as one of the year’s greatest dishes. What binds the fruit and meat together is a rich Mornay (cheese sauce) that comes burbling out with each bite. So you’ve got simultaneous blasts of sweet-spicy-fatty and crispy-chewy-gooey (Donald Duck’s three nephews all in one). They’re plated on a sauce of tomato and Spanish piquillo peppers, which is good too, if you can pay attention to it in the face of those diabolically delicious diva dates.
Roasted bone marrow is a slow-cooked cut bovine shinbone, from which you spoon out the marrow, accompanied by surprising triangles of thick, sweet Texas toast. Marrow is incredibly rich, flavorful stuff. Despite its unctuousness, I’d recommend no more than two eaters to a bone. We were all painstakingly polite to each other, but everybody knew that I really yearned to hoover all the marrow up for myself. Presumably my friends suffered the same powerful lust.
The last listing in this section is the “Cutting Board,” from sous-chef Joe Herman (he’s nicknamed “Joe Sausage,” while the pastry and bread-baker, Joe Burns, is “Joe Pastry”). It features Italian-style house-cured meats (Mario Batali has familiarized their Italian name, salumi, better known in French as “charcuterie”) plus house-made cheeses, plus cornichons, sweet gherkins, several mustards, and raisins-on-the-stem. The array typically includes bresaola, sopresata, and Tuscan-style salami, but additions are prone to constant change, so I’ll just mention the classic and rewarding pork French-style pâté de campagne and the deeply succulent prosciutto.
The rest of the menu offers about twice as many salads and “grazes” (appetizers sized for sharing) as entrées. This is where the action is — you can get two tastes for the price of one entrée, ideal for curious foodies and sufferers of culinary attention deficit disorder (CADD).
The menu changes too frequently (based on seasonal choices) to take the website version seriously. Two of my target dishes — roast squab salad, and spaghetti citarra with guanciale (house-cured hog maw) — had vanished by our visit (boo hiss!)
The grazes from the center of the menu were less spectacular than those from the right-hand corner. They were good but seemed more like works in progress. Tempura-fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese were pleasing, while the sweet Turkish-style honey-walnut pesto alongside was smashing — but somewhat estranged from its plate-mate. “I’d love this pesto with good, thick Greek yogurt,” said Ben, the air steward. A special of soft-shell crab, also in tempura batter, came with an egg-thickened mint-cilantro vinaigrette resembling Caesar dressing with extra herbs. Each crab bite brought a spate of crab liquid (no, not fat), but the dip was less focused and exciting than I’d hoped. (Maybe an Indian-style yogurt-based cilantro-mint chutney might sparkle more.)
Pappardelle Bolognese was the Lynnester’s favorite graze, with its soulful, shredded-meat sauce. Still, even she agreed that the long, thick pasta ribbons needed about 30 seconds’ more cooking to transit from chewy to al dente. Spicy Catalan shrimp were a tad overcooked and awash in olive oil, flavored with crushed garlic and hot chilies. Flatbread pizza was cracker-thin, topped with ramps (wild scallions, a precious springtime treat), tomato, and housemade mozzarella. The flavor combination was fine, but the mozzarella layer was even thinner than the crust, leaving the dish dry enough to require too much chewing for too little reward. (Next day, I nuked the leftover pizza for breakfast, like a Real Man, and found I’d snagged the one good cheesy piece.)