We concluded the savory courses with an entrée of simply grilled fish with Chino Farms vegetables. Several fishes were available, but we all agreed that Arctic char was the one to choose — a cold-water salmon-trout sharing characteristics of both, with pink salmonlike flesh, but having a milder flavor and more tender texture. With the patient help of Pirate Jenny to define the precise degree of doneness we wanted, we ordered it medium-rare, and so it arrived. The outside was crispy and well seasoned, the interior meltingly perfect. The baby Chino veggies (summer squashes, potato, amazingly sweet carrot) were splendid — not just veggies but each a miniature major-flavor on its own.
We’d started with a round of creative cocktails (at $10, the average starting price of most wines by the glass here). The Lynnester’s Lavender Cosmo was a top pick: blueberry-lavender–infused vodka with white cranberry juice and cassis, it was subtle, pale, fragrant, and altogether sexy. Ben’s “Sweet and Vicious” (“I didn’t know you swing that way,” I teased) had basil-infused rum and the freshness of watermelon juice to balance a lash of habanero syrup. It’s not cruel at all. My coconut margarita with tarragon syrup was less coconutty than I’d hoped, merely a frosty, neutral quaff on a hot night.
The wine list offers fine choices by the glass and half-bottle, but the sharp escalation of its prices can be a problem, with few bottles under $40. Given the choices, a $45 Viognier from the Languedoc saw us happily through the grazing. For the tag end (pasta and fish), the sommelier recommended a smoky Pinot Noir. A curse upon Sideways, which has painfully escalated the prices of this grape. Posse regular (and wine lover) Sam generously treated us to a Willamette Valley (Oregon) quaff ($85), which proved delicious, ingratiating, and food-friendly — but for that price I’d hope for a somewhat older, richer French Burgundy (even if only a Volnay).
For dessert we enjoyed a delicate cherry panna cotta plated over cake and topped with housemade cherry sorbet. Unlike many, pastry chef Joe Burns really knows how to make panna cotta. We also tried the labor-intensive zillion-layer chocolate crêpe cake, sandwiching chocolate mousse. It was…very sweet. Not disgusting, just…sweet. The coffee and decaf espresso were good. We were happy with our dinner — and we’re all looking forward to coming back to watch this promising chef and his venturesome crew grow and bloom.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Ryan Johnston’s father was a chef in Florida, cooking Continental-American style at local restaurants, so it was only natural for Ryan to follow the family trade. “I started cooking with him when I was about 13 and eventually went to the CIA — not sure if I wanted to be a chef or not. I fell in love with it there and went on to cook in New York [in East Hampton, an upscale resort area], back in Florida, and then in San Francisco for seven years, and then down here for the last three. In San Francisco I cooked in Napa, for two years at Bouchon [famed chef Thomas Keller’s bistro venue] and then at a little place called Bijou, South of Market [another highly acclaimed bistro]; I was there four years as chef de cuisine.”
I asked what brought him to San Diego. “A girl,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about San Diego cooking. But I came down here and found a job with Sammy [Ladecki] at Fresh, then did some time at Blackhorse [Ladecki’s one-time steakhouse in Del Mar] and then back here with Arturo [Kassel, owner of Fresher and now Whisknladle]. With Sammy, I was just doing what he wanted me to do. But now — this is what I really want to be doing, about 80 percent, but we still have to accommodate the locals here.”
The remaking of Fresh was a mutual project of both the chef and the owner. “Arturo and I went up to Portland, Oregon, and we really liked what was going on up there. Same with San Francisco. If you’re gonna do something, at least it’s gotta be your own. If you’re gonna fail, at least it’s something of your own. We wanted to make it more casual, less stuffy. He’s 27 or 28, I’m 34, so we’re younger, and we wanted a restaurant that reflected who we were, as people, as diners. It’s a little different than the other restaurants in La Jolla.
“We’re making our own salumi in-house, we’re doing everything we can in-house — baking bread, all that stuff, and that’s really what we did at Bijou and what Thomas Keller’s about in Napa.
“What I really enjoy about cooking is, it’s gotta be from the soul, from the heart. You gotta do the best you can with product that’s local as much as possible. Staying local is cheaper for the customer, too. We’re slowly but surely changing the patterns here. Just last week we sold more bone marrow than we’ve ever sold. It’s good to see people trying new things. One thing I loved about San Francisco and Napa was that people were willing to try new things — not that they’re close-minded here, but they’re a little more reluctant to try new things. Having a good time, that’s really important. There’s always a chance of human error, but if you have the best ingredients, you’re less likely to screw up.”
**** (Very Good to Excellent)
1044 Wall Street, La Jolla, 858-551-7575, whisknladle.com
HOURS: Lunch/weekend brunch 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m. daily; sunset menu 3:00–5:00 p.m.; dinner weekdays 5:00–9:00 p.m.; to 10:00 p.m. (plus bar menu until “last call”) Friday–Saturday.
PRICES: Appetizers and grazing plates, $8–$18; entrées, $16–$30; desserts $10
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Local, natural, artisanal, and seasonal cuisine with global flavors; emphasis on grazing plates (shareable appetizers). Craft beers, sophisticated mainly West Coast wine list with ample choices by the glass and half-bottle, but few bottles under $40. Full bar.
PICK HITS: “Cutting Board” house-cured salumi plate; roasted bone marrow; chorizo and date fritters; “simply grilled” fish; panna cotta; Lavender Cosmo cocktail.
NEED TO KNOW: All seating on roofed, sheltered patio. Dinner reservations strongly recommended. Late-night weekend bar menu. Kiddie menu available (tweaked versions of adult menu, no fried foods). About five lacto-vegetarian grazing plates, one vegan.