Plus, it turns out they do entire chocolate- or cocoa-based meals every month here on a different theme. This month (on the 25th), it's a five-course Moroccan-spice dinner. Things like "fried chickpea fritters with dark chocolate harissa sauce." I tell you, from PI (the Philippines) to CA, sweet and sour: It's happening.
A few days later, Ms. Naomi continues my education. This time we're up at the corner of Fifth and University. That prime Hillcrest spot that used to be wasted on a realty office. Now it's white, glassy, classy, and somehow, it makes you feel important just to walk through the glass doors. And even more important when the server hands out real linen napkins in silver and lime enamel napkin rings. The place is white and green, with ceramics and sculptures recessed in niches, and a long white bench-seat running the length of the Fifth Avenue side, a wall fountain, another big three-tier green-leaf fountain, ebony-framed white chairs, black marble and slate floors…I swear. It could be Paris. We sit down at this table that looks like polished tapioca pearls. It's the kind of place that makes you clean your fingernails under the table.
But man, this'd be so great to come to in the mornings, have a coffee and croissant and read the New Yawk Times. 'Course they'd kick you out if you read anything less.
We're both, like, hongry, and starting to enjoy this finishing-school thing she's doing with me. And salivating over all the good things to come. But first, we order something savory, seeing as it's on the menu. In fact, they have breakfast and lunch items like quiches and sandwiches for $5–$10, and then the full panoply of desserts, all around $5. And a bunch of unusual takes on usual drinks. Like Dutch Coke, and Orangina. Naomi gets an espresso. I get straight coffee and a chocolate-filled mini-croissant. Oh my. That little cruncher is so deelish, and fresh, and goes perfectly with the coffee.
Then we go for a quiche of caramelized onions and Gruyère cheese. Naomi takes a bite, falls silent, looks up. "Amazing. The custard is amazing, So silky, light. Do they force it through a chinoise?"
Now she presses with her fork to get through the dough crust to cut me off a piece. "Crust's rather thick and heavy," she says. I take the taste. Mmm. What I like best about it is the French-onion-soup flavor.
I get a prosciutto sandwich. Of course, it's not just a slab of ham. It comes with "fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, spinach, and a honey and white truffle vinaigrette." There's that sweetish tang again. It works. Then again, for $9 it should.
We go to the counter to look for sweet things to go. And wind up going hog wild. I get a big orange slab called "Apricot Summer," more chocolate croissants, and a bunch of specialty chocolates. Naomi insists on paying. Me, I'm like a kid in a, well, candy store. Mostly what I can't believe is the fine art in the smallest chocolates. One, spray-painted with an airbrush, I swear, like a — what? thrush's egg? — is spotted from blue to brown, and it looks just too damned good to chew. I chew anyway. It tastes of fudge inside.
One thing we have to try: a Mille Feuille.
"What exactly is it?" I say.
"My God! Were you brought up by wolves?" Naomi says. But she's willing to share some of her flaky ("Mille Feuille: a thousand leaf") croissant-type pastry. It sandwiches layers of vanilla-rum custard with a striped vanilla and dark chocolate on top. "This is a variation of the 'Napoleon' dessert," she says, "a triumph of classic French pastry techniques. But you should have espresso or something strong like dark-roast French coffee with it, to give it some bitter with the sweet. And, my dear, this espresso here is excellent."
I see she's impressed by Mille Feuille, the food, the elegance, the atmosphere. But she has to take off for another gastronomical engagement. After she hurries away, I come across the guy who runs the kitchen. Thomas Gérard, wunderkind from Lyon, gastronomic capital of France. Turns out he has Paris, New York, San Francisco, and L.A. on his pastry-chef résumé. He was lured down to La Valencia in La Jolla.
"La Valencia is where I invented Apricot Summer," he says. "The wildfires were burning. The cooks were making carrot cake. I looked at the orange color, I looked at the fires, I got an idea."
Result is this coconut, pineapple, and carrot sponge cake "layered with orange-apricot cream-cheese filling topped with a marble glaze," as the menu describes it. And it sure does blaze out at you from the cabinet. Later, when I try it with Carla at home, we love the great combo of carrotty, orange-peel nuttiness and the texture, moist enough to put any fire out.
I ask Gérard about the more ordinary things on his menu, like my prosciutto sandwich. "I wanted to create something parallel to the burger concept," he says, "but healthy. Of course, we use our own bread, which is light, and burata, which is the softest mozzarella."
"Omygod!" says Naomi, when I call that evening. "Burata! It's like a mozzarella truffle. The softest! A skin surrounding a mozzarella cream.…"
Dang. Wish I'd thought more about it while I was scarfing it down.
So then we kinda analyze Mille Feuille. "For starters," Naomi says, "their mini-croissant is the best idea since sliced bread. If you're on a low-carb diet, it's a breakfast indulgence rather than a binge. I brought one home with apple filling. Sort of French meets American pastry, croissant meets apple pie. Second to brioche, these [mini-croissants] are what I'd like to eat for breakfast most."
She raves about Mille Feuille's piña colada pastry, another of her "to go" collection. "It's coconut panna cotta (eggless custard) swirled atop a very light, almost airborne sponge cake. On top, it had lightly caramelized cooked pineapple. The panna cotta was a bit sweet for my taste, but otherwise this is my idea of a perfect dessert. Light? It was like sweetened, flavored air."