It’s odd to think of a glitzy, Angeleno Wolfgang Puck restaurant on a bucolic, wooded college campus, but Jai (pronounced “jay,” like the bird) is no college dining hall. (The press release says the name means “heart” in Thai and also refers to a Chinese good-luck dish; it’s also alphabetic code for Joan and Irwin Jacobs, major donors to the theater it serves.) It’s happily and conveniently married to the La Jolla Playhouse next door and serves as a handy preperformance dining spot but with more than enough strength to stand on its own.
This is “Wolfie’s” second attempt to conquer San Diego. The first, about ten years ago, was a spiffy-looking family café in a mall, and it lasted about a New York minute. The food was, I hear, not representative of Puck’s glam side — more his soup-can side.
Jai may have a better chance at longevity, between captive playgoers; lively, tasty food; and a pure-pleasure ambiance. The restaurant, a few steps from the theater on a forested hillside, plays peek-a-boo from behind a wall of clear glass, which at night reflects the facing trees. Sheltered behind the glass, just outside the front door, is an extensive, enticing outdoor drinking-and-dining area with tweedy gray armchairs and dark tables — will it soon be warm enough to hang out there?
Inside the restaurant, you step into a welcoming lounge with generously sized red chairs and couches, a large coffee table, and fully loaded magazine racks. Mickey Two was waiting for us when Samurai Jim and I arrived.
Next to the lounge is a shiny-surfaced wooden bar with the obnoxious, ubiquitous muted flat-screen TV behind it. We didn’t go there. Once seated at our table, we rejoiced that the lighting (from white globes resembling Japanese paper lanterns, small to UFO-size) was bright enough to read the menus and see the food in all its colors. The tables are spacious enough that if you’re eating family style, there’s room for individual plates as well as the large platters, so you’re not forced to play round robin. Better yet, the staff really gets it when you say “family style,” as though they’d all grown up in New York, savoring Sunday-night dinners at the neighborhood Cantonese.
The menu may not offer Brooklyn-style Lobster Cantonese, but all the food we tried was Asian-flavored and worth seeing and eating. Chef Yoshinori Kojima (most recently at Puck’s Red 7 in West Hollywood) is top toque. Instead of bread, you start with a bowl of appetite-rousing spicy green beans. We began with tataki-style Kobe beef carpaccio, a dish that bears favorable comparison with the Kobe carpaccio we tried recently at Suite and Tender. There, the beef was transparently thin and overmastered by garnishes. Here, it was a thicker, better expression of the tender texture and buttery flavor, dressed with a faintly spicy “Szechwan ginger vinaigrette” that complemented the meat without overwhelming it.
My favorite starter was the tempura soft-shell crab, the crabmeat miraculously soft and tender as a mousse in its light batter, with a few small chewable bits of thin shell to remind you of its identity. It came with a salad of red and white Belgian endive leaves, with their attractive hint of bitterness, and a sensual Korean miso sauce. The latter — rosy-hued, thick, smooth, and mild — seemed a sort of soyish, dairy-free alternative to beurre blanc.
Crispy shrimp-and-scallop spring rolls have sweet, chopped seafoods encased in flaky pastry shells, accompanied by a pleasing “ten-spice honey dipping sauce.” I can’t name the ten spices (but who’s counting?); the light, sweet sauce resembled Vietnamese nguoc cham dip for spring rolls and such.
Also admirable are sweetly glazed, tender Kurobuta spareribs, sliding off the bones, garnished with a little authentically spicy kim chee. So far, batting four for four. Of course, I could have tried harder to challenge Jai by ordering foods I wouldn’t like. I have a feeling that “Hunan chicken lollipops / General Tso’s glaze” might annoy me in some fashion (if nothing else, by the name alone) and that I might yawn at “chicken lettuce cups,” having eaten squab (a tastier bird) in lettuce cups so many times in San Francisco and Hong Kong.
One of Jai’s entrées, the ethereal miso-sake–broiled butterfish, is already achieving legendary status. It deserves it, rivaling that similar legend, the miso-glazed black cod at Nobu. Never has a fish been so tender and buttery, and rarely is any fish so well served by its sauce — a subtle, faintly sweet glaze that slides over the fish like a silk negligee. If fish are supposed to be brain food, this one’s a genius — or an angelfish for its sublimity. A heaplet of slim, chilled, wheaty chow mein noodles brings us gently back to earth. Their sesame-miso dressing — dotted with bean sprouts, carrot julienne, onion slices, and microgreens — holds a mirror to the glaze on the fish, with the same key, same tempo, but a different and darker instrument improvising its own riffs on the melody.
Maine lobster curry “Shanghai style” is neither an Indian nor a Thai-style curry, nor even a Singaporean version (which Shanghai cooks might adopt), but more a theoretical curry. The sauce is vaguely, gently sweet. The lobster is a tad tough and drab, as though jet-lagged from its journey. Japanese pickled ginger and jasmine rice play backup, but the big thrill for Samurai Jim (who’s avidly learning to cook and wants to attempt it) was the heap of deep-fried, crisp spinach leaves, a Chiu Chow specialty rarely found outside Hong Kong, where the Chiu Chow ethnic group lives. These tasted as though they were fried in olive oil rather than Chinese peanut oil, and they were softer and gentler than the high-risk, ultra-crisp version I fell in love with in Kowloon. That’s not a serious complaint. Running into fried spinach here is reward aplenty.
We mutually decided to choose one chancy entrée to challenge the Puck empire: steamed Atlantic salmon “Hong Kong style.” Salmon can easily go astray, all the more so when farm-raised in an Atlantic pen, with its too-mild flavor and soft texture. Jai’s chef turned these potential problems into virtues: the salmon was nearly as soft and melting as the butterfish, indulgent with a subtle, soy-garlic chili sauce (the chili undetectable). Baby bok choy brought a pleasing semi-crisp texture to the mixture: sow’s ear to silk purse.