La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla
La Valencia is a sheerly gorgeous hotel. Walking through that Spanish-Moorish tiled lobby en route to the Sky Room elevator, you want to sell your shack and move right in. A small, old-timey operator-run lift, with an accordion-grate steel inner door, takes you up to the restaurant. “Where to?” the operator said. “Top of the world, Ma!” I muttered under my breath (Jimmy Cagney’s last words in the Depression-set gangster masterpiece White Heat). I guess the posh atmosphere made my inner-teen-beatnik feel socially split between slumdog Cagney and a regular Sky Room habitué.
The newly redecorated restaurant has dusted away a former fustiness: it’s clean and sleek with shiny black and chrome and tall mirrors. The space is divided by pillars into several intimate areas of one or two uncrowded tables each. All 11 tables are decorated with a vase of white roses, and all enjoy panoramic ocean views. A class act, updated.
Sky Room has changed in other ways, too. A bit over a year ago, shortly after its reopening, the Union-Tribune ran a scorching review, noting “so-so” food for exorbitant prices. Since then, there have been drastic alterations in menu and personnel. Prices have dropped — still on the steep side, but well below the Gordon Gekko–style “flaunt it while you got it” realms. Most of the ultra-luxury ingredients have disappeared, along with the “Continental” cooking-style and old-fashioned dress rules. (You’ll still want to dress nicely to fit in, but jackets aren’t required.)
The reopening chef, a young New Zealander, is gone as well. (My dinner was prepared by the young, talented chef de cuisine and executive sous-chef.) The management is currently interviewing candidates for the executive chef position. Perhaps that’s why they’re offering the alluring bargain prix-fixe meal of $55 for three choices through August. The tiny restaurant was half empty on a Wednesday night, which is half-priced-wine night. Looks as if the long closure for renovations broke the habit-patterns of the “La Jolla blue-hairs” who sustained the old Sky Room.
Sam and I chose the later of two dinner seatings to maximize our eating time and in hopes of catching a sunset. It wasn’t a great sunset (marine-layer grays), but it was an amazing view until darkness fell. And only at dark did the music track (some mild, inconsequential stuff) come on the sound system — before then, luxurious silence.
The menu now tends toward classic California cuisine, relatively simple preparations of fine ingredients with some Asian and Mediterranean flavors — a lot like nearly every other upscale San Diego restaurant, only more expensive than most.
In an exchange of emails (initiated by the announcement of the “bargain” prix fixe), the manager assured me that it would be quite all right to combine both the $55 three-course tasting meal and the $75 five-course at the same meal — a good way for a twosome to wring out much of the menu without venturing into the pricier à la carte realm. In practice, the waiter told us the chef wasn’t happy about this order because of the difficulty in timing it. Sam and I passed word to the kitchen that it would work out fine — send out the dishes as they were ready because we’d be sharing everything anyway.
The breads were interesting — slices of regular baguette, seeded baguette, and whole-wheat olive bread (the last a tad stale-tasting). The water, no extra charge, was glorious Evian. It’s a lot better than Golden Hill’s natural “mineral water,” even when the latter is filtered. After our clotted commute, dodging automotive idiocies on parade, we needed a glass of wine while we perused our menus. The Dutton chardonnay ($16 per glass) filled the bill deliciously, but had I looked at the list first, I might have splurged on the French White Burgundy ($20).
We deliberately chose to eat on a Wednesday, when bottled wines are half price. The list is spectacular, especially if you’re not shy about spending your mortgage money on first-growth Bordeaux or Burgundies. Duckhorn Sauvignon, a yummy old favorite, was on offer for $60, standard restaurant price. Sam, seized by an impulse of saintly generosity, told me to pick a Burgundy — his treat. I chose from low on the list — an 11-year-old Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot ($185). It was still youthful and even a little tannic, and what a treat! Muscular, but supple and complex, it had so much personality it was like having another friend at our table.
I’m not sure the three-course meal would normally include an amuse, but we each received a Chinese porcelain soup spoon filled with exciting, spicy gazpacho topped with minced fresh micro-herbs.
The three-course meal offered a seasonal vegetable soup or salad first. The soup was cream of broccoli, a beautiful composition with swirls of crème fraîche, minced chives, and tiny red specks on top — bacon! It tasted less like broccoli than some other veggie that I like better, with a faint, smoky note, the bacon reappearing throughout in firm, meaty bits. “Our chef, Taylor, is a master of soups,” said the waiter fondly, collecting the clean empty bowl. “He competes with himself to make ‘soup of the week,’ ‘soup of the month,’ ‘soup of the year.’ ”
The five-course began with hamachi tartare, chopped and shaped into a round mound. Alongside was a puff of avocado mousse and a modest, charming salad of baby beets, tiny Japanese cucumber slices, and greenery in a citrus vinaigrette. Surrounding the tartare were crimson jewels of caviar — beet caviar. Fooled me totally. “I’d order this again anytime,” said Sam. Same here.
Next on the higher-priced spread was a large seared scallop, pale pink inside, served with a heap of tiny fingerling potato slices and another heap of bitter greens with a bacon dressing. We couldn’t identify the species of the greens (familiar flavor, but naming them gave us both “senior moments”). The scallop’s only sauce seemed to be the clarified butter of the sauté — but scooped onto a bite of baguette, that sauce was pink and smoky. Bacon! “This kitchen seems to tend toward austerity,” I observed. “Great ingredients, very plain preparations.”