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That observation held true for the five-courser’s first entrée (of two), grilled Kurobuta pork tenderloin (which is also an entrée choice on the three-course). The chunks of pork were pink inside but excessively charred on the surface, overwhelming the meat’s flavor. They were plated over a minuscule slick of “salsa verde,” a dark-green sauce dominated by minced parsley, accompanied by a sweet-tart Asian-oid shredded jicama slaw.

On the three-course dinner, I chose the fruits de mer — velvety lemon-thyme linguine in a reduced lobster stock with tomatoes and white wine, topped by fish, lobster, prawns, shelled mussels, and scallops — every species cooked to tender perfection, with that lobstery broth generous in its sensuality. It’s comfort food for sophisticates, as pleasing as a back rub.

At the next table, a handsome 30ish couple were planning their “wedding rehearsal dinner.” (I overheard them quietly conspiring with the mâitre d’ about the catering menu.) The bride-to-be had the bouillabaisse. The groom had the cocoa-dusted venison, huge and fascinating-looking, the deer ribs sticking out like antlers on a big buck. They both seemed very happy with their food, which is why I’d guess these are good bets for entrées. Love may be blind, but I don’t think it dims the palate much.

Our server, seeing us repeatedly switch plates (often several times in a single course — “Did you taste this garnish? Try it again!”), was catching on to how foodie-friends eat “family-style” and starting to warm to it. He’d been picking up the amber-glow brother-sister vibe between Sam and me, and by now he liked it, however exotic it was for Sky Room. “We’ve been friends sharing our food for years and years,” I said. “Friends who eat ‘family style’ become families.” The seven-course dinner has an intermezzo, the three-course doesn’t, but it was served to both of us and consisted of a palate-clearing yellow watermelon sorbet, a charmer of a dish.

By the final entrée of the seven-course, the kitchen had “gotten it,” too. We each received a half portion of the “Greg Norman” Wagyu steak pavé (which was plenty — half of both halves came home with me). It was also heavily charred (like the pork) on the outside, rare inside, and delicious — if less tender and fatty than other Kobe beef I’ve tasted. “Who’s this Greg Norman character?” I asked Sam. “A golfer,” he said. “What does he have to do with Wagyu beef?” I asked. Sam shrugged. Maybe Norman raises it; maybe he takes the calves on rounds of 18 holes. The beef came with superb garnishes: a soft, gentle, fine-chopped ratatouille, tiny tender onion rings in airborne batter, and a lightly fried, barely battered Japanese green chile, semi-mild, complex, and deep-flavored enough I’d like to grow it in my yard next year. With this dish, that fine French Burgundy nearly met its culinary match, meat almost worthy of it (but for that too-bitter black charring). I was losing my Jimmy Cagney under-mind, settling into luxury as though born to it.

For dessert, the three-course offers an artisan cheese plate (how tempting, with wines still left) or a multi-layered Napoleon-like nocciola cake plated over orange balsamic with chocolate gelato. Made by the hotel pastry chef, it is not excessively sweet and is tremendously professional, and French-y. What caught my heart more was the seven-course’s lemon verbena sponge cake, made by the Sky Room’s own chef, with strawberry gelato and a blueberry Port coulis, with local fruits from Crow’s Pass. It’s less professional, more of a “grandma-style” dessert, exuding sagacious simplicity.

“I’ve always wanted to eat at the Sky Room,” said Sam. “I’d come back in a snap.…” “When you find a proper partner to romance,” I teased. But the food actually ranged in quality, from flawless soup and hamachi to interesting beef to over-austere scallop and overcooked pork. I had the sense that the restaurant is holding its breath, awaiting the hiring of the new executive chef. I didn’t want to wait; I wanted to try it now, while I could afford it, with the $55 menu. If you’ve always wanted to eat here but have flinched at the regular prices, this is a good moment to carpe diem and see La Jolla and its waters from on top of the world.

More Better Bites at Bargain Prices
Oceanaire has an early-bird three-course prix fixe, $30 a person, 5:00–7:00 p.m. Monday–Thursday. The chain that owns it is in financial trouble, but the downtown location is a cash cow, so don’t worry — other locales may be closing, but ours will be the last to go.

Bandar, the superb Persian in the Gaslamp, is offering three courses, Monday–Thursday, for $35.

Soleil at K has three courses for $35, apparently nightly at any hour; no choices of foods; call for details.

Terrible News for Foodies
The Better Half has abruptly closed, swamped by a load of debt inherited from the previous owner and by the deep recession that’s hit Hillcrest perhaps worst of all restaurant-rich neighborhoods. Saying “RIP” isn’t good enough for this loss, so I’m bringing out the big-gun words of consolation: Om, mani padme hum. Let’s hope this jewel soon reincarnates somewhere else.

Sky Room
****
(Very Good to Excellent)
Hotel Valencia, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-0771, lavalencia.com/dining
HOURS: Dinner seatings 5:30–7:15 p.m.; 7:45–9:30 p.m.
PRICES: Three-course prix fixe, $55; five courses, $75. À la carte appetizers, $12–$27 (caviar service m/p); entrées, $34–$45. Wine bottles half-price Wednesday nights.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-style, with fine fresh ingredients, Mediterranean and Asian influences. Huge wine list with a few bottles under $40, many excellent choices about $60, plus top French bottlings (many with some bottle age on them), including legendary choices (e.g., La Tâche) at four figures. Good but costly half-bottles, steep by the glass.
PICK HITS: Hamachi sashimi; daily vegetable soup; fruits de mer. Good bets à la carte: bouillabaisse; cocoa-crusted venison.
NEED TO KNOW: The three-course $55 menu expires at the end of August, so reserve now if you want it! Romantic, deluxe atmosphere with stunning wraparound view, quietly dressy. Elevator access via hotel entrance, smaller door left of Whaling Bar entrance. Free valet parking. Later seating allows more leisure (and sunset view in summer).

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Comments

susansilva July 25, 2009 @ 8:40 a.m.

Some of what you say is true but you should do more homework, so credit goes to who it really belongs to. Chef Vaughan Mabee (the New Zealander you referred to in your article) has left the La V, you are correct, but not before he put the "Skyroom" on the map with best restaurant 2009 editor's pick, best of best from southern California food writers awards and dozens and dozens of others, including first 5 star rating from Abe Opincar before he depated. Watch out for Chef Vaughan, who is now working with Chef Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian Spain in the highly acclaimed Relaix Chateau, 3-Star Michelin Restaurant (chefs do not land there without talent) Those 2 young chefs who cooked your meal are still able to execute Chef Vaughn's 5-star menus, which is good news, after 3 pain staking years of training them. Chef Vaughan happens to reside literally in a different league in the world of cooking, but some people just don't know the difference. Disappointing... By the way the "old Skyroom" as you call it was never empty when Chef Vaughan was there, maybe that's why they now practically have to give the food away to get any business!!

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Naomi Wise July 29, 2009 @ 7:23 p.m.

I didn't see any reason to fully research a chef who's gone (and whose cooking got slammed in our local daily.) I don't have an infinite number of words per review. If he's now working with Martin Berasategui, he must've been good, so this sounds like, once again, San Diego lost yet another hot chef to local conservatism and hostility to creative cooking. But say -- you mention a rave from Abe Opincar (who used to review for the Reader as "Max Nash." Always liked his writing -- where's he been writing more recently?

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Naomi Wise Aug. 15, 2009 @ 11:14 p.m.

Thanks! A delicious review. Obviously I've got to get back to Whisknladle somehow -- they still have my favorite starter but all the rest sounds like it's really leaped ahead. And fun to read Abe again.

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