Don Bauder 4:30 p.m., Feb. 11
Scenes from The Sky Room: Part Two
The elevator doors open. That was a relief. The chief reason the La Valencia’s white linen restaurant, The Sky Room (1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla), had been closed before its recent revamp and reintroduction to the La Jolla village, was the fact this ancient lift had finally broken down. The repaired and updated elevator got me to the tenth story without incident, bringing me mere yards away from an eatery I’d been excited to visit for the better part of a month.
Upon entry into the restaurant—a small space with very few tables that, though having been long considered one of San Diego’s most luxurious upscale venues, had struggled for many years under numerous concept shifts—I took in the room’s notorious panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. The sun was setting, creating a collage of blue, orange, yellow, and purple. It was beautiful. Most would have been mesmerized by such a spectacle, but I wasn’t there to take in the scenery. I was there to take in the first iteration of newly hired chef Luke Johnson’s gourmet tasting menu.
The staff, a trio of suit-clad gentlemen that included the hotel’s knowledgeable director of food and beverage, didn’t make me wait long. Mere minutes after I arrived I was presented with the night’s opening dish, an offering described on the menu as, “scallop, watermelon, radish, cucumber.” Johnson lists all of his dishes in this manner (as he did when he was at his last post, Red Velvet Wine Bar in Little Italy, at the space that’s now home to Underbelly).
To say it leaves a lot to the imagination is an understatement. As I’ve mentioned in the past, this style of menu can be annoying, but since diners are served every dish and, therefore, don’t need to make decisions based on a litany of nondescript nouns, I enjoy it in a tasting menu format. The element of surprise takes the dining experience from a predictable everyday meal to the stuff of edible theater.
That first course turned out to be raw Japanese scallops presented with cucumber spheres and Chino Farms watermelon served two ways: slivered and compressed with Minus 8 vinegar. The sweetness of the watermelon wafers came on first before being instantly intensified by a burst of Maldon sea salt that also amplified the savory oceanic flavor of the scallop. Thin slices of watermelon radishes provide nice crunch, while the soft bubbles and yeasty notes of the J. de Telmont La Grande Reserve Champagne it was paired with upped the already refreshing nature of this starter.
Another cold dish followed—a line of peeled multi-colored petite tomatoes half-submerged in a chilled tomato water that, with its intense fruitiness, could have been a dish all on its own. It came across as such a bright, pure expression of tomatoes at the peak of seasonal freshness, it moved into a tie for first place on the list of the best tomato dishes I’ve ever tasted, sidling up next to a similar tasting appetizer incorporating cabernet grapes from chef William Bradley at The Grand Del Mar’s Addison. A straight basil purée and grated manchego cheese adorned the rim of the bowl and added supplementary flavors, but my favorite bites were purely tomato.
Next up was medai, a fish also referred to as Japanese butterfish that, with its texture, lives up to that handle. It was luscious in the center with extra crispy skin. A sprinkle of espelette pepper on the medai’s underside brings on a poignant zing that matches up well with a fruity coulis of red bell pepper. A purée of mizuna—a Japanese mustard green—was another story. It was flat enough, at least in comparison to the other vibrant components of the dish, to come across as almost flavorless. A touch of salt might have fixed that, but even with it registering so low on the taste scale, this was still a very enjoyable dish, especially with the well selected rosé it's paired with (Arnot Roberts from Lake County…one of the only food and rosé pairings I’ve ever thought actually works).
A dish listed as “pork, corn, blueberry, thyme” (these are a few of my favorite things) won the most outlandish presentation award. A cube of crisp, cut-like-butter pork belly came served with three ravioli stuffed with more pork belly Robot Couped into a smooth homogenous filling. All three fought to peek out from under airy dollops of blueberry froth stabilized with the addition of soy lecithin. A thin smear of starchy yellow corn on the edge of the plate completed the Jackson Pollock-esque course. It was hard to scrape off, but that’s my only real complaint. Blueberries can be difficult to incorporate into savory recipes, but by molecularly stretching this strong-tasting ingredient so that it covers a lot of ground without intensifying the berries like a sauce would, the froth provides a nice accent versus battling the pork for supremacy.
The best dish of the night, hands-down was a sous vide lamb tenderloin so tender a dentureless 90-year old could have dispatched it. Served with a crispy garnish of garlic that’s triple-blanched and dehydrated into a paper of sorts, it was brown and pink perfection. Throw in some smooth lamb just and some here-and-there spikes of rosemary, and it was one of those dishes that makes you sad it’s a tasting menu, because it would be easy to eat an entrée-sized portion. If only I’d been able to get a better photo of it (dim, romantic mood-lighting is anything but shooter-friendly).
A cheese course of La Tur, an Italian combination cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheese from the Piemonte region, cleared the way for dessert. Aside from being one of my favorite all-around cheeses, served with sensible garnishes of bitter frisée lettuce, plum and toasted hazelnuts, there isn’t much to say about it. Like most good fromage courses, the most fitting and best compliment I can give it is that it was highly logical.
Dessert, rather than being heavy, was light. Instead of coming across as the decadent nail in the seven-course menu, it was cool and well balanced. Diners are invited to make their own combinations out of sweet strawberries, mascarpone cheese, an icy strawberry sorbet, and torn pieces of sponge cake. It’s the perfect way to end a large meal.
After waiting over a year, even I had begun to wonder if Johnson’s food had been as good as I remembered it. My biggest fear was that I’d have the type of experience where an adult goes to his old kindergarten class, takes a look around, and immediately takes notice of things they used to think were so larger than life being nothing more than ordinary, everyday items. Turns out, he’s still as good as I’d at first thought. And with a new employer with the means and inclination to let him do things his way, I look forward to watching him settle in and push an envelope that has plenty of room for expansion.
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