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George's California Modern

1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla

Normally, if a restaurant sounds too good to be true -- it is. So my group entered George's at the Cove with a high degree of collective skepticism. "George's wins so many awards and popularity contests," said Lynne. "It's supposed to be so great, but I've always wondered whether that's just one of those assumptions that nobody dares to question." For all four of us, this was a first venture below stairs to George's top food venue, the Fine Dining Restaurant. (George's also has a rooftop bistro and a bar at mid-level, both serving a SoCal casual menu cooked by a separate kitchen.)

Reflecting the menu's emphasis on seasonal produce, the foyer was decorated with assorted squashes. A hostess walked us past private side-rooms, all occupied with corporate pre-holiday diners. In the main dining room, the acoustic-tiled dropped ceiling keeps the sound level reasonable -- a necessity, since the tables are so closely spaced that waitstaff have to choreograph their moves through the narrow aisles. We were seated in a leather booth with an arresting semi-abstract painting on the wall and heavy, ornate stainless settings on the white tablecloth. Across the room, the wall of windows overlooking La Jolla Cove framed a black expanse dotted with sparkling lights from the opposite shore. It must be gorgeous during summer sunsets.

As we studied the menu, a basket of warm, soft wheat bread from Bread & Cie arrived with a ramekin of salted butter. We ordered a bowl of butternut squash soup, which the staff completed at the table and divided into two bowls to share. (A full bowl each would have been too much, and it would have been tragic to waste the leftovers.) The broth had the nutty flavor of this species of squash, warmed by autumnal hints of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Contrasting garnishes brought the soup into focus: A bread crouton was capped with mascarpone cheese studded with bits of black truffle peel and tart apple sticks. When the soup-logged bread sank, its toppings remained afloat.

A hunk of foie gras was coated with minced pistachios, which lent textural contrast to excellent rosy-rare duck liver. The secret, chef Trey Foshee later told me, is that he cuts the foie thick, to let the surfaces sear brown while the inside stays juicy. This alone makes his rendition one of the best in town. Underneath the liver is a slivered salad of aniselike fennel stalks and persimmon. A waiter dresses the plate with a pour of honey-ginger "gastric" (thin sauce), completing the range of sweet-sharp flavors that bring out the best in this meat.

A host of salads show off the day's bounty from legendary Chino Farms, the main produce source for this kitchen. My group was hard pressed to choose between a Fuyu persimmon salad with Basque bleu cheese, and another salad featuring Medjool dates in a Persian-influenced array of walnuts, goat cheese, tender greens, and a swash of pomegranate vinaigrette. We went for the dates, which prompted passionate discussion. One person found the fruit too sweet, while the rest argued that the faint bitterness of walnuts and the tartness of pomegranate made for a perfect combination.

Most dishes served at George's are plated in threes -- perhaps because the chef's first name is Trey (he says he was named for the 3-card). A trio of ravioli is stuffed with sweet potato, mascarpone, and black truffle shavings, surrounding a ragout of local spiny lobster meat and leeks, and caressed by a pear coulis. The lobster ragout was a happy surprise, as was the perfect harmony between leeks and pears. The combination of pears and yams, however, made the dish sweet for a starter, and the ravioli were pasty, undercooked by perhaps 45 seconds. Nonetheless, the concept received two thumbs up (including mine), one neutral, and one down (Lynne).

Another evening began with Miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay, purchased from a Bay Area seafood company (Monterey Fish) known for the high quality of its Northern California catch. The medium-sized oysters were meaty and sweet, and came with a piquant champagne mignonette dotted with sweet onion. We also tried one of the season's most charming appetizers, the festive "table-smoked salmon" -- seen on almost every nearby table. Rectangles of raw herb-cured salmon arrive beneath a glass cloche, along with a soup spoon cradling leaves of orange pekoe/orange blossom tea. The tea is set alight in the kitchen, and during the trip to the table, it imbues the salmon with its delicate scent. By the time the waiter lifts off the cloche, the leaves are burnt out. Alongside are three mini-blini and a dollop of lemon crème fraîche topped with salmon roe of moderate quality: Instant New Year's Eve.

A steamy bowl of onion soup is powerfully attractive on a cold, wet evening. Here, the soup deconstructs the French tradition. The waiter sets down a bowl containing a mound of firm-tender caramelized onion slices so sweet they must be Maui-grown, a handful of wheat-bread croutons, and a disc of frico, an Italian-style "fried cheese" wafer made from Parmesan and Gruyère. Another waiter arrives to pour in the dark, beefy broth. "I prefer it the old-fashioned way, with the gooey cheese all over the top," said my boyfriend, disappointed that the frico showed no inclination to melt. But he had to concede that the onions' texture was superior to the usual limp strings.

"Red Wine-Braised Prime Shortrib" aroused my curiosity about the unusual use of Prime-quality meat in a wet-cooked dish, where the grade is less important than in a steak or roast. I got the point at first bite. "Melts in your mouth -- literally!" said my friend Sam. Cooked off the bone, the meat resembles veal cheeks in its tenderness. The raw meat is evenly marbled and, during cooking, the suet dissolves to moisten the meat. With its beefy, winey sauce, this was a short rib unlike any I've tasted before. It came atop a purée of Yukon Gold potatoes smoked over hickory and rich with butter and half-and-half. Smoked potatoes aren't something you'd want every day (they're intense!), but the pleasure of discovering new and unexpected flavors is one reason we eat out. Surrounding the meat was a tasty ragout of tiny diced carrots, parsnips, and shreds of dark greens.

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