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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.

Three seared Sea of Cortez scallops, two inches thick, displayed browned surfaces lightly crusted with kosher salt. Their texture proved closer to tender meat than to the marshmallowy Atlantic scallops served at most upscale local restaurants, but the flavor is sweet and fresh. The chef decided to use these local mollusks after noting the deterioration in the flavor of Maine scallops over the last few years. (Other local chefs -- and this writer -- have also made this observation.) Here, the scallops come with tiny, dark-crusted herb gnocchi with chartreuse centers (they have a pleasantly starchy resilience) and a satiny purée of cauliflower, served the same day the heads are harvested. (The taste is strikingly different from the middle-aged cauliflower at my neighborhood grocery.)

I ordered a roast free-range chicken breast mainly to taste a substance I've read about but never had a chance to try: farro, an ancient Tuscan peasant grain currently enjoying a mad vogue in Manhattan's upscale Italian restaurants. In English, it's called spelt (you'll find it in "health food" breakfast cereals). It consists of long-grained hulled wheat, and was reputedly used for the original "Roman Meal" that fed the Roman army. I found the grains chewy and resilient, like brown rice, but with an emphatic wheaty flavor. It's served here with a mixture of pearl onions, oyster mushrooms, and firm diced pumpkin or carrots (depending on availability). The chicken itself is a sliced airline cut (the breast and the wing drumettes), the meat moist and the skin deliciously crisp, rubbed with black pepper, fresh thyme, and salt.

A more conservative entrée places four medallions of lamb loin atop braised lamb shoulder over a bed of salty baby spinach. The garnishes around the edge of the plate -- lamb au jus, curry oil, and yogurt -- aren't just for looks, but add flavor and moisture to the meat when used as dips. A mound of couscous studded with golden raisins is touched with curry spices and snipped chives, bringing this often-bland grain to life. Another standard dish is the thick, near-raw steak of sesame-coated tuna (yellowfin) loin, seared along one edge -- a treatment that came into fashion about 15 years ago, and that, for me, has since lost its novelty. It's well executed here, served with baby bok choy, shiitake slices, and a tangy, spicy eggplant-miso purée.

You can't win them all, though, and one of our dishes lost. A shelled, whole tail of local spiny lobster is stuffed with bread crumbs and wrapped in pancetta. The lobster is tenderly cooked and sweet at the center, but the pancetta seeps into the meat, pervading it with salt and pork fat. Browned oyster mushrooms, roasted beets, strong greens, and an acerbic cranberry vinaigrette knock the poor crustacean senseless. Patrons at George's expect their lobster gussied up, but this went too far.

Simple side dishes showcase local vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichokes, which are rarely found on local menus. These sunflower relatives (no kin to regular artichokes) look like ginger roots and taste vaguely like potatoes. Trey roasts them in their skins, an optimal treatment for showing off their earthy-sweet flavor.

The talented pastry chef, Yolanda Santos, falls into the Jack Fisher (Region) and Laufa Huffnagel (California Cuisine) school of dessert explorers. Dishes like lime-coconut pavlova with curried banana fritters and warm apple crisp with candied fennel are original, even challenging in their sweet way.

"Well," said Lynne as we left, "I'm sold. I didn't think it'd be this good. It is." Three heads nodded in agreement.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Trey Foshee was born in Hawaii and grew up in Ojai, north of Los Angeles. He slipped into the restaurant business as a busboy to support his surfing habit. "I wasn't very outgoing," he says, "so I ended up moving back into the kitchen. I didn't have any thoughts of making a career of it, but as I kept doing it, I enjoyed it more and more. Eventually it showed itself as a career path for me.

"After working in a couple of places in Ojai, I went back to Hawaii to surf some more. One day, I had an epiphany that I should do something with myself, for myself, and decided that cooking school was the right thing for me. I went to Culinary Institute of America in New York."

After graduation he worked at Roland Passot's La Folie in San Francisco for about a year and a half. "Roland is really a chef's chef," he says, "and he influenced me about what it really meant to be a chef. I picked up a lot of techniques from him, and I respected his food a lot, but mainly we would all work 12, 14 hours a day, and he'd always be there first and [leave] last. He wasn't the kind who'd just stroll in at service time, yell at everybody in the kitchen, and take a bow in the front.

"Hans Röckenwagner called me when he was opening his new Röckenwagner restaurant in Santa Monica, and asked if I thought I was ready for the chef's job there. At 24, with a lot of cooking background but not a lot of management background, I said, 'Sure, I'll do that.' I spent three years with Hans. It was pretty intense. Then I took a year off to relax, cooking freelance, then running a small restaurant in L.A. The Mauna Lani Hotel on the Big Island was looking for someone to do California cuisine at their restaurant, and I ran that for two years. Then I went to Sundance [Robert Redford's resort] to head the kitchen there. It was similar in some ways to George's -- we had sophisticated, well-traveled people expecting very cosmopolitan cuisine, but we also had locals dropping in with their families, looking for simple, good food. George [Hauer, owner of George's] recruited me from there. It'll be six years in March."

Trey has won numerous culinary awards in recent years, including Food & Wine magazine's America's Ten Best New Chefs in 1998, and the Golden Dish award from GQ magazine. He has served as guest chef at James Beard House in New York.

"Our menu here really revolves around what local farms have," he says, "especially Chino Farms, our main supplier. We use a lot of local seafood and Northern California halibut, crab, and oysters, very little from the East Coast. We use free-range chicken that a local company raises in Petaluma, and free-range pork from Niman Ranch. Our tasting menu is drawn from on-menu dishes, because when we tried it with other dishes, it just didn't sell -- I don't know why.

"We also have a chef's tasting that's not on the menu, created á la minute by either myself or Alex, my sous chef. It runs about eight courses. We took it off the menu because a lot of people ordered it without really understanding what they were in for -- they saw the high price and mainly did it as a status thing, without realizing what it meant to tackle eight courses. Now the servers offer it as an option to people who seem to them to be especially interested in the food."

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