I've always been curious about Azul La Jolla. Although it's one of the Brigantines, other restaurants in this group bespeak a chain of semiprecious metal, rather than the standard dross: Zocalo is tasty fun, and Miguel's Cocina, with its tender Mexican-style seafood, is my favorite place to take visitors with kids. Perched above the La Jolla Cove, Azul is the semiofficial flagship, with the most ambitious menu and a thick, serious wine list. On my current quest for restaurants with great views coupled with food worth eating, its time had come.
The restaurant looks highly appealing. From the handsome tiled-floor entry, looking out to an attractive interior eating patio, you pass through the bar and then the small, open kitchen, where you can gape at a huge, flaming, wood-fired oven. A few steps farther is the carpeted dining room. A full wall of windows looks down to the Cove, where swooping seabirds and miniature kayakers are part of the entertainment. Even the cozy semicircular banquettes on the raised rear tier of the dining room floor capture the seascape, while window tables have a vertiginous straight-down view. Perhaps those windows are the culprits in the noise level, which forces diners to converse in shouts, adding to the dinnertime din.
The patrons on a weekday evening ranged from chic businesswomen entertaining colleagues to polo-shirted families -- the latter a bit surprising once I looked at the prices on the menu (entrées average about $36), which aren't given on the website's sample menu. It turns out that when kids come in, a kiddie menu is whipped out, and even older youngsters can be accommodated with less-costly dishes like pastas sized especially for them.
The menu changes daily and with the seasons. It's a trifle more conservative in summer, the chef later told me, because tourists are even shyer about strange foods than locals. Seafood dominates the appetizer choices, fittingly, as it's always been a forte of the Brigantines. The best of our starters was a huge, leggy softshell crab, deep-fried in batter to a pleasing crunch, served with sweet fresh corn fritters and avocado slices over a rusty-colored sauce in which Asian chili oil plays an evident part, diffused in something milder.
The Seattle-born chef (his French last name comes from his Louisiana-born father -- if his étouffé is on the menu, order it) began his professional life with a French-style cooking apprenticeship in his hometown -- in the mode of native-born French chefs (and few American ones), he's an all-rounder whose expertise includes baking. Proof came with the flaky palmier pastries stuffed with a luxurious mixture of crab and artichoke heart, accompanied by "spiced lemon butter" -- that is, smooth beurre-blanc sauce edged at the rim of the plate with a trace of a rusty-orange semi-spicy sauce. "Luscious!" exclaimed one of my companions.
Sea scallop pot stickers offered Asian noodle wrappers stretched around large Atlantic scallops and a few shreds of shiitake, pine nuts, and pork bits in a thin brownish broth with scallion bits and more mushroom shreds. The wrappers were pan fried semicrisp, in genuine pot-sticker mode, but the dough remained sticky; we also felt that the broth lacked the vibrancy of the best Chinese stocks. (As a certifiable Chinese-food maniac, I'm awfully picky when gwei lo chefs -- including me -- attempt Asian flavors.) The scallops inside were large, plump, and tender, but I've been spoiled rotten during the last few weeks by sweet local scallops fresh up the road from Baja. These seemed, in contrast, tired by their transcontinental trek.
Speaking of Baja, a ceviche of lobster, shrimp, bay scallops, thick cucumber slices, and avocado slices was bathed in a lime-juice cure, dotted with fresh chervil sprigs (for a faint anise flavor) and served on a long rectangular plate. The lobster and shrimp were a tad tough, the scallops the sole textural survivors. I couldn't help but compare this austere and stately preparation to Ensenada's riotous street-cart Campeche-style ceviche (with octopus in place of lobster), where exuberant flavors are pumped up by onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Sorry, but Señora Guadalupe's two-buck tostada has this $16 version beat by cien kilometros. Keep your lobster, give me life.
By luck, we arrived on a Wednesday, when most wines on Azul's list are half price. I was torn between two favorite whites that were suddenly affordable -- a Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and a Louis Latour Meursault (for nearly twice the Duckhorn's price). Our waitress, Summer, is also a sommelier, a true pro who unselfishly advised that "a Sauvignon would go better with your appetizers." She was right -- the chile oil, batters, and citruses would have stomped all over the subtle Meursault, while the sunny, expansive Duckhorn met them head on. (Upon learning that we'd be sharing our dishes, she brought tablespoons for serving appetizer sauces and then steak knives for everyone. What a paragon!) Sam had brought a lovely Pommard (corkage is a reasonable $15). Coincidentally, this is one of my favorite red Burgundies (dark, plushy, slightly tannic but mellow -- beautifully balanced, compared to some of the crankier regions around Beaune). To honor it, we selected our main courses with the wine in mind.
The standout was "Kyoto-style" wild Alaskan salmon steak, moist-smoked and quick-roasted in the roaring oven on a cedar plank. It was a succulent, flaky, medium-rare, with a woody overlay from the smoking and the cedar. It came with asparagus spears and small Peruvian purple potatoes, which resembled an overhead view of the seal pups in the Children's Pool. But what it really came with was that Pommard. Salmon is a species that wipes out most whites but canoodles joyously with Pinot Noir.
I enjoyed the playful "Tunisian barbecued lamb," partly because it tasted like something I'd want to cook myself on an ambitious night. The surfaces of the block of loin were a vivid orange from the house-made harissa, a North African spice rub, crisscrossed with black grillmarks. The same aromatic spices painted the plate. The interior was rare as ordered, meaty and juicy. The entrée included a zingy green purée of fresh herbs for dipping, and a "Napoleon" made of flying saucers of crisp filo, set one atop the other and layered with roasted tomatoes, eggplant purée, and lavender feta cheese with an herbal-flowery flavor.
Then -- thud. We'd hit Azul on a night when the chef was away at a Brigantine staff wine-tasting, followed by a few days of vacation. (Had I returned the next night, it wouldn't have helped.) Two entrées went wrong in his absence. A huge "Iowa pork chop," which we requested "rosy, medium-rare," was browned through -- a waste of good pig. (The chef tells me that he directs the line cooks to serve pork to a default of medium-rare, the way we wanted it -- so somebody was a very bad boy. But during the summer tourist season, he also tells them to cook everything 5 degrees extra. In this case, it was 35 degrees extra.) It came with a slick of thick, sweet Cumberland sauce made with cranberries and a mound of banana soufflé. When it comes to the oily-sweet heft of banana versus the airiness of fluffed egg white -- you can't have both and still maintain enough banana flavor to savor. In this case, the banana won the wrestling match. The soufflé wasn't light, but it was tasty.
And "duck cooked two ways" was a big fib that night, when this menu stalwart went seriously awry. There were four or five -- six, max -- slices of rosy duck breast strewn around middens of crisp-surfaced mashed potatoes, which concealed in their depths bits of dried-out duck-leg meat, tasting less like duck confit than old quacker leftovers. Around the edge was a gooey syrup dotted with stewed, sweetly glazed, whole kumquats. It seemed simply perverse. I'm sure this isn't the way it's meant to be.
Alerted by the fine palmier pastry in the crab appetizer, we decided it was worth trying some desserts. The ploy paid off handsomely. A strawberry Napoleon consisted of layers of thin, frangible pastry interspersed with ripe chopped berries and mascarpone cream. (It was garnished with a robe of very sweet whipped cream, which only got in the way until we shooed it off.) A nectarine crisp resembled home baking at its best -- a crunchy topping over slightly tart fruit slices, the sweetness of the pastry set off by the slight sourness of the nectarines. For a change, dessert was our best course.
How does Azul La Jolla stand in the ranks of "view" restaurants with food worth eating? The daily changing menu makes any meal a bit of a gamble, and the kitchen isn't as finely controlled as at some top destinations with chefs who've been there longer. But the restaurant's heart is in the right place -- the most disappointing dishes at our meal were glitches of execution rather than of aspiration. At San Diego's many atrocious scenery-reliant venues, owners know they're serving slop and warn their chefs (or cooks) off trying too hard or (worse yet) spending a lot for good ingredients. Not a problem here.
There's no question but that the ambition at Azul is to please well-honed palates, to give culinary value along with a visual feast. Food prices are very high, about the same as at next-door California Modern (née George's), but the cooking here is chancier, and Azul is a louder room. On the other hand, it's easier to get a reservation, wine prices are merciful, kids are welcome (not just on holidays), and there's no Armani-suited "Barrage of Bankers" to intimidate you into duding up with fancier clothes than you feel comfortable wearing. Plus, the cooking is more adventurous (usually an asset, but see "gamble," above). I would definitely go back for a second try -- not necessarily tomorrow, but in the off-season, when there ain't nobody here but us locals.
ABOUT THE CHEF
At age 14, chef Orion Balliet (now aged 34) took a part-time dishwashing job at Gerard's, a famed local French restaurant in his hometown, Seattle. The chef was Gerard Perot, a member of the elite Relais Gourmands and a disciple of the renowned Paul Bocuse. Balliett worked hard and was promoted from sink duty to something like a classic French cooking apprenticeship, and in the process he caught cooking fever. "I didn't even know that I was interested in cooking, but once I started cooking a little bit, I discovered that I really liked it.
"I've had a lot of luck in my life. I was working at the Hilton in L.A., and one of my mentors there, Eric Wolf, told me I needed to go to culinary school. It just happened that my mom sold her house then and remarried her current husband. With the influx of money from the house, she asked me if I wanted to go to school, so that enabled me to go to California Culinary Academy in San Francisco." While studying, he worked under celeb chef Jeremiah Tower (in his crumbling final years) at Stars and Stars Cafe in San Francisco, where Tower's reliable chefs de cuisine taught Balliet a great deal more. His mentor in L.A. had also advised him to travel as much as possible, so he and his then-girlfriend (another culinary school student) spent time in Thailand and Indonesia savoring the cuisines, and he also took a cooking course in Venice.
By 1994, at the age of 21, Orion graduated and immediately got a job as executive chef at the Fisherman Bar and Grill in North Beach. After a brief run-in with a newly paroled Mafia capo who'd just bought the controlling interest in the restaurant, he discreetly departed for Dallas's renowned Cafe Pacific, then took it easy for a while with a sous-chef job in Truckee -- the first time since he started cooking professionally that he had the leisure to enjoy life. "I was always the guy who was too busy cooking to go to a party. So from there I went on a European excursion with my girlfriend at the time, eating at all these little holes-in-the-wall, and when I came back, I had a new, reinvigorated passion for what I wanted to do."
He became executive chef of the four-star Bellevue Club back in Washington State. From there, he went to work at Napa's Villagio Inn and Spa until the Brigantine recruited him to take over the kitchen at Azul La Jolla. With the departure of the chain's executive chef, Balliet now influences the menus of all the Brigantines. He is largely free to purchase produce, fish, and other goods according to his own judgment -- hence, the sweet corn from serious-chef mainstay Specialty Produce, rather than one of the less quality-oriented restaurant supply sources.
Orion is a fan of the "molecular gastronomy" now being pioneered in Barcelona, but even more influential on his cooking has been the Japanese kaiseki idea -- the emotional and aesthetic response to the changing seasons, reflected in a seasonal menu. But a "tasting menu" (a kaiseki equivalent) proved impractical for Azul's tiny kitchen and isn't offered routinely, although such menus come in to play at special-event dinners. "For me, kaiseki is more about presenting a moment -- the cuisine is about your feelings about what the moment should entail. The influences are mundane. You see colors on the way to work, then you use spices to create paints on the plate to produce emblems of things that you might see on the way in to work."
Incidental notes: First, an abashed apology for using the term "Paki" (re Jaynes). It's true that I had no idea it was a slur. My last time in London (long ago), the "hipoisie" (film, rock, and reggae critics, Anglo and Jamaican) were flinging the term around casually, usually attached to the word "restaurant." The absolutely brilliant "Indian" restaurant nearest my Clapham B&B, my main source of nourishment for ten days, was run by a Pakistani (not Bangladeshi) family. But perhaps I should have been less trusting in bohemian values. Soon after, a bunch of my SF friends decamped for Austin's music scene. During a brief visit, hearing the Texas hipoisie referring to local Latinos as "messkins," I nixed moving there myself. And on a sadder note: a belated farewell to the delightful Tom Fat (owner of Fat City and China Camp). He's remembered publicly as a Galahad for the Asian-Pacific community, but I remember him as the most charming interviewee ever -- the epitome of the warm, self-mocking Cantonese sense of humor. He was a delicious person to know, and he should have lived 200 years to keep spreading his light and wit wherever he went.