723 Felspar Street, San Diego
JRDN (short for Jordan) doesn't have a long-shot panorama of the ocean like other "view" restaurants. Instead, it's up close and personal with the beach. Surfers tromp by, heading seaward with their boards, while tired, sunburned families trudge back to their cars. At JRDN, not only can you see the sea, you can smell it. As night falls, the pedestrian traffic fades away, and you can catch a sunset over the water, or, with luck, the fabled "green flash."
The dining room is dominated by a long, well-populated bar on the oceanward side and a sushi bar along the interior edge. A glass wall with a wave pattern is programmed to change colors internally; hidden behind it is a corridor featuring a giant wall-mounted wine "cellar." The interior tables are light-tinted wood, unclothed. In good weather, the crowd heads for the heated, glassed-off beachside patio. The music at the bar thunks loudly through the door, so if you want quiet, ask for a table at the southern end of the patio. The crowd is mainly young and spirited; a birthday party at a table near ours periodically erupted like Petco when the Padres score a run. The company that owns JRDN got its restaurateuring start with the Moondoggies chain (which blossomed into Gringo's, JRDN, and Cendio), and I have a feeling that JRDN's crowd includes plenty of Moondoggies' graduates, taking the next step up the economic and culinary ladders.
Even before we read the menu, an amuse-bouche arrived -- succulent packets of tempura-fried shiitakes. You get no bread unless you ask for it, but we didn't miss it once our appetizers arrived. We began with a round of Pacific oysters on the half-shell (a near-bargain at $10 for six). The Gold Creeks from Washington were small but sweet and rich. To our delight, they came with two excellent dipping sauces -- a well-balanced shallot-strewn mignonette (the name means "little darling" in French, and it resembles a light vinaigrette) and a spicy cocktail sauce that could have passed muster in New Orleans. Bold and piquant, it had come a long way from its ketchup ancestry, and there were heaps of horseradish and lemon slices to let you doctor it into a clone of the Acme Oyster House's sauce. With this, I started to trust the restaurant.
The star summer appetizer (our waiter's favorite, and ours, too) is a tomato-melon "gazpacho." I've added the quotation marks to indicate that this is a world apart from classic sour and chunky Spanish gazpacho. Instead, it's a purée of tomatoes, cantaloupe, and honeydew with a tickly edge and a little bite from Champagne vinegar and fresh mint. If that's not good enough, it's amended with chunks of sweet Dungeness crab and a swirl of basil crème fraîche. "I think of myself as a good cook," said the Lynnester, "but I mainly follow recipes. The imagination that went into this is the difference between a cook and a chef."
The Dungeness crab cakes here join the roster of the city's best (with Sally's, Oceanaire's, and Tin Fish's). You get four small patties of nearly straight crab, bound with reduced cream, eggs, and minimal bread crumbs, strewn with a mixture of sweet yellow corn kernels and black huitlacoche (Mexican "corn smut," a mushroom-like fungus that colonizes the kernels). Brilliant, I thought.
A smooth, silky rabbit pâté was too subtle to enjoy comme il faut on toasted artisan French bread with whole-grain mustard -- but it was delicious when we ate it with a fork, daubed with a touch of mustard and accompanied by a nibble of cornichon and a forkful of breezy arugula salad.
One of JRDN's primary identities is as a steakhouse, serving Meyer's natural beef -- many different cuts -- along with a Berkshire pork chop, lamb chops, several fish species, Maine lobster, and chicken breast, all from the grill. With each of these you can choose one of five different seasoning rubs, one of seven different sauces, plus two side dishes. We went for the most flavorful steak cut, the rib eye, with the JRDN rub (roasted garlic and garlic salt) and opted for the béarnaise sauce because it's by far the hardest and scariest to cook at home. "What's the different between béarnaise and hollandaise?" asked Mark, a new friend. "Half an hour," I answered. "Béarnaise starts with cooking down wine and a little fresh tarragon or chervil to a thick syrup, then straining it through a fine sieve. And then you add all the thrills and chills of making hollandaise, substituting the wine reduction for the lemon juice." (Cooking hint: for an unorthodox but spectacular version, use the dregs from a decanted red Bordeaux or a fine Cabernet. Funny pink color but great flavor. Drink the wine alongside.)
The beef was perfectly done to rare, and the rich rub and sauce lifted it from the realm of mere meat to juicy manna. For our first side, we chose marrow and cheese mac, which yielded a small marrowbone (overcooked well past succulence, alas, into dry sandiness) standing alone amidst the world-beating mac and cheese, comfort food of the gods in their pajamas. Our second side, pan-roasted asparagus with oyster sauce and roasted garlic, was skimpy but tasty. We were drinking wines by the glass (to cope with our varied entrées), and the best match we found for the steak was a suave Martin Ray Pinot Noir. (The slightly gritty tannins in a Joel Gott Cabernet clashed with the acidic treble notes of the béarnaise.)
Scallop-lovers all, we decided to gamble on pan-seared "dry" scallops, even though their menu title didn't trumpet day-boat or Diver credentials -- "dry" merely means dry-packed on ice, without the icky phosphate preservatives that turn scallops dead-white and mushy. It turns out, though, that these scallops were splendid dayboat specimens from Maine. They were sensitively cooked to barely opaque, sweet and tender, plated over a flawless risotto with Dungeness crab (you can never have enough Dungeness) and succulent sections of artichoke heart-and-stem, with a dreamy Meyer lemon beurre blanc glazing the plate. (The server coped well with "family-style" eating, bringing a full complement of tablespoons for the soup and steak knives for the meat. He didn't bring a spoon for serving out the beurre blanc, but we managed by swishing forkfuls of scallop through the sauce.)
The only false note was a whole grilled fresh Royal Dorado (from Baja waters), which despite our pleas was overcooked dry. A salsa verde went a long way to moistening it again and offered the right zesty tang to flatter the lean, mild fish.
After the clean, clear flavors of our appetizers and entrées, for a change we actually looked forward to dessert. A Meyer lemon custard tart was tiny but sparkling, with sugar-glazed dried lemon slices standing up straight in the sweet-sour custard. The crust was crumbly, and the dish was strewn with fresh blueberries. A strawberry-rhubarb panna cotta was disappointingly solid -- and stolid, with a gratuitous topping of fruit gelatin. "After the panna cottas made by Jack Fisher [now at Jack's La Jolla]," said Lynne, "I expect it to be shivery and trembling, not this firm and pedestrian." The best of that dessert was a garnish of ripe chopped strawberries and a petite mound of basil sorbet.
We all agreed we'd go back anytime. "The food is running a really high average," Lynne summed up, "and you don't have to dress up for it." For all its spiffy decor and fairly high prices, JRDN combines the virtues of a neighborhood hangout with precise and delightful cooking that highlights every flavor and disguises none of them. The food is just right for the summery, breezy atmosphere: It's a day at the beach.
ABOUT THE CHEF
The opening chef at JRDN was Victor Jimenez (formerly of Gringo's, Thee Bungalow, and Gulf Coast Grill). When Victor took some time out to relax and travel (word is, he's in India right now), his second-in-command, David Warner, was promoted to executive chef. (This is not, needless to say, the distinguished British actor of the same name.)