7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, 11th Floor, San Diego
It started with an e-mail from an unknown sender -- "Who's rojo?" I wondered -- friend, Viagra-pusher, virus-carrier? A friend I'd never met, it turned out -- a reader who shares my tastes, suggesting that I try Clay's, another "view" restaurant, at the top of the towering Hotel La Jolla. That's a space that has been through so many incarnations under its previous name, Elario's, that I'd come to view it with permanent suspicion. (In its final incarnation, I heard, Elario's was serving the worst sort of hotel food, including the same precut packaged "Sysco veggie medley" with every entrée.) But Bobbie, who sent the e-mail, was so articulate in her praises of the year-old Clay's that I rounded up the posse and we made a reservation. And were we ever glad we did!
To revisit the film Ratatouille, at the climax, a snooty restaurant critic is won over by a simple peasant dish, overcome by its sheer deliciousness. In my business, it's easy to forget that, ultimately, deliciousness counts most. So there are chefs whose work I respect as high culinary art, and of course they get the big four stars on up. But there are also chefs whose food I love, whose finely tuned palates make them masters of vivacious flavors. I wish I could color-code the stars -- black for "respect the art," but hot pink, chartreuse, or turquoise (maybe with some little graphic whiz-bangs, like the movie's depiction of culinary joy) for the chefs whose work sings with flavor -- chefs like Patrick Ponsaty (Bernard'O), Brian Sinnott (1500 Ocean), Jason Knibb (910), pastry chef Jack Fisher (Jack's La Jolla), and whoever makes the Peking duck at China Max, to name a few. People often forget the art they ate but may be haunted forever by cravings for another bite of the dishes that tasted the best.
Clay Bordan seems to be one of these chefs. Not every dish we tried was perfect, but a powerful seven of ten were terrific, with vibrant flavors gently borrowing from great cuisines worldwide. The setting for Bordan's cooking is a long, oddly cozy penthouse with low ceilings, thick carpeting, and wide windows facing west, with light curtains that are lifted at sunset to reveal a panorama of La Jolla stretching down to the sea. It's comfortable and attractive but not excessively formal -- you can dress for fun in your cutest new outfit without worrying if it's fancy enough for prime time. (I don't mean that new Calvin wife-beater, guys.) On the way in, you pass a large glassed-in open kitchen, affording the visual entertainment of watching the line, but with none of the clatter. Some of the seating is at banquettes, but we preferred the sightlines from a windowside table. Since there's live music in the lounge almost every night, the sound level depends on who's playing -- it was quiet background sound the weeknight we went, but if you don't like loud, avoid Sunday nights when there's usually a retro big band.
Lynne, Jim, and Michelle had all been to Clay's for happy hour drinks and snacks, but this was the first time they'd settled in for serious eating. (Again, the curse of Elario's.) As we read the menu, a genuinely amusing "amuse" arrived -- a hospitable round of Kir Royales (champagne with crème de cassis). What could be better? The bubbles wash away the day's stresses -- begone, dull care!
Samurai Jim recommended the ahi tuna tower appetizer he'd enjoyed at happy hour. The concept (raw tuna, mango, and cucumber rounds) may be a cliché, but the execution was spiffy: The layers were piled atop a grilled cake of Thai purple rice, which softened as it absorbed the drippings to a tasty, crunchy-surfaced mush. The zesty seasonings in the tuna included a sharp hit of Thai chile oil and a glaze combining blood orange with English and Dijon mustards. On the side were fried wonton wrappers to scoop with if you wanted to. Not boring at all.
Tiger prawns were swaddled in a layer of pancetta and set on skewers that arose from an edible base of ripe, sweet pineapple, surrounded by a crunchy, spicy raw fennel salad with a hot-sweet "vindaloo" glaze of Indian spices and sweet-sour tamarind.
Sake-seared sea scallops were sweet, plump Mano de León specimens from Ensenada. They were set atop pedestals of mashed Peruvian purple potatoes mixed with parsnip purée -- a clever idea, since the parsnip offered a moist lightness, sweetness, and texture to cut the starchiness of these good-looking but dry potatoes. Surrounding them were a deliriously sensual Turkish apricot crème fraîche and a pomegranate-ginger reduction glazing the plate. The wine that hit the spot with all the appetizers was an old favorite, Edna Valley (Santa Barbara) Chardonnay -- an unpretentious but serious rendition of "delicious." (Cost Plus often carries it on sale, for about a third of the restaurant price. All my tablemates said they'd be looking to buy it by the case.) For the entrées, we switched to miscellaneous pours by the glass, since we'd ordered both fish and meat.
After having read the menu online, I consumed the appetizers with as much relief as joy. Through bitter experience, I've grown leery of non-Asian chefs doing "fusion" by throwing exotic ingredients willy-nilly into their cooking, or worse yet, coming up with creative "improvements" over traditional recipes that need no improving. Poorly done fusion is a form of cultural misappropriation -- that is, ripping off non-European cuisines to get ego points: "Thanks for the sansho pepper, Butterfly honey -- gotta run now." But there are no soy-drenched mudholes at Clay's -- when this chef incorporates global flavors to enliven his cooking, he employs them intelligently and gracefully where they do the most good.
Not fusion-y at all, however, a perfectly conventional "signature" lobster bisque shouldn't be a signature. The most disappointing of our starters, it was short on lobster flavor -- creamy comfort food without much personality, even with the cute little pedigreed--goat cheese dumpling floating in the middle. If "it takes a heap of livin' to make a house a home," then it takes a load of lobster to make a bisque a thrill. There's no lobster on Clay's' menu, which means the kitchen isn't awash in leftover carapaces and spare parts but has to purchase lobster bodies for the base of the broth. I've never yet loved a bisque from a restaurant that doesn't have lobster on its menu -- it's not the same as the bisque from a kitchen swamped with leftover shells, swimmerets, and an extra live lobster or two to throw into the pot.
Clay's is evidently accustomed to foodies sharing dinners -- our waiter later told us about a regular dining group who call themselves "the Foodies" -- because the appetizers arrived by ones and twos to let us savor each in turn. We ordered blue-crab salad as a mid-course, and it duly arrived solo -- a warm mélange of substantial chunks of sweet crab (not mere shreds and bits), surrounding islands of butter lettuce, small oval tomatoes, and raspberries. After appreciating its merits for a while, I realized I wasn't totally content with butter lettuce in the context. "I think it needs a more assertive green to go against the Gorgonzola cream," I said. "Maybe raw fennel." Jim thought arugula. Lynne suggested raw Belgian endive, which won the crowd's acclaim, a communal vision of ideal warm blue-crab salad. On second thought -- artichoke heart might do it, too.
"Even if the main courses fall down after this, I'm already happy I came," said the Lynnester. But they didn't fall down. We chose entrées as much on the basis of interesting garnishes as the central proteins. Hence, the first one I faced was my fish-of-constant-ridicule, halibut. It was cooked to soft velvet flakiness -- even better than at George's California Modern. At one end, the fillet was topped with purple and dark green "licorice"-flavored microgreens (anise, fennel, arugula, plus radicchio for color), a decorating tactic echoed in the center by slim, garlic-flavored green beans and tiny purple Peruvian potatoes, plus poached white peaches on the side. "Aww, look!" I cooed, uncovering the first petite purple potato. "There's purple and green at the top, and here's the purple with the green beans to match." "The chef could be an interior designer," said Michelle, an interior designer. "He could redo your living room in food."
"I can't believe it, I'm actually clinging to halibut!" I said, when I had to move the plate along on its rotation around the table. Next was Angus filet mignon. It was not quite as rare as I'd hoped. Samurai Jim, the classic beef-eater among us, actually hated the blackberry reduction sauce, the summery soprano substitute for the standard, mellow-alto red-wine bordelaise sauce. The rest of us liked the beef and sauce well enough, but what really won us all over (Jim included) were the side dishes -- a succulent little gratin of potatoes with manchego cheese, plus roasted red pearl onions, grilled white asparagus, and sautéed garlic spinach.
Maple Leaf duck breast is the standard duck in local restaurants, but rarely is it served as rare as it ought to be. Here it was -- darkly rosy, utterly tender, set atop dreamy, thin-skinned butternut squash ravioli with garlic cream sauce, spinach, and plushy reconstituted oven-dried tomatoes. (I can't believe they were really ever dried. They tasted fresh-baked.) We were all jazzed as the plate made its way around the table. The difference between great duck breast and boring duck breast? Ten degrees less cooking and zap, OFF with the heat!
The major entrée disappointment was pan-seared Jidori chicken breast, from an aristocratic, flavorful Japanese breed. Even with Jidori, nicely cooked breast is still breast and needs more help to become something wonderful, rather than just (yawn) white meat. Here it was cooked plainly, accompanied by yummy fennel-scented goat cheese mashed potatoes, grilled ramps (wild scallions, in the final week of their season), baby carrots glazed with lychee-infused sake from Japan, and pan jus. (Next evening, the doggie-bagged Jidori leftovers were reincarnated into fabulously flavorful chilaquiles -- much tastier than "any-old-chicken" chilaquiles.)
Desserts are exhibited on one of those sampler platters equivalent to the plastic food displays in the window of a Tokyo restaurant. We (meaning the chocoholic samurai) chose a layered chocolate pastry-thing. It proved as exciting as a plastic window display (ditto the espresso). It turns out that, due to the small size of the kitchen (and Clay's own disinclination for baking), most desserts at the restaurant are purchased from a contractor. But sweets are superfluous anyway, when you've already extracted so much pleasure from the earlier courses.
We'd arrived early and were second-last to leave. I rode down the elevator with Jim, and after powder-room breaks, Lynne and Michelle rode down with our handsome waiter. Michelle, a petite pretty blonde, marched in lockstep with the waiter toward the back parking lot. "Whoo-hoo, we're over here," Jim called from the other exit door. (Sorry, Michelle, it was too cute a moment to go unrecorded. Writers are dangerous friends.) Then we all poured into Jim's car and glowed all the way back to town. "This has been surprisingly...divine," said the Lynnester, surprising herself with the razzle-dazzle adjective. Yes, surprisingly divine.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Clay Bordan has primarily worked as a corporate chef, which is basically a teaching position -- that is, "I'd go to all these cities, and I'd put together restaurants [including the opening of Nectar, downtown], put together menus, bring in staffs, go through the build-out stage, be there for the opening, stay there for a month or two, and hand it off to my chefs," he says. "But a lot of these restaurants were in hotels, and we'd get interference from the hotel management. They were more interested in saving money than in keeping that creative edge, so I wasn't always happy doing that.
"The company I was with, American Property Management, bought this hotel about two years ago.... They had a couple of third-party operators doing the restaurant here, Elario's, and one day they came to me and said, 'You've got to go to Elario's and babysit it.' So I started working with the people here, and I really didn't have much interest in the menu -- it was just hotel food, you wouldn't even give it two stars. I was bored, and about three months afterwards...I suggested to the company that I'd take it on myself, but I'd quit my job as a corporate chef. They said, 'Well, okay, but we won't give you any money to get started.'"
Clay took on the challenge, along with his crew -- scrounging furniture from another closed restaurant, redecorating the room, and finally reopening not as Elario's but as the radically different Clay's. "We launched Clay's July 11 of last year. We changed the menu, changed the menu again, until we got to where we are now -- a decently run restaurant. I haven't had any turnover, and my guys have basically bought into the concept. I took a huge cut in pay, and we're still working really hard." He maintains high standards for his kitchen. "My philosophy is: no short-cuts. And if one of the line-chefs messes up -- say, he overcooks something -- I want him to throw it out and start over, rather than serve it if it's not perfect. Partly, because I see us as primarily a local restaurant. We're not on the Prospect strip, we don't get many tourists. We're more interested in building a base of regular local customers who'll come back again and again because they like what we're doing."
Clay never meant to become a chef. His family moved around a lot for his father's job when he was a kid; they spent the longest stretch in Florida, which Clay considers his home state. (His speech still bears a trace of the South.) He began learning to cook out of necessity. "My mother would only cook one meal a day, dinner. She didn't believe in premade foods, she didn't believe in processed items. If we wanted something to eat, we had to make it ourselves. My parents called me 'the Scrounger,' because I was always going into the refrigerator and grabbing stuff out of there and making something out of it, because that's what we had to do. As I hit my teens, I wanted a bigger allowance, and my father said, 'Well, go out and get a job.' So at 14 I got a job dishwashing in a restaurant, and that led to cooking. But I did anything not to become a chef. When I started out it wasn't glamorous -- no Food Network, no celebrity chefs. I learned on the job -- never went to cooking school or to business school. I worked under some really good people, good chefs, but nobody very famous, and I never stayed long -- I was always trying to find a way out of it. I was young and I was working every weekend, every holiday. I kept trying to do other things for a living, but I finally had to say, 'Well, I actually love cooking.'
"I love it even more now, because I've been through that corporate side. Now I'm in it, I can do what I want. I can change my menu all the time based on what the market's trending to -- or not. But moving around a lot as a corporate chef, I got to see a lot of areas people wouldn't pay money to go to, a lot of grassroots stuff -- like Amish cooking. A lot of foodie places and a lot of nonfoodie places -- something's always there to spark my interest."
Clay's sophistication as a chef may seem mysterious until you realize that, even though he's never traveled outside of America, he's a foodie to the bone. "I love eating out, I do it as much as possible -- at obscure places serving authentic dishes. I'll get cravings for Indonesian food, for spicy Chinese food.... Right now I'm planning to take a couple of days off in September to fly to Boston, just to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the area (it's called Kowloon), and fly right back the next day, because I miss my favorite dishes there so much."