Local white sea bass comes with raw Florence fennel leaves plastered with summer truffle slices, plated over a satisfying risotto (perfectly cooked short-grain rice, as plushy as polenta). I wasn't thrilled with the fish itself. It was fresh but too bland for my taste. (Corvina, among the best of all the basses, is about to come into season in local waters. The chef says he'll be looking for it.)
The house signature is a Maine lobster risotto with porcini and shiitake mushrooms and white truffle essence. It's the most expensive entrée, much touted by our "Putz" waiter in his monologue. Yet it does deserve touting because it's no ordinary risotto. There is relatively little rice, and a vast quantity of lobster -- two large shelled claws and two shelled tails on top, chunks of lobster in the rice, along with studs of earthy mushrooms that mirror the lobster's texture, so that it takes several chews to decide...seafood or mushroom? The cooking broth is dark-colored, strong, a bit oversalted. "I still think Michael Stebner's lobster risotto was the all-time best," said Lynne. (Stebner was Azzura's chef seven years ago.) Well, maybe, but if so, it's second best in a marathon race led by two Kenyans, followed at a distance by 2000 lame Elvis impersonators.
The meats, though, ran well behind the marine products -- Batis, from a family of fisherfolk, admits a preference for seafood. A roasted veal rack rib-eye, cooked medium rare as specified, was tender bland flesh, even if surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast -- morels (those most succulent of all mushrooms), griotte cherries of nearly the same ebony hue as the morels, a "confit" of organic potatoes, and for an attractive note of dark-green bitterness (to contrast with the cherries), grilled rapini. Our least favorite entrée was a bistecca fiorentina T-bone. According to sausage king and cookbook author Bruce Aidells (my main man on meat), a true steak Florentine should be at least two inches thick (preferably porterhouse, though rib-eye will do). The T-bone, although rare to order, was only a half-inch thick, an upper-Choice piece. Its flavor was good, but it was a tad tough and not thrilling. It came with braised greens and savory white truffle fries.
The wine list is a wonder. It may not be the longest, but it bespeaks thought, knowledge, and probably some hard bargaining by sommelier Kurt Kirshchenman, who works closely with the chef at finding unusual wines to match the light elegance of the food. At our first dinner, I spotted a rare treat -- a white Rhone (Crozes-Hermitage) selling for the same price as similar bottles, retail, at the Wine Sellar. Its cool power was perfect for our seafood-dominated meal. At the second meal, the list of half-bottles made it possible to choose a perfect white and a fine red for our entrées -- including an exquisite Louis Latour Meursault (lyrical liquid sunshine, with none of the excessive oak of so many California Chardonnays) to accompany the lobster risotto at a price that made me feel only the faintest twinge of guilt. The sommelier chats comfortably with people all over the room. He knows (and loves) his stuff, and he's a trustworthy advisor, not a greed-geek.
All waiters (the best and worst alike) talk up the tarte tatin for dessert. It's the size of a whole pie (and after Ian insisted I take it home, it became my breakfast for five days after the dinner), but it's not among the best I've ever tasted. (That was at La Folie in San Francisco, where chef Roland Passot topped his frangible, thin-crusted version with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, rather than the vanilla served here.) I found the puff-pastry crust too thick and chewy and wanted a higher ratio of fruit to crust. I much preferred the pineapple carpaccio -- ultra-thin sheets of semi-dried pineapple in a light syrup, crowned with a square of shivery-tender coconut panna cotta. We also enjoyed a lavender crème brulée topped with fresh berries. This trick of flavoring (done by steeping lavender flowers in the warm milk or cream that will go into the custard) is still avant-garde for San Diego. (It was already vieux chapeaux in San Francisco when I moved here -- thereby hangs a tale of two cities, alas.) My companions were enchanted by its decadent, subtle perfume. I'd have liked more lavender flavor. But the decaf espresso was pleasingly above average.
I enjoy the cooking at Azzura for its rare combination of lightness and full flavor. Even the most ethereal appetizers are satisfying, because they fully engage your taste buds. Most dishes are sized "right," so you don't waddle out but waft blissfully. As for the atmosphere -- at the end of my first meal, a gay couple on a nearby banquette ended the evening snuggling close to each other (after checking the beneficence of the eye-beams from the remaining fellow diners). Chaz and I, meanwhile, had transited from tentative new acquaintances to comfortable old friends sharing laughter and life-stories. I didn't see any faery queens falling in love with donkeys on either evening -- but that could happen here, too. The chef probably knows the recipe for the magic potion.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Martin T. Batis ("Chef Marty") was born in Hawaii on the island of Kauai and lived there until his family moved to San Diego just before he started high school. "My family were pretty much fishermen and farmers, so family gatherings, luaus, got me excited about cooking. The fresh seafood, the wonderful food we grow in Kauai." His special island loves are manapua (steamed buns, resembling Chinese bao) and pasteles (Puerto Rican green plantain "tamales" stuffed with stewed pork).
Chef Marty mainly learned his craft on the job, although he's taken a few culinary school classes. "I started at Loews as a line chef about 11 years ago, after cooking at some small restaurants in San Diego. James Boyce [a legendary chef and teacher-of-chefs who headed the kitchen then] had an attitude about me that started me thinking about cooking perfection. I wanted to take it to the next level. I was introduced to all these wonderful ingredients. He was really big on the local farmer's market, and he was really into everything fresh and grown seasonally and locally as much as possible. I still go to the Farmers' Market in Coronado, and to Chino Farms once in a while, and we grow our own herbs here. Right now, I'm picking kumquats off our trees."