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George's California Modern

1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla

The search continues apace for "view restaurants" with cuisine to equal their eye-candy appeal. California Modern, the newly remodeled former dining room at George's at the Cove, is another winner. As soon as the decor and name changes were complete, the foodie e-mails started trickling in, saying that chef Trey Foshee seemed better than ever, free at last to be truly Trey. Foshee has always been an exponent of modern California cuisine, turning out dishes with subtle flavor combinations, garnished with perfect seasonal vegetables from Chino Farms. His style hasn't radically changed but seems intensified with a new, more flexible menu that adapts to the best produce and seafood available in any week.

Physically, the change in the room is striking. The reception area is now as high tech and computerized as a bank lobby, with long, dark tables topped by monitors and telephones and staffed by numerous hostesses. One whole wall features a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in wine cellar. Although the aim of the renovation was to de-emphasize formality and introduce a casual, breezy feeling, the expensively suited white males of old continue to mill about the reception area, waiting for their colleagues. That's their choice, since when I showed up with half my party ten minutes before our reservation time, we were allowed to claim our table immediately. In the dining room, what used to be a wall with a few windows is now a panoramic wall of windows, affording every table a view of the ocean off the cove, and tables are well spaced, reducing noise. (There are also two smaller dining rooms deeper inside the building, sans scenery. When the rooms aren't occupied by private parties, last-minute reservers are sentenced to those purgatories.) Soon, Esther, Alan, and grown daughter Jenna arrived to join Dave, Marty, and me. "The Wall of Wine needed Windex," quipped Esther as she sat down. "Then we went through the Barrage of Bankers."

The cocktails are seasonal recipes created by the chef, so we had to try a few to fully experience Trey's artistry. A Bellini afforded a chance to taste Chino Farms' ripe nectarines, puréed with Prosecco (which I prefer to the harsher bubbles of Champagne). It was intensely fruity, not oversweet. The fusion-y "Bee Sting" (vodka with honey, ginger, lemongrass, and whole kumquats) was sweet but complex. A dark red hibiscus mojito was colored and flavored by tangy hibiscus-flower syrup (aka sorrel or jamaica, best known as the flavoring and colorant of Red Zinger tea). In the weeks to come, look for a new twist on Pisco Sour, which will debut as soon as Trey finishes inventing it.

We fell in love with a cold appetizer composed of several varieties and colors of silky grilled Asian eggplants from Chino Farms, garnished with at least two breeds of cherry tomatoes, a slick of white bean purée, and a "spicy pepper confit" that wasn't really spicy, just zingy. Veggies like these make you forget you're a carnivore. A green garlic and morel soup was subtle, a mildly garlicky chicken broth amended with asparagus and irresistible morel mushrooms. Best of all was a technical feat as delicious as it was impressive: a "crispy poached egg" -- soft-poached egg dipped in a light panko batter and so carefully deep-fried that the yolk remained liquid, ready to burst when you cut into its package. (Now I ask you, is that fun, or isn't it? It's like Scotch eggs, but less cooked and minus the greasy sausage meat.) If you want a bit more salt in your soup (or on anything else), a mini-saucer is divided between coarse-ground white sea salt and a tan mixture amended by the chef's blend of 12 spices. (Sprinkle it on ripe watermelon and you'll wear a thousand-watt smile.)

Even flashier than the soup-egg was a hazelnut-crusted softshell crab, which redoubled the crispness of the shell with a buttery crushed-nut crust. Instead of an interesting act of nature (the odd texture of a softshell's shell), the crackly carapace became an edible work of art. (It reminded me of the jewel-encrusted turtle in the old "decadent" French novel Au Rebours. ) "Best softshell I've ever tasted," said Alan, to nods all around.

A charming octopus carpaccio had delicate rounds of tender octopus plated over thin, mirroring circles of cold potato dressed in romesco sauce (tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and ground toasted nuts). Ultra-fresh Mano de León scallops, farm-raised south of Ensenada, appeared in a ceviche, thinly sliced and dressed with cardamom oil, amended with jalapeño (not enough even to nip), cilantro, and tangerines. The sweetness of the fruit played up the sweetness of the scallops. But citrus-cured hamachi (yellowtail) is a dish that's approaching the cliché-appetizer status of seared ahi. "It's been done to death," said Jenna. (I preferred Azzura Point's version, with its darker, complex marinade.)

I usually avoid ordering halibut, considering it the WASPiest of fishes -- as white as Wonder bread, it swims in expensive prep schools and golfs at the country club. Trey finds it too bland himself (he prefers stronger-flavored species, such as local sardines -- unavailable that week due to red tide), but it's a crowd-pleaser and big seller, so he turns the blandness into a virtue. His air-shipped, bone-in Alaskan halibut steak was a thick hunk (with a couple of large, easily removed bones) cooked to flaky, opalescent tenderness. Surrounding it were wilted pea tendrils and "chowder," a creamy sauce studded with tiny whole clams, bacon, diced potatoes, and kernels of supersweet Chino corn. The playful personality of the accompaniment compensated for the mildness of the fish.

An opulent lobster seafood stew included shrimp and pieces of fin-fish in a creamy sauce served with aoli over "toasted pasta" (Italian whole-wheat fregoli) with slivered almonds. Unfortunately, it reached me last as it made its way around the table, and "my" fregoli were long gone by then. (That's one reason Chinese restaurants serve communal-dish family dinners at big, round tables instead of long rectangles -- so everyone can see everyone else to converse, and Nonna can stop Junior from grabbing all the claw-pieces of the Lobster Cantonese.)

Lamb "two ways" was a favorite, featuring two slim rib chops with a spicy mint rub, plus a mound of melting lamb osso buco (shank) on the bone. (Trey is a master at bringing out the best in red meat stewing-cuts; his winter dish of braised Kobe beef short ribs is memorable.) Alongside were lightly curried carrots of two colors (orange and pale yellow) plus white beans mingled with diced orange carrots and yogurt. Everything on the plate worked together, like a well-rehearsed chamber orchestra.

"Peking-Style Duck Breast" is slightly deceiving. First, it's not all breast, since the portion includes a drumstick (or perhaps a large wing drumette), which is fine. More to the point, if you're a maniacal Chinese food fan, don't hope for the Asian miracle bird, its skin subcutaneously inflated (through a straw or a bicycle pump) before being glazed and blow-dried. This is not the addictive version at China Max, but a more gwei lo take that's still, Trey says, a work in progress. At our dinner, the skin was a bit soft, although succulent with its Asian spice rub and thin underlay of luscious fat. The meat was tender, the flavors fine. It comes with sugar peas, rhubarb and fennel salad, and white jasmine rice with a hint of ginger and coconut, which lends interesting undertones.

Niman Ranch pork tenderloin arrived absolutely tender, cooked to our order of "rosy" (135û--140ûF). "Like buttah," we kidded. It came with cider-braised cipollini onions, a ragout of black trumpet mushrooms, peas and ramps (wild scallions), and best of all, a slick of trumpet mushroom purée, the haunting quintessence of mushroom flavor. It also boasted an itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie square of firm polenta.

Then, too, I would have loved to plunge into more than the mini-portion of smoked mashed potatoes that come with the beef dishes. Who could imagine that taters were smokable -- and so seductive with this treatment? Our steak (a 21-day aged strip, also from Niman) was tender, with a good red-wine sauce and marinated mushrooms -- but it's still merely meat, while the spuds are stars.

In fact, anyone on a carb-counting diet is pretty safe with the entrées here. Unlike many old-fashioned local eateries, with their cheap meats surrounded by mountains of mash or piles of pasta, Trey serves proteins generously but metes out starches sparingly. I'd have liked a bit more of them to distract me from the wickedly tempting Bread & Cie baguettes in the bread basket. Most starches and several of the vegetable garnishes are available in larger portions as side dishes for a few dollars extra.

Our waiter was excellent, knowledgeable about the food and wine. (He's a sometime chef himself, hence a full-out foodie -- which always makes a dinner more fun.) On a wine list where most bottles run $50 and up, our "find" that evening was Chile's Casa Lapostolle Merlot (a frequent Wine Spectator rave) at $45. That's not exactly cheap -- Fiore's, the fine dining restaurant at Harrah's in Valley Center, was selling it for under $25 a couple of years ago -- but here it's among the most affordable bottles. It's a comfort food of a wine, as smooth, velvety, and food-friendly as you'd ever wish. It went well with the lamb and the pork and tasted made-to-order for the duck. (For the beef, I'd have preferred a more tannic red, e.g., a Cab.) For the white, I encountered a rarely seen old friend, Château Carbonnieux white Bordeaux, a crisp sauvignon-semillion blend.

The simplest of our desserts was the most satisfying: a consommé of Chino strawberries, the soupy essence of late spring, garnished with frozen crème frâiche and strawberry sorbet, along with small, hard croutons of pound cake (which we found disposable at best, as the cold soup didn't soften them). The other sweets were a little disappointing: A warm chocolate tart was cakelike, with a firm, grainy texture, scattered with delightful candied orange zest and topped with white chocolate espresso ice cream, but we'd have liked it more were it baked a few minutes less, for a squishier texture. The same was true of a slightly dry pineapple upside-down cake, where the garnishes were the highlights -- a drizzle of exotic saffron syrup and a scoop of remarkable basil ice cream. (A few at my table found it too weird; the rest, including me, were smitten.)

The search for restaurants with scenic views and serious food will continue in weeks to come. Some additional recommendations based on wonderful past meals are Bertrand at Mr. A's, Marine Room, and 1500 Ocean (although the last's chef just left; presumably they'll find an equally adept replacement). A notch down in cuisine but a lot of fun are Coronado Boathouse, Island Prime, Peohe's, and for brunch, Brockton Villa. Any suggestions? You can foodblog away on the new, interactive www.SanDiegoReader.com website -- we're California Modern ourselves!

ABOUT THE CHEF

I asked Trey about the ideas behind the renovation and name change of the restaurant and what the changes meant to him as a chef. "I'm affected a lot by the environment I'm in, the space I'm in," he said. "Through the years, I've tried to gear my food to the environment of the restaurant. With the renovation, we consciously made the decision to shake off the shackles of being 'George's at the Cove Fine Dining Restaurant' -- the place to celebrate graduations and anniversaries.

"What the changes have done is to allow us to put whatever we want on the menu. It's a style that encompasses everything that we really want to do. I do feel freer -- that's how we all feel in the kitchen. The format now allows us to change the menu whenever we want. I used to make many changes on Thursdays; that's just the way the system was comfortable. But now I can change the menu in an hour. If we get a great shipment of Oregon porcini, and we're only going to get one for the week, I want to put it on the menu for two days and then take them off and put something else on. It allows us a lot more flexibility.

"The way the menu is set up (with the cold, raw section, the salad section, and then the hot and soup sections), there are cooks that are put in charge of each. So, for instance, the cook who works the raw fish five days a week and is immersed in it can have something new put on the menu. If there's something he wants to explore or learn better, we can explore those things. Everybody has the ability to throw out ideas that can get on the menu, including my sous-chef and the pastry manager. Cooks get tired of cooking the same thing over and over again. Now, whenever something's getting tired, if we're tired of making it, then it's off the menu right away. And that makes for better food.

"We have 18--20 appetizers, versus the old menu, where we used to have 10 to 12. With 10 appetizers, you can play with maybe 3 of them, but with 18, you can do so much more. What's changed is, we now have the ability to serve $8 or $10 sardines next to a caviar service for $35 or $40. You can play with having less more-expensive items on there, and it doesn't throw the menu out of whack. It doesn't make it look like a cheap menu or an expensive menu, it makes it look like it's a menu where you can eat what you want to eat...."

I asked about the small portions of starch on the plates. "Part of it is that when I go out, I'm eating more vegetables, and more of the protein," Trey said. "If I order wild king salmon, I want wild king salmon, not just a little piece of it with a bunch of other stuff. It's not intentional, it's just the way I seem to be going. In my judgment, we offer a lot more protein than most restaurants, and we've continued as we always have to place a huge importance on vegetables, the stuff we get from Chino -- with starch as something that puts the two together. But we're flexible with people's requests; we'll substitute vegetables or starches if somebody asks, and they can order from the side dishes as well.

"When you look at San Diego restaurants in general, there aren't enough good-quality restaurants that you feel like you can go to more than once or twice a year. Our goal is to turn California Modern into that restaurant where you feel comfortable. You can come and have an experience that would warrant an anniversary dinner, a graduation dinner, but it's also a menu that is versatile enough that you can come in and have a nice meal without feeling like you've got to make this big ordeal out of it. More and more, San Diego seems to be following that 'You gotta make a big deal out of it' restaurant model. There are not enough restaurants that are consistent, and good, and that don't make you feel uncomfortable, and that the menu changes enough that if you came in last week, you're going to find some new things on it this week. That's our ultimate goal. We're not there yet, but we're getting there. It's not to satisfy everybody -- that's not our goal. It's more to make it a restaurant that's comfortable.

"But what our goal is, and how the community sees us, are different. The community is still looking at us as the old George's, but we're sticking by our guns. Because the future of the restaurant business -- and it's happening in other cities already -- is to make it a more casual experience. If you want, you can have a great bottle of wine, trained people waiting on you, somebody good in the kitchen -- but with the flexibility of having several different ways of experiencing it. You go to some restaurants, they take themselves so seriously, you feel smothered by them. We take everything seriously -- but we don't take it too seriously."

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