910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
When some food- and wine-loving college friends visited La Jolla recently and asked for restaurant recommendations, this whole I Write About Feasts thing meant I really needed to be on point. This would be no positive reframing of So Cal Mexican as a gastronomic adventure — I was going to show them some of the best this town had to offer, preferably within walking distance of their hotel.
Granted, as La Jolla's dining scene continues to grow, I was able to point them in a number of different directions that would lead them, on foot, to culinary delight. But when it came time to sit together, to look my recommendation in the eye, I went with something reliable: Nine-Ten.
Executive Chef Jason Knibb and his celebrated farm-to-table kitchen have been collecting more esteemed praise than mine for over a decade, so when I told our waiter that this meal was under pressure to live up to my claim that it's one of the city's best, he couldn't even pretend there was a chance we'd be disappointed. Instead he suggested we let him suggest wine pairings for each plate, the implication being that only our flawed decision-making on this front could even faintly diminish the meal ahead. Since the wine program here is a point of pride among the staff, we conceded his point. I haven't the room here to give any justice to a wine discussion, so let's just say that four of the five wines we tried were excellent, and that, unless you really know your sauvignon blancs from your pinot grigios, I recommend letting service select your pairings.
Foodwise, we decided to share a number of dishes, beginning with a trio of 16-dollar small plates from the First Course menu. The Hamachi sashimi tasted like gossamer butter marinated in a scallion vinaigrette. Four more plates of just that and we'd have left satisfied. But then the Jamaican jerk pork belly offered a little more weight to its brand of melting goodness. It was perfectly slow-cooked, plated with black eyed peas and a sweet potato purée that seemed to make a vague reference to eating pork and beans at a summer barbecue — without any hint of cheapness.
My personal favorite was the squid ink spaghettini, prepared with bay scallops and uni, with an uni emulsion serving as the sauce. I won't pretend to know what it takes to successfully emulsify uni, but if results like this were easy to achieve I would make it at home every chance I've got. Considering I've tried a similar dish at other very good, very highly regarded restaurants and never found its match, I'm guessing the clean sea-froth flavors captured here so beautifully may take a little talent to duplicate.
Now, I've known chefs to be somewhat dismissive about braised short ribs — even their own — because it's always a safe bet. But, I liken it to poetry. Sure, sticking to a rhyme scheme makes it easier for anyone to write legible verse, but to create something great within the confines of this rigid structure requires talent. These were like that — however many times I've eaten braised short ribs ($33), this time was better. Delicate but powerfully flavored and immensely satisfying, even to a taco-eating guy like me.
If there was one misstep to our meal it would be the pumpkin seed-crusted lamb loin ($37). Not because it tasted at all bad, it just happened to be the only plate that wasn't instantly memorable. With one exception. Those purple carrots on the plate weren't carrots at all, but hibiscus-braised salsify. Yes, salsify. A root vegetable that looks like carrot but tastes more like parsnip. With hibiscus. I'd never even heard of the stuff, and here I was capping this wonderful splurge of a meal with something unusual and unexpected.
At this point, Nine-Ten is probably more in competition with living up to its own reputation for quality than with other eateries in its neighborhood. But if this food writer is going to throw good money at a meal outside my usual budget, it's still one of the places I'd pick. And walk away feeling good about it.