909 Prospect Street, La Jolla
In the past, I’ve relied upon summing up any restaurant’s worth with a single question: Would I eat here again? I’ve considered that a foolproof barometer, an easy either/or situation for whether I could recommend a restaurant in good conscience.
Recently I’ve started to think there’s too much room there to be gentle, to not commit, and to waffle. It’s partly my fault. I’ve considered places that are just okay as a soft “yes.” Logically, it made sense. If a place wasn’t a total disappointment, I could theoretically see myself eating there again.
But that gives too much benefit of the doubt to merely adequate restaurants. It shifts the onus onto the diner to justify the expense and effort of a meal, rather than laying the burden on the restaurant to provide an experience worth the often steep cost of entry.
Starting now, I can no longer recommend a restaurant unless I answer “yes” to this: If this place vanished off the face of the Earth, would I be bummed that I never got to go back? Leña Craft Mexican forced the issue. As restaurants go, it’s acceptable, and if someone offered to take me to dinner there, I wouldn’t demur. Yet if I never ever went back I’d be none the worse.
Right off the bat, sitting upstairs on the La Jolla patio provides nice people watching, but the smell of pancakes drifting up from the Richard Walker’s downstairs has the awkward effect of making one subconsciously yearn for a syrupy breakfast.
I applaud the kitchen’s decision to focus much of the menu on dishes from Southern Mexico. There are flavors beyond la frontera, and we get to see them front and center in local Mexican restaurants. Cochinita pibil, for example, can be such a delight and a breathtaking alternative to carnitas. Leña’s take is more puerco than cochinita, being made with pork shoulder instead of suckling pig, but that’s not the issue. The failing is that it’s simply not worth the nearly $30 asking price for a small puck of just-okay braised pig in sauce of little distinction. Offered this or the three pounds they offer at Las Morelianas, and I will always choose the latter.
Same for the ceviche tostada. While the swordfish chunks came perfectly cured, and the watermelon radish provides just the right spicy crisp, the unfortunate fact is that it cost almost $20, which just isn’t worth it.
Sure, the kitchen attempts to embellish the food with modernist touches — lime “dust” and other pulverized flavors sprinkled liberally over dishes, micro greens, flowery menu prose, name dropping farms and purveyors, brussels sprouts — but there’s not enough value added by these things.
Consider the meager portions of (admittedly delicious) salsa in shallow ramekins served alongside the chips (for which you must pay, I might add). On the surface this appears to be high concept, but when you realize that the salsa is too shallow for scooping, it’s just annoying.