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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

Down the coast, uptown dining

With a pedigreed chef from New York at the helm, La Jolla's Dining Room at Jack's is more than worth a detour.

September 27, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla, Calif. — NOW that the summer crowds have thinned out, it's a great time for a road trip -- and La Jolla, the beautiful little town on the coast just above San Diego, beckons. The light there is particularly gorgeous this time of year -- golden, sparkling and Mediterranean.

Strolling through the village, window-shopping and watching Lamborghinis and Ferraris growl slowly by, you can work up an appetite. Fortunately, there's a terrific spot right in the center of the action. You'll recognize it by the cunning canopied banquettes on the sidewalk. Passersby stop for espresso or an Italian soda.

That little coffee stand is part of Jack's La Jolla, a restaurant complex that opened late last year. Inside the huge, open and airy multilevel space are four bars, among them a wine bar and a raw bar, plus three restaurants: a steak house (Jack's Grille), a casual spot looking over Girard Avenue and the ocean beyond (Jack's Ocean Room) and a special occasion spot, the Dining Room at Jack's.

Though chef Tony DiSalvo oversees the menus at all three restaurants, it is for the Dining Room that he actually cooks. And the former chef de cuisine at Jean Georges in New York City has real talent.

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It's certainly sophisticated

THE two dining rooms at the Dining Room are comfortable and quiet (until the adjacent bar turns into a club at 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), with soaring ceilings with fans and odd glass sculptures on the walls.

The food is sophisticated. That is to say, DiSalvo has a solid grasp of technique and a real understanding of harmony. The ingredients he uses are impeccable. Over three visits (which included a nine-course tasting menu), fish, fowl, foie gras and meat were perfectly cooked every time. This may sound minor, but DiSalvo understands the role of acid, which can send a dish to a different dimension. And he doesn't fall prey to the sweetness urge that trips up so many young chefs.

For instance, from the tasting menu, a beautifully seared slice of Sonoma foie gras sits atop braised Belgian endive; next to it are cubes of ripe Mission fig simmered in ice wine. A judicious touch of balsamic vinegar pulls the flavors together. So many chefs go the sweet route with foie, and the more dangerous bitter route is a revelation.

The foie on the regular menu is also unusual, and just as successful, with pickled plums, aromatic shiso leaf and Litsea cubeba, an essential oil distilled from the fruit of the Chinese may chang tree. The oil has a floral, citrusy aroma somewhere between lemon verbena and lemon grass. It's the first time I've seen it on a menu, though San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson (Frisson) has been known to use it too.

Chefs love to go sweet with duck, but DiSalvo resists. Slices of rosy-rare Muscovy breast come with a stack of thin slices of marinated radish and roasted white peach. The radish balances the delicate peach and together they're perfect with the duck.

DiSalvo shows flashes of brilliance -- how does he cook the ginger in a butter-poached lobster dish? Sliced thin and shredded in the center, it tastes as though it's been long-simmered to tame the assertive flavor and soften the texture. It's just a tiny bite, but so unusual and subtle. A lobster bisque amuse is striking for its temperature, a little cooler than barely warm -- it's exactly right for bringing out the understated flavor of the lobster.

Chilled sweet corn soup with Alaskan king crab, tiny halved tomatoes and basil puree is fabulous: cool and creamy and rich, with an unexpected subtle tang of red wine vinegar.

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Missteps happen

BUT sometimes DiSalvo stumbles. The beautiful tiny chanterelles that accompany slow-baked wild king salmon one night are so undercooked as to be hard and crunchy, with no sauce. What a waste of a great ingredient. A green salad is over-salted and overdressed, with greens that have seen better days. Colorado lamb loin crusted with chile crumbs is a clunker. Several dishes are too vinegary -- such as the sweet corn raviolini that come with a flavorful, crisp-skinned Jidori chicken.

Though the pastry chef who opened Jack's recently left, the two young patissiers who have stepped up to take his place are sending out some pretty terrific desserts. A huckleberry vacherin with a lemon biscuit and wild plum sorbet is a knockout -- as good as anything I've sampled anywhere in months. Traditionally a vacherin is an ice cream-filled meringue shell; here the meringue takes the form of some nutty little lighter-than-air meringue cookies.

Lavender-poached black Mission figs come with a delicious olive oil ice cream scented with rosemary. Chocolate lovers will groove on the "chocolate tasting," a pot de creme au chocolat, two excellent, slim brownies and white mocha ice cream. All are restrained and elegant, not too sweet.

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