My baby sister Anita paid me the ultimate compliment, not as a brother, but as a savvy restaurant essayist. When we ran into her at the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in picturesque La Jolla, she told me “I knew you’d find this place,” acknowledgement that she recognizes my prowess in finding the very best restaurants everywhere I travel. Born nine years apart with four siblings in between, Anita and I are anomalies in our family in that we’re passionate gastronomes in a brood which suffers the same dull palate deficiency which afflicts many Americans who prefer chain restaurants.
Unbeknownst to us, Anita, her hunky husband Andy and their precocious, beautiful Emily were staying in La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, just a few miles from our rental home. Leave it to Anita to stay in the hotel housing the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar which was accorded the 2013 Gold Medallion Award as California’s best hotel restaurant in the fine dining category. Our other siblings would have been just as happy staying in a hotel adjacent to the Olive Garden.
2013 marks the Grande Colonial centennial anniversary as the oldest hotel in La Jolla. The opulent grand damme, within strolling distance of La Jolla Cove, remains as stylish as many an elegant European hotel with mahogany trim and wood moldings as well as stylish lead chandeliers and crystal doorknobs. The Nine-Ten Restaurant, named for its address on 910 Prospect Drive, opened in July, 2001. Since its launch, the restaurant has earned almost every conceivable accolade: an “extraordinary to perfection” rating from Zagat, the California Restaurant Association’s “Best hotel Restaurant” designation, Gayot’s “Top Ten Gastronomy Cuisine Restaurants in the United States” award and many more.
More importantly for us, the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar earned a five bones rating from BringFido.com, an online resource for locating dog-friendly restaurants, lodging, air travel and more. Food and Wine also praised Nine-Ten for its dog friendly nature, noting that “the dining staff is especially accommodating to dogs, setting out water bowls and treats, and occasionally hosting dog parties on the patio.” Our darling dachshunds Tim and Callie certainly enjoyed their visit, especially when so many dog lovers stopped by to ooh and ah at them.
Nine-Ten’s executive chef Jason Knibb earned a broader national profile when he became San Diego’s first “cheftestant” on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America program where he was bested by Iron Chef Bobby Flay in battle caviar. In culinary circles, he’s much better known for the many accolades he’s earned and for his mastery of “California cuisine,” that fusion of disparate ingredients and cooking styles emphasizing the use of fresh, local ingredients. The chef changes the menu based on the growing season, procuring fresh produce from highly reputable local artisan farmers.
Special prix fixe menus are available daily and feature matching wines from the extensive, Wine Spectator-awarded wine cellar. For dinner, that means one hot or cold starter, one entrée, one dessert or one cheese. Intrepid diners desiring a true epicurean experience can put themselves at the “Mercy of the Chef”, a special prix fixe menu created at the whim and inspiration of the Chef and featuring matching wines. Frankly, you can put yourself at the mercy of the wait staff, too, because they know the menu well and make savvy recommendations.
One such recommendation was the soup of the day, an asparagus soup infused with pea pods. The soup’s neon green color bespoke of its freshness, but didn’t prepare us for its deliciousness. Especially remarkable is the fact that the soup was not of the cream of asparagus variety (a lot of cream will make almost any type of soup taste good). In fact, there was very little cream used on the soup. It was mostly pureed asparagus seasoned lightly and allowed to shine. Pea pods proved a very complementary partner, introducing elements of sweetness to the soup.
A simple salad of locally grown mixed organic greens with a champagne vinaigrette was similarly remarkable for its simplicity. The best and most intrepid of chefs allow ingredients to speak for themselves with seasonings and dressings used sparingly and only to accentuate the native flavors of those ingredients. The lightly applied champagne vinaigrette meant we could enjoy the organic greens with the flavors bestowed by fertile soil, sunlight and irrigation. When it comes to salad, simple can mean spectacular.
Several years ago much to the consternation of PETA, television commercials introduced the slogan “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” Whether the commercials bolstered the market for California’s artisan cheeses is debatable, but they did resonate with us. In most of our dining experiences at restaurants featuring California cuisine, we indulge in cheeses. The cheeses don’t always come from California, but they’re almost always delicious.
The “taste of four cheeses” with bread and accompaniments at Nine-Ten is an exemplary cheese plate, but it might not make California cows happy because no California cheeses are showcased. Instead, you’ll find Taleggio, an Italian cow’s milk cheese served with fig jam; Drunken Goat, a firm goat’s milk cheese from Spain served with fried almonds; Shaft’s Blue, a soft cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin served with apple slices; and Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain served with pickled walnuts. This cheese plate provides great variety in flavor and texture, smartly employing palate cleansing accompaniments on which you can nosh in between frolicking in the fromage.
One of the dishes best exemplifying California cuisine is the hanger steak which is served with roasted baby turnips, carrots, Chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip puree and a Cabernet reduction. The hanger steak, a lean and thin cut of beef, is cut into strips and is absolutely perfect at a shade under medium. Most surprisingly is how very tender–cut with a fork tender–this cut is served. We’ve often found hanger steak tough and stringy when used on fajitas. The Cabernet reduction imbues the steak with a moist viscosity and smoothness while the vegetable accompaniment would make the most recalcitrant of children learn to love vegetables. Alas, there weren’t enough of us to suit our adult palates.
It’s with decreasing frequency that we order salmon in New Mexico. Despite often being prefaced by such terms as “wild caught salmon harvested by fishermen,” a residual “fishiness” belies any purported freshness. Nine-Ten’s Loch Duart Salmon is the best salmon we’ve had in many a year. As can be gleaned from the name, Loch Duart Salmon comes from Scotland and has been consistently judged superior in taste, quality, color and overall perception. While fruity flavors and fish don’t often go well together, the apple cider gastrique applied onto the salmon created a perfect marriage of savory-brininess tinged with just a hint of tangy sweetness. The accompanying vegetables–celery root puree, Swiss chard, roasted baby apples–were a tease. We wanted a plateful and received spoonfuls.
Desserts are not to be missed. They’re as creative and delicious as dessert can be. On its own, the Meyer Lemon Tart would have made a sensational post-prandial indulgence. You would have been deliriously happy to devour it and call it a fabulous way to end a meal. Topped with raspberries and edible flowers, it purses your lips ever so slightly with its tanginess. The edible flowers provide a delicate, almost minty flavor while the raspberries are ever so fresh. The most welcome addition to this dessert is a single scoop of basil ice cream. It’s as refreshing as it sounds, as good as any Thai dish employing fresh basil.
At the other flavor profile extreme is the half-baked chocolate cake drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. Its name foretells of its texture. The cake has an almost molten quality to it and it’s served warm so the ice cream melts almost immediately. Only the edges of this cake are cake-like. The rest is gooey (but not like melted caramel), rich and absolutely decadent.
During our next family reunion, Anita and I would probably want it held at a restaurant like Nine-Ten, but may wind up at Red Lobster instead. Anything to maintain peace in the family.
Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar
910 Prospect Street
La Jolla, California
LATEST VISIT: 4 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Asparagus Soup, Taste of Four Cheeses, Hangar Steak, Loch Duart Salmon, Lemon Tart, Half Baked Chocolate Cake