Georges California Modern (La Jolla, CA) – Of the Place
How does one arrive at a sense of place?
With noma and Rene Redzepi grabbing headlines, influencing a world-wide foraging movement, “place” has become every restaurant’s muse. Chefs, and PR types, emphasize the locality and foraged nature of their ingredients but how many truly achieve that elusive “sense of place”? How does a chef pull together historic and social ephemera, bundle it with timely ingredients, and convincingly interpret an area – within the confines of a plate? Add historian, archaelogist, and sociologist to the roles of chef – “craftsman.”1
noma is the easy example with its interesting mix of foraged foods and references to historical recipes and techniques. David Kinch of Manresa has always said “a sense of place” was one of his main goals as chef. Olivier Roellinger, on the coast of Brittany, cooks a maritime cuisine influenced by centuries of the spice trade, a meal I have sadly not tried. Michel Bras’s cooking is the Laguiole countryside – there are no metaphors. Sean Brock at McCrady’swith his stated mission of the Southern preservation, mines historical texts for old recipes and forgotten breeds and seeds. And there is, of course, Japan, and Kyoto specifically, where kaiseki meals ponder the seasons in a highly choreographed mix of micro-seasonal ingredients, symbolism, and ritual. What does a sense of place mean? How can it be interpreted? The examples above all take different approaches. With the current fascination around place, it will be interesting to see regionalized answers to these questions, particularly in areas that have been under-represented on the fine dining level.2
My upcoming project, hopefully of interest to most readers and bloggers, to be announced shortly, brought me unexpectedly (and hopefully repeatedly) to La Jolla, California, a wealthy suburb of San Diego. It would be easy to sum it up as beaches and resorts but there is a thriving food community focused on quality. Chino Farms, of Alice Waters fame, in nearby Rancho Sante Fe, seems to be a primary inspiration for the area. George’s at the Cove itself could be earmarked for tourst trap – three restaurants, one a roof-top bar, all with views of the ocean. But Trey Foshee3, Georges chef, has done a remarkable job of evoking San Diego and capturing its culinary essence – on the plate.
This meal is from Sep 2010 and I was “known” to the house. There is an unpublished tasting menu that is available for anyone that asks. The restaurant has a beautiful view of the ocean; but, at night, there is only the Pacific darkness, where the seafood on your plate recently swam. Georges California Modern defies the oxymoron “fine dining with a view.”
True Snapper – tomato pulp, persimmon, wild fennel pollen
On his site, Chef Foshee says “it’s about combining them (ingredients) in ways that bring out the individual flavors yet allow them to bounce off each other.” The beautiful fish, fresh and tender, was cut slightly thicker in the middle and gave it a touch more bite. The slight sweetness of the fish paired well with the persimmon, and was cut by the tomato’s acidity, but I did find the persimmon, no favorite of mine, a touch overpowering. The dish harkened the end of summer – San Diego’s bountiful wild fennel season drawing to a close, tomatoes winding down, persimmons just coming in, and the last few days of available True Snapper. This was a powerful start – it delivered on Foshee’s goal – and set a high bar for the remaining dishes in terms of ingredient quality and execution.
Alaska Halibut Ceviche – avocado, coconut, ginger, toasted young rice
An excellent re-imagining of ceviche that still hit those ‘ceviche expectation’ pleasure centers while offering a modern twist. The coconut foam, approaching a mousse texture, grounded the dish in taste familiarities, but gave the dish new life. The ginger gelee, sitting atop, liquified in the mouth, providing another interesting textural component and evenly distributed across the palate.
California Lamb Tartare – cucumber gelee, candied coriander, preserved lemon, yogurt
Thematically similar to the ceviche, it took a familiar dish and refined it with crisper and clearer flavors. As interesting, the flavor transitions from the ceviche formed a delicious arc. From cilantro to candied coriander and spicy ginger gelee to cool cucumber gelee, the flavors referenced each other, flirted with different forms, and created a great synergy between both dishes.
Poached egg – black truffle-chanterelle ragout, onion puree, potato foam
The guilty pleasure of the meal where locality and seasonality were eschewed for a very refined decadence. It may sound like a sudden drop into heaviness, the type found in too many French menus, but the dish hit the truffle, potato, & egg pleasure centers with an impossible lightness. It was a textural masterpiece of layers – the poached egg was suspended within the light potato foam. Onion puree on the bottom layer, scraped off with the luckier spoonfuls, brought the dish to life with its sweet accents. Second servings would have been most welcome!
Bacon-wrapped Harpoon Swordfish – kohlrabi, watercress, dried squid broth
The local squid season ended a few weeks earlier. Large boats from Asia sit just off-shore and scoop up squid and lobster, bidding prices too high for local fare. Unusually cold water, thanks to El Nino, has kept the swordfish away; our serving presumably one of the few harpoon-caught locally. It was an accomplished piece of fish – meaty but still moist – and very fresh – but the dried squid broth was magical – umami defined.
Local Spiny Lobster- San Diego uni & uni foam, vanilla poached apples, spiced butternut
The same cold waters that prevented a larger swordfish harvest also contributed to a small lobster harvest. The San Diego uni added a nice briny touch for the slightly sweet lobster. The apples were delicious too, eating them separately, with the sweet vanilla a satisfying pairing with the uni and lobster aftertastes. On paper, this would have been earmarked as a favorite but my preference lately has been raw, not cooked, lobster.
Niman New York Strip – Leeks, smoked garlic, red wine sauce
Passion Fruit Sorbet
Chino Figs – goats’ cheese cream, honey gel, rose-chrysanthemum
The goats cheese cream had a sensational texture, whipped and airy, with a great tanginess. Thematically, it provided a nice continuity, or textural arc, with the earlier ceviche & potato “foam” textures – explorations. The honey, itself a satisfyingly chewy texture, and rose-chrysanthemum gave the dish a nice light floral quality – a soft landing for the end.
The food perfectly evokes San Diego – quite a few dishes used local seafood and plants, with many dishes of impermanence. The food tackles mainstays of a seaside West Coast town – ceviche, swordfish, and lobster – but re-imagines their typical conventions. This meal lacked vegetable-centric dishes but Chef Foshee has taken a keen interest in exploring that terrain – and I would like to delve into that side of his cuisine next.
A fantastic meal that should not be missed when cruising through Southern California.
1 – Craftsman or artist? It’s always been my belief a great chef (or one that I prefer) is just as much, if not more so, of the latter than former. Not surprisingly, I agree with David Kinch on this (see link.)
And, as good as The French Laundry can be, I find it telling that Keller considers cooks craftsman; perhaps that is why so many, including myself, often find the food technically precise but soulless.
2 – There are also concepts that one would think would have been exploited by now. Why isn’t there a wine-centric restaurant in Napa or Sonoma, where food and wine weave intimately together in dishes and pairings? Silicon Valley, with its finger permanently on fast-forward, has but one molecular gastronomy restaurant – Baume in Palo Alto. Why hasn’t some crazy dude opened a Tennessee truffle restaurant deep in the Smoky Mountains, slinging truffles in one hand and Mt Dew in the other?
The fear with this whole “sense of place” movement is that every restaurant will be a mere derivative copy of noma – ironic obviously since most places are not the Nordic countryside.
3 – Interesting tidbit – guess who SF Michelin’s newest 3-star winner cooked for in the early 2000s? Where? Yes, here and him.