I finish all my vegetables at AR Valentien. It's not so hard to do since Chef Jeff Jackson and his crew do wonders with produce. It's worth noting that I tend to be more of a meat-a-tarian, but here it's usually the vegetables that are the first to disappear. It helps that most of the veggies and fruits at the restaurant have barely lost their sun-warmed glow before they pass through the kitchen; as a big percentage of A.R. Valentien's ingredients come from nearby small farms or specialty food artisans. La Milpa Organica, a Hillcrest Farmer's Market favorite, regularly delivers much of their harvest.
The menu at A.R. Valentien changes daily, depending on what's in season, and a dinner there is like an edible snapshot of what is freshest and best to eat on that day. If my budget allowed, I'd eat at the restaurant as often as I could; I count myself fortunate to have experienced at least a few meals there, enough to appreciate the kind of really good and good-for-you food that they do.
My latest opportunity to taste A.R. Valentien came during Restaurant Week. I couldn't pass up the chance to get in for a full meal at a relatively doable price of $40, the food equivalent of seeing the Stones play an intimate club date. The restaurant, housed in the golf course-adjacent Lodge at Torrey Pines, is a fancy place, to be sure, but not in a glossy, characterless way. The Craftsman-style hotel is small, quiet and cozy, filled with dark wood and lit through stained glass. The restaurant's dining room is lined with paintings by its namesake, the early-1900s plein-air artist A.R. Valentien.
We lucked out with the best table, a comfortable corner booth flanked by two arts-and-crafts-inspired lanterns. My friends, two of whom are foodies of similar degrees of obsession, hadn't yet tried the restaurant for dinner, so part of my enjoyment that night came from knowing what they were in store for.
The good stuff began right away with a dish of olives and excellent buttermilk biscuits, flavored with thyme and crunchy with cornmeal. Our waiter saw how much we liked the biscuits and made sure to pass by often with new ones, hot from the oven.
Next came halves of farm-fresh eggs-deviled and simply tasty. I am weak in the face of a house-made charcuterie plate, and A.R. Valentien's features three generous slices of homemade paté: a rustic duck and pistachio, a creamy chicken liver and a meaty terrine made from beef short ribs, served with toasted bread, mustards and jewel-toned pickled vegetables. I also liked my friend's tuna appetizer, served like a beef carpaccio with thin slices of the raw fish, flattened to paper-thinness, sprinkled with fried capers and then laid atop a horseradish cream sauce.
Two in our group ordered the braised beef short ribs with roasted root vegetables on top of organic heirloom polenta, but my fellow pork-loving friend and I chose the roasted pork loin, cooked to a tender pink and accompanied by slices of an absolutely awesome fresh winter sausage. As so often happens here, the vegetables nearly outshone their meat counterparts, and I quickly finished the mix of frisée lettuce, acorn squash, prunes and hazelnuts. A dish of braised cabbage was also brought to our table to share, a kind touch.
For dessert, I had my eye on the bourbon ice cream that came with a warm chocolate cake, but my friend had already called dibs, so I went for the coconut-and-rum rice pudding with roasted pineapple. I also dipped my spoon quite a few times into another pal's panna cotta, perfectly smooth and wobbly and topped with caramelized grapefruit wedges. And then, when we'd already tossed in our napkins, a plate of tiny donuts and cookies arrived to further sweeten the deal. We splurged and got the wine pairings, too, an extra $25, but not a bad deal considering they were three nice pours of very good wine.
For someone who's so talented with produce, Chef Jackson is also a magician with meat, responsible for the justly famous Drugstore Burger, served in the Lodge's casual grill and at A.R. Valentien upon request. It's not a dainty, preciously gourmet thing, but, rather, an unapologetically indulgent, almost pornographic dish comprising a butter-basted bun sandwiching a huge, juicy patty of Niman Ranch ground chuck with chopped onions and pickles, shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, cheddar cheese and enough mayonnaise to moisten everything. I eat it once a year, on my birthday, to soften the blow of this getting-old business.
AR Valentien is located at 11480 N. Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla. 858-777-6635 or www.lodgetorryepines.com.