There's nothing like setting something on fire to get people's attention-particularly if they've been drinking. La Jolla's venerable Whaling Bar, on the ground floor of the La Valencia Hotel, clearly gets this concept.
Though the La Valencia was built in 1926, the Whaling Bar didn't open until 1953. Outfitted with leather booths, deep burgundy walls, dark wood trim, harpoons and brass table lamps, the atmosphere is cozy and comforting, with tuxedoed waiters who are models of politeness and old-world charm-even when setting things on fire.
Y'see, the Whaling Bar serves a number of flambéed dishes prepared tableside, which makes it an excellent place to bring a date. In addition to flambé standards like Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster, they also have a flaming pasta dish prepared in a giant hollowed-out wheel of parmesan. They love their tableside preparations here-prime rib, chateaubriand and Caesar salad are prepared this way as well.
The funny thing about the Whaling Bar is that it has somewhat of a neighborhood vibe, with wealthy locals downing cocktails and hobnobbing at the bar-kind of like Golden Hill's Turf Club for rich people. Like Manhattan, another pricey La Jolla eatery, you can't help but wonder what sort of deals have been made in the dimly lit booths.
Though the vibe is low-key, the menu is high-class. Executive Chef Luke Patterson's menu has a number of interesting seafood choices, like sautéed sole with grapefruit sauce, swordfish with lemongrass beurre blanc and cedar-planked salmon. There's also a nod to the old school with items like Veal Oscar and a selection of USDA prime steaks with a variety of sauces. The Whaling Bar even serves a version of carne asada.
My date and I opted to split the carne asada, since I was damned curious to see what $25 carne asada tasted like. We also tried the flambéed pasta special and the Caesar salad.
The Caesar salad was good stuff-a bit too garlicky for my date, but I enjoyed it. The tarragon-seasoned croutons added an unusual flavor to this otherwise traditional preparation.
The carne asada was also tasty, made with USDA prime tenderloin and marinated in beer. I ordered it medium rare, and that was how it arrived at the table, tender and delicious. Even my date enjoyed it, too, and she doesn't even like steak. The smoky beans, Mexican rice and cheese enchilada that came with it were also good, if somewhat pedestrian.
The steak was so tasty it was difficult for me to pay attention to the elaborate preparation of the pasta flambé. White truffle oil was heated in a pan, sending its distinctive aroma wafting across the table. Ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and smoked chicken were tossed in the hot oil with the pasta, before being dumped into the center of the cheese wheel. The sauce ingredients were then assembled in the pan, doused with brandy, set aflame, poured into the cheese wheel and tossed with the pasta. The dish was then plated and topped with grated cheese. It was quite a show, resulting in a rich and creamy pasta entrée.
The Whaling Bar is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., with lunch and dinner menus available. Valet parking is available and recommended.