Too often purveyors of fine cuisine forget to have fun. It's always a drag when I have to dress up, keep my voice down and muffle the enthusiasm I have for great food-fine dining should be fun and festive, not stuffy and staid.
Recently, I was hipped to Fresh-Sami Ladeki's (owner of Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, Roppongi and others) La Jolla seafood restaurant. Featuring the innovative creations of young executive chef Matthew Zappoli, this place is just plain fun. Its casual atmosphere encourages lively conversation, stimulated by artistically presented dishes.
Zappoli's menu changes quarterly, with an emphasis on seasonal produce. He divides his menu into two categories-small plates and entrées (in addition to soups and salads). The small plates are akin to tapas and should be ordered in abundance to share among your party.
My date and I sampled the lobster napoleon with citrus cream, the pan-seared scallops with potato-shallot cakes, the five-spice rubbed venison with parsnip and date purée and the house-made ricotta ravioli with butternut squash purée. We also tried the fire-roasted lobster soup and a sample-size portion of the coriander crusted mahi mahi entrée, as well as a sampler of Zappoli's martinis. Everything was excellent.
The martinis come in a range of unusual flavors, and some purists might argue that they're not proper martinis. No matter what you call them, they're delicious, prepared with attention to detail and offering deep, balanced flavors. Two really good ones are the pomegranate and the blue pear martinis. Both are dangerous: the fresh fruit juices mask the alcohol, yet neither blend is overly sweet. The sampler of three mini-martinis is perfect for the indecisive.
While there's not enough space here to describe every item we sampled, I strongly recommend the lobster napoleon and the pan-seared scallops. The lobster napoleon consists of lobster salad in a Dijon and mayonnaise-based dressing, lightened with the flavors of Meyer lemon (a sweet-tasting variety), layered between paper-thin leaves of baked potato, with a dollop of Meyer lemon-spiked whipped crème fraiche on the side and a drizzle of Meyer lemon oil decorating the plate. The lemon really brightens the flavor of the dish and balances out the mayonnaise dressing.
The scallops come mounted atop crispy fried potato cakes, with a butter-less béarnaise sauce decorating the plate. The perfectly cooked scallops melt in your mouth. As my date said, "It's not like eating a tennis ball." The tarragon nicely accents the scallops, and the potato cakes are light and airy.
Fresh is pricey, but they offer happy-hour prices Monday through Friday, from 4 to 6 p.m., with half-price small plates-a great introduction to some of the most creative food in San Diego.