I'm frequently asked where to go for simple yet innovative food that doesn't intimidate the senses. It took my out-of-town friends in the wine business to suggest La Jolla's Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in the Grand Colonial Hotel for a Saturday night dinner.
The restaurant has a comfortable urban feel. It is a relatively small room, simply appointed with accents of mahogany paneling, warm neutral wall colors, high ceilings and large picture windows that face the street and small heated patio. The busy bar area doesn't intrude on diners' conversations, even with both rooms full. The restaurant also serves breakfast, lunch and has a bar menu for late-afternoon snacking during happy hour.
Executive chef Jason Knibb and pastry chef Jack Fisher bring the restaurant's vision of "evolving California cuisine that embraces the bounty of seasonal products from local farmers and natural ranchers" to life, according to the menu. Knibb and Fisher combine fresh ingredients to make familiar dishes with creative twists. When a dish arrives, you know what you're eating and I like that Knibb uses mostly square and rectangular white plates for his uncontrived presentations.
The menu includes five first (salads) and five second (warm) courses from $8 to $16 and seven entrées, most in the high-$20 range. We chose the Mercy of the Chef, a five-course tasting menu that for $60 allows a varied sampling of dishes. An amuse-bouche (a mouthful of food that literally means to amuse the mouth or tease the palate) of tuna ceviche served in a small spoon began our evening.
Besides making desserts, Fisher also house-smokes the salmon, served with toasted rounds of bread and crème fraiche. A clean-flavored and still-crunchy finely cut winter-vegetable salad of tiny radishes, greens, peas and haricot verts (green beans) and a baby beet salad with sweet carrots tossed with a light champagne vinaigrette rounded out the first courses.
Razor clams (rarely, if ever, seen in San Diego restaurants) had a Spanish flair, served in their long shell with bits of house-made chorizo and whole garbanzos to add texture and flavor. A single Maine scallop, gently dusted with fennel, arrived in a white bowl with a light carrot veloute (velvety sauce). The subtle flavors melded well with the occasional crunch of thinly sliced baby radishes. Harissa (a North African hot chile-based blend of spices) marinated shrimp, garnished with just enough crumbled feta, small sticks of cucumber jelly and pickled shallots pleased the eye as well as the palate.
Don't let the thought of a fork-tender short rib braised in espresso and chocolate deter you from trying this dish. The combination of beef and its side of potato purée flavored with barely a whiff of vanilla bean is terrific. Atlantic black bass and its dollop of not-too-sweet lemon paste, impressed us. Equally as good was the pork two ways-thinly sliced tenderloin paired with smoked and braised pork belly on a bed of polenta from Anson Mills in South Carolina. The smattering of savory cabbage and pear compote counterbalanced the pork.
We wanted the cheese course to be more imaginative than the tiny bit of Sonoma Vella dry Jack on one plate and a small piece of Tellagio on another. The five cheese offerings are the weakest part of the menu. On the other hand, Fisher's delectable desserts of panna cotta, a dark milk chocolate tart and Meyer lemon parfait, hit the spot, as did the house-made, bite-sized chocolates that came with our espressos.
Service throughout the evening was informed and gracious. For example, dishes arrived simultaneously for each course and empty plates were not stacked or removed before we all finished. When one of our wines arrived "corked," it was replaced without question.
The fairly priced, award winning wine list offers a wide variety including Gossett Champagne, a dry chenin blanc from Savennieres and a good selection of half bottles. Nine-Ten is a destination not to be missed. 910 Prospect St., La Jolla, 858-964-5400.
Restaurateurs take note: Apparently, there is a self-proclaimed food critic who makes a reservation, expects free food for two and indicates he'll pay for drinks in return for a review for his online site. Recently, he arrived unannounced at a fine-dining establishment, demanded to be seated and then comped for the nearly-$300 in food and wine he consumed. At another place, he came with additional people and then made a stink about paying for them. And one other restaurant reported that he commandeered more than one table on a busy night so he could shoot pictures. Ethical reviewers do not disrupt service or make demands on staff. Most arrive unannounced and do not expect free food or drink in return for a review.
Two places in Hillcrest on University Avenue between Fourth and Fifth avenues for late-night food: Saigon on Fifth for upscale Vietnamese, open until 11 p.m. (619-220-8828), and in the old Golden Dragon, The Asian Bistro, open until 3 a.m. (619-296-4119).
Crudo, the latest adventure of Joe Busalacchi and Mike Viscuso, features a bar, sushi and lounge on India Street at Grape Street. Dinner only (619-398-2974).