A.R. Valentien: La Jolla’s Fine Dining Gem
As with cities across the country, the American culinary revolution has greatly accelerated the growth of quality cuisine and the venues that serve it in San Diego. With so many eateries popping up, it’s easy to forget that, in reality, San Diego is still in the earlier stages of food culture development. But a long tenured restaurant with a solid reputation is still a bit of a rarity in America’s Finest City. As such, a dining spot deserving of that descriptor is to be appreciated. Such is the case with The Lodge at Torrey Pines’ A.R. Valentien.
For years, executive chef Jeff Jackson has turned out cuisine celebrating the local bounty. He was one of the first local toques to focus solely on farm-to-tableism. Just as impressively, he has turned out chefs who, having worked under him, have adopted his noble ideologies, gleaned lessons on classic technique, survived lengthy tours in his rigorous kitchen, and gone on to spread good, soulful, responsible cooking throughout San Diego.
Jackson’s latest chef de cuisine, Kelli Nicole Crosson, is excelling in Jackson’s system. Like him, she believes in taking the highest quality ingredients, everyday seasonal gems at the peak of their freshness, and treating them with respectfully simplistic touches that allow them to shine as brightly as possible. There is no molecular sleight of hand at A.R. Valentien, just straightforward, thoughtful, logical and, most of all, proper cookery.
A sterling example is Niman Ranch pork loin roasted to perfection in Crosson’s favorite toy, a Green Egg (a ceramic combo grill, oven and smoker). Served with two hearty chunks of crisped yet succulent pork belly, grilled peaches and Bloomdale spinach. There’s no gussying. For the most part, it’s a homey dish, but attention to detail makes turns it into a collage of tasty flavors and varying textures that doesn’t require caviar, truffle oil or (God help us) maltodextrin. Similarly, deftly cooked halibut (or plump halibut cheeks if Pacific Shellfish has them in stock) is left to glow on its own merits with green and Romano beans, and little more enhancement than a dash of Pernod.
And though the menu changes with the season, diners can count on mainstays like A.R. Valentien’s rich, sumptuous chicken liver mousse, house-made charcuterie, or expertly cured fish. Perfectly salty ruby trout is on the menu right now and amplified by a bright cilantro lime cream. Texture and seasonal earthiness are also brought on via sweet corn and honey onions.
Every bit as reliable as the aforementioned staples are the inventive desserts of executive pastry chef Jennifer Costa. For the past two years, she’s been giving guests a reason to take up the difficult task of saving room. Rather than offer up a slice of pie or a one-note lava cake, she prefers to offer multiple versions of the same ingredient, such as vanilla or chocolate. A tasty, avant-garde offering on the current dessert menu celebrates summer with caramelized peaches, candied baby corn, blueberry cake a la mode with corn ice cream and the lightest corn fritters on Earth.
A.R. Valentien’s consistent and delicious cuisine proves that great ingredients and intelligent cooking trump trends and gilded lilies, and are the key to true culinary longevity in San Diego or anywhere. (855.453.4420, www.arvalentien.com) BRANDON HERNANDEZ
Photography by Vincent Knakal