Life after The Whaling Bar has a lot to offer
Locals can still get their Whalers (an adult milkshake laced with Kahlua, crème de cacao, and brandy), but the iconic Whaling Bar, which for so long stood front and center at the entrance to the pink-hued La Valencia Hotel, is no more. For many, the name of the restaurant erected in its place, Café La Rue, is unknown, despite the fact that the French-inspired entity was located off the side of the Whaling Bar for years. This is probably for the best, as anyone who’d frequented either venue would scarcely recognize the new Café La Rue as being anything like what came before it.
Even though new ownership at La V funneled millions of dollars into revamping the Whaling Bar into a colorful restaurant with a U-shaped, bar-central interior (including some holdover paintings depicting a white linen picnic and busy French city streets), it’s the white coated team shrouded from sight that account for the biggest changes.
Nine months ago, La Valencia brought in a new executive chef by the name of Daniel Barron. Barron came to San Diego three years ago to helm the kitchen at Blue Point Coastal Cuisine in the Gaslamp. There, he went heavy on the molecular gastronomy side, an ill fit for the Cohn Restaurant Group property.
Once his time there came to an end, he went the pop-up route, which proved a much more successful vehicle for his root beer cotton candy-wrapped sushi and corn nut-crusted lobster mousse lollipops. Diners were impressed, as were the Pink Lady’s decision makers, who installed Barron to oversee all of the hotel’s kitchen offerings. A modernist in such classic digs seemed another odd pairing, but restraint and a return to everyday cookery makes this a nice marriage translating to tasty food at Café La Rue.
Dazzlingly presented, mind-bending offerings are absent on Barron’s menu, which is instead stocked with food built to be delicious and filling. Duck confit and Point Reyes blue cheese are served over mushroom cream-adorned fettuccine noodles, and a lamb shank pot pie communicates its heft with a gleaming bone protruding from its puffed pastry top. Even a half-dozen prawns dressed in sweet and tart sauces of uni and piquillo peppers are lent extra powers of satiation by a poached egg perched on a sizeable mound of polenta.
It’s not futuristic cuisine, but just because Barron’s not using anti-griddles and food additives doesn’t mean he and his team aren’t exhibiting a lot of creativity. Dishes are elevated via technique. Brussels sprouts are flash fried, tossed in aged balsamic vinegar, and served with cashews and Parmesan. Clamshells are stuffed with a mixture of pureed Nantucket bay scallops and chorizo nduja (made with duck fat), then topped with a mixture of Brie and Boursin cheeses for a rich, bubbly, decadent starter. That chorizo is house-made, as is all of the property’s charcuterie, from bacon and pancetta to salami and guanciale (pork jowl), the latter of which is served on a flatbread with fennel-onion jam.
Soups, salads, and sandwiches round out a menu of food that is comforting without being overly rustic. It’s a step up and, frankly, a step forward for this space. The Whaling Bar had its day. Many are rightfully nostalgic about it, but if it had to go, it’s nice to see something of substance put in its place. (858.454.0771, www.lavalencia.com) Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal