For more than a quarter-century, the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club’s fine dining restaurant, The Marine Room, was synonymous with the toque who helmed it. That gregarious French Master Chef, Bernard Guillas, was one of San Diego’s most popular and beloved culinary professionals. A compulsive traveler, his unique dishes were punctuated by esoteric ingredients unearthed during his gastronomically fueled excursions, which covered dozens of countries and nearly every continent.
San Diego’s foodie community expelled a collective gasp last summer when Guillas announced he was turning in his apron to devote more time to his wife and newborn son. The thought of The Marine Room without its longtime capitaine was hard for fans to fathom. Surely it was every bit as difficult to envision, if not more so, for those tasked with replacing Guillas. In doing so, LJBTC brass promoted from within, elevating recently hired chef Mike Minor to fill their vacancy.
Prior to moving to San Diego, Minor spent 30 years working in Las Vegas, 13 of them as the executive chef at the Mandalay Bay rendition of celebrity chefs Mary Sue Milliken’s and Susan Feniger’s acclaimed Border Grill. That time in Sin City, a haven for experiential diners in search of extravagance at any cost, helped prepare Minor for a key part of his new position, composing an over-the-top bill of fare for the recently unveiled “Lounge at The Marine Room” concept.
Installed in the restaurant’s centerpiece bar, which boasts floor-to-ceiling ocean views and has been outfitted in matching aquatic shades as part of a recent remodel, the Lounge is meant to provide an intimate, engaging dining experience, the likes of which one might find on, say, The Strip. Every facet of this Vegas show, from ornate and creative dishes comingling exotic and premium ingredients to cocktails combining top-of-the-line spirits, is chef-driven. While “worldly” best described Guillas’ cuisine, “luxurious” is the adjective most applicable to Minor’s small bites Lounge fare.
Like his predecessor, Minor’s menu primarily revolves around local and sustainably sourced seafood, the quality of which shines through in a variety of raw preparations. The essence of yuzu cuts through luscious mounds of Ora king salmon belly in a trio of amuse-sized, Thomas Keller-esque cones. A 14-to-20-day dry-aging period gives bluefin tuna enhanced flavor and a texture akin to a rare steak. Served as carpaccio with fragrant white truffle and faux ultramarine coral, it’s a treat for the eyes and taste buds. That protein reappears as the filling of an edible “cigar” with its business end dusted in harissa spice. The playful illusion is served in a round crystalline ashtray so diners can snub their sushi-grade stogie into a mixture of charred onion and seasoned breadcrumbs, adding smolder and citric tang to the equation.
The most substantial and eye-catching of the Lounge’s menu items is Surf & Turf. Served on a custom, vertically arranged tray lending a certain seafood tower allure, it includes three plump Hokkaido scallops and three hunks of Kurobuta pork belly, all of which are topped with caviar and a bacon-espresso “jam.” It’s surf and turf topped with surf and turf for a tasty saline duality.
For those solely interested in “turf,” there’s a beef tartare dressed in fermented pineapple-mustard aioli with bone marrow butter and black truffle. And don’t sleep on a dish of caramelized cylinders of king trumpet mushroom given salty umami character from a Korean kalbi-style marinade. Served in scallop shells and scored to closely resemble bivalves, they are far more than some mandatory vegan option.
A sextet of Lounge cocktails straddles the line between tipple and high-end sipper. With rarified base liquors like Avion Reserve Extra Añejo tequila and ten-year WhistlePig rye, obscuring their inherent flavors would equate to mixology sacrilege. Hence, the “Deconstructed Margarita” subs orange bitters for sweet orange liqueur and downs the dosage of lime juice so the tequila’s oak and cactus notes remain center stage, while the rye is laced with wagyu beef fat in an Old Fashioned topped with a smoke-gunned dome.
That preservation of top-shelf spirits is commendable, especially at $20 to $35 per drink. Such pricing is consistent with the Lounge’s wine offerings ($25 to $90 per glass of specialty and library wines) and the food menu (ranging from $18 for vegan scallops to $44 for the Surf & Turf). Such an overtly high-priced concept conjures the highest of expectations, the type that can be hard to meet, yet Minor and his team deliver both creativity and quality.
Not that coming in under would be a challenge, but there is a $100 minimum per person for those who partake in the Lounge experience. (A deposit is collected when one places their reservation.) There is also a maximum — of two hours per party. So, time said reso for sunset, nurse that Old Fashioned, and get your money’s worth. 858.459.7222, marineroom.com
Culinary Innovation: 4
Food Quality: 5
Craft Cocktail Program: 4
Wine List: 5