La Jolla’s Ambrogio by Acquerello reaches for more stars
Michelin Star Chef Silvio Salmoiraghi and Chef-Partner Choi Cheolhyeok expertly blend the traditional flavors of Milan, Italy with the exoticism of Pacific Asian influences
When Semola opened last summer in an open-air enclave on the 7500 block of La Jolla’s Fay Avenue, it did so with a clear Italian bent and a helping hand from a Michelin-starred chef from the Old Country. Fast-forward to present day and Semola is gone, but that toque, Silvio Salmoiraghi, is still around and even more involved in the concept that replaced it, Ambrogio by Acquerello.
The latter of the two-part moniker references Salmoiraghi’s bestarred restaurant in Milan, Italy, Ristorante Acquerello, which Salmoiraghi still helms. How can he be in two places at once? He can’t. Which is why he, chef-partner Choi Cheolhyeok, and two other members of their culinary staff strategically rotate between Italy and La Jolla. In doing so, they not only provide kitchen coverage and direction, but also weave their personalities and backgrounds into dishes that range from traditional to whimsical to adventurous.
While Semola’s menu was lengthy and packed with solid dishes blending modern gastronomy with mainstay Italian flavors, roughly 90 percent of its patrons opted instead for the eatery’s nightly multi-course prix-fixe tasting menu. This format is now the primary option at Ambrogio, which presents a pair of tasting menus — “Dancing with the Stars” (omnivore, $149 per person) and “A Walk in the Garden” (vegetarian, $99) — that change with each coming season.
Dishes vary to different degrees across the two menus, but each draws inspiration from France, Korea, Japan, California, and, of course, Italy, which serves as the gastronomic guidepost, a true north to follow while taking side jaunts to the other four locales, foraging for ingredients to bring back to the coursed-out caravan.
An opening dish called Mare e Monti presents the sea (mare) in the form of seabass ceviche and mountains (monti) made up of wispily crisped cauliflower mushroom. A bounty of accoutrements for those cornerstones — unctuous sea urchin, tart finger limes, earthy avocado crema — marry so well together that it would be tempting to toss this composed salad, but Salmoiraghi advises diners to sample different component combinations in each bite to benefit from a diverse tasting experience.
Stravaganza Mediterranea, a signature dish from Acquerello, bats in the two spot, providing another mix-and-match experience, this time with fatty cubes of tuna and tempura-fried calamari dressed with matcha powder, apple vinegar gelee, and zesty tomato sauce. (Pro tip: Any Ambrogio dish featuring the latter condimento is a winner.) It precedes the most fun plate of the evening, “Omelette Surprise,” a perfect circle of 65-degree, runny-yolk egg covering a treasure trove of go-withs that are not disclosed to diners until after they’ve been consumed. Those mystery flavors run the gamut from sweet to acidic, salty to spicy, and make for a most enjoyable guessing game.
Spoiler alert! Consuming individual slices from the “omelet” provides hits of an earthily sweet sunchoke puree along with a one-at-a-time progression of salty pecorino and goat cheeses, capers, wasabi, lemon curd, pear sorbet, and vodka jelly.
Moving on, flavors of grapefruit, green apple, dill, and gentian powder combined with a swig of white vermouth make for an exotic palate cleanser. Perhaps sensing that a taste of something basic and familiar would keep the meal from sailing astray, Chef next serves a simple plate of al dente linguine dressed with two-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano lightened by fried mint leaves and fresh threads of that bright herb. Straightforward cookery carries over to the piatto principale, a fruit-meets-fowl duo consisting of a “street food” skewer of confited duck leg meat that is breaded, fried, and served with an orange sauce, paired with a skin-on slice of breast meat in a fruity Chianti reduction.
The meal ends with a quartet of one- and two-bite dessert treats — orange-almond tuile, chocolate-coconut truffle, apple custard encased in a tea biscuit-like shell — served on a three-tiered pedestal, but the setup man is the true closer. Caviale e Cioccolato translates to “caviar and chocolate” and that’s just what it is, plus a lot more, namely a granita of mandarin orange, moscato gelatin, Champagne grapes, black olives, and amaretto. Even with all that, the revelation of this painter’s palette of a dish is how harmoniously salty, briny reserve Osetra sturgeon roe marries with a thimble of smooth, sweet white chocolate. Skepticism is justified — expected, even — but this is something special.
In addition to its dual tasting menus, Ambrogio offers a pair of Grandi Piatti dinner options — “The Butcher’s Feast” (meat) and “Secrets of a Fish Monger” (seafood) — including an appetizer, shared entrée, and dessert ($250 for two people).
Wine pairings from a cellar stocked with bianco, rosso, rosé, orange, and dessert offerings from boutique Italian operations, many of which are only served at Ambrogio and its sister restaurants, can be had for an additional $129. Ambrogio recently won a Best Contemporary Wine List award from Italian guide Gambero Rosso.
The next guide Salmoiraghi and company have in their sights is Michelin. They wear that ambition on their sleeve and submit their qualifications nightly on a series of smart and surprising plates. ambrogiobyacquerello.com
Culinary Innovation 4.5
Food Quality 4
Wine List 4.5