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Thoroughly Modern George's

New name. New look. Great food. At longtime La Jolla favorite George’s at the Cove——reinvented as George’s California Modern——the décor lives up to the cuisine.

OPENING THE DOOR to George’s California Modern takes a little muscle. A massive rectangle of glass and stainless steel, it presages the interwoven right angles that make this new George’s, if not quite a Rubik’s Cube of restaurants, a precise and elegant work of geometry.

Last winter, George Hauer demolished his 22-year-old George’s at the Cove with a will and vigor that confounded most competitors. Workers stripped the space to the bare walls, floor and ceiling, and by the time the last wheelbarrow of debris was trundled onto the sidewalk, the sole remnants of one of Southern California’s best-known restaurant interiors were the plate-glass windows overlooking La Jolla Cove.

It required about seven weeks to reopen the space as George’s California Modern, an entirely new restaurant that retains Hauer and partner Mark Oliver at the helm, as well as culinary direction by chef Trey Foshee, without whom 1250 Prospect Street would be a far less compelling address for dinner.

In late January, when the dining room had been reduced to a concrete shell (the second-floor bar and the rooftop terrace were not affected by the $2.6 million project), Hauer stood in the doorway and said, “This is not a restaurant remodel. It’s like a new owner doing a complete new interpretation of the space.” He assigned the role of interpreter to architect Jennifer Luce, whose firm, Luce et Studio, has won awards for such projects as the Little Italy branch of Karen Krasne’s Extraordinary Desserts.

“Given that we are the quintessential California restaurant, with our location on the ocean and long-term commitment to the freshest California products, we asked Jennifer to translate this into what a ‘modern California’ restaurant would look like,” says Hauer.

Luce found her inspiration by looking out the windows. “The obvious asset is the ocean, which you can now see from the front door,” she says. “We’ve torn out the infrastructure to tie together the front dining room and the private dining rooms along Prospect Street.”

The new bar, located just inside the entry and indeed rich in Pacific scenery, was designed to create a mood of spontaneity not commonly associated with top-flight establishments (“spontaneous, flexible, design-driven and sophisticated” are criteria that regularly tumbled from Hauer’s lips when he instructed Luce). Opposite the bar proper, an acrylic communal table seats up to 13 as an accommodation for guests who drop by without reservations for a drink, an appetizer and wine, or dessert and coffee.

“We kept asking ourselves, ‘How do people live today, and what do they want?’ ” says Hauer, adding, “A lot of people want to eat at the bar, and they want fun drinks, so Trey Foshee became our ‘drink chef.’ Now we consider ourselves an upscale contemporary restaurant, not ‘fine dining.’ ” This last comment seems rather shocking, but 21st-century George put his money where his mouth is by exchanging a work wardrobe of Italian suits for designer shirts worn tails-out over fancy blue jeans, just like the twentysomethings who parade along Prospect.

THE BAR IS DANDY, but George’s California Modern concerns itself with serious dining, and the new room focuses on the view and presents the space as a stage upon which all are players. The ceiling hides above a woven steel screen that reflects light most attractively, and light is manipulated so cleverly that Luce seems to have learned how to stitch it like fabric. An “art-environmental piece” of acrylic panels, backlit like the sunset, subtly frames the windows. Artfully aimed halogen spots create pools of light and shadow on the tabletops, and it is almost as if gauzy veils of darkness shift and shimmer in the buttery glow of the votive candles that flicker in crocus-yellow glasses.

Boldly modern, the room is utterly geometric, and there isn’t a single angle that dares digress from the rigorous purity of 90 degrees. Apart from the tables at the windows, banquettes wrap around the room, to “envelop the experience,” as Luce says, and to aim all gazes at the ocean. Blond woods cover pillars and are part of the pleasing simplicity of a décor that relies primarily on wood, glass and steel.

As modern as George’s California Modern may be, a few men still wear jackets and even neckties, sartorial proof that the 20th century is not yet entirely in eclipse. Some evenings, the room is the intimate enclave of couples and a few foursomes; on other occasions, long tables set for eight, 10, 12 and more make evident the success the San Diego Convention Center enjoys in drawing well-heeled meetings. Women sometimes join these tables, but mostly the occupants are men with rolled shirtsleeves and expense accounts as plump as the bellies that hang comfortably over their belt buckles.

TREY FOSHEE HAS no difficulty matching the cuisine to the new surroundings, since it is market-driven and every bit as “spontaneous” as Hauer could wish. His added role as chef de cocktails has resulted in a list of specialties ($11) printed at the top of the menu. One called “The Tango” looks good and tastes better; basically a martini that blends good vodka and fresh tangerine juice, it bears a dusting of crushed cocoa nibs and a “frisson” of fresh mint, both of which add enormously to the fun. To please guests uneager to explore the encyclopedic wine list, innovative “Quick Lists” point the way to 30 reds and 30 whites, all well-chosen and well-priced.

It’s hard to say that the menu is as “deconstructed” as the new décor, although categories are classified by simple headings like “raw & cold” (seafood appetizers) and “hot,” a term that specifies appetizers that are not cold. There really isn’t a lot of news in the culinary department, since the food is as good as ever, with items like a sweet date salad with goat cheese, walnuts and pomegranate vinaigrette ($11) and a pairing of lamb chops and ossobuco with mint marinade, curried carrots and white beans ($35).

When Foshee heightens the drama of presentations to complement the new digs, he proves quite the artist. Beautiful Gold Creek oysters from Washington State ($13) were presented most unusually in a vast, wavy glass dish that looked like a tropical lagoon. Lemon wedges and dishes of mignonette and cocktail dips occupied the center of the dish, with a trio of oysters on either side. They disappeared quickly.

How Foshee manages tricky wonders like crisply breaded poached eggs is a mystery. Such an egg centered a lovely soup of fresh morel mushrooms, asparagus snippets and ramps (wild onions), which supported the egg at the bottom of a deep bowl. At table, a server emptied a pitcher of boiling, truly flavorful chicken stock around the egg to complete a memorable first course ($12).

Almost every dish deserves lavish description. Highlights of recent menus include pleasures like a perfect minestrone featuring Chino’s vegetables in a rimmed bowl that oddly recalled Fido’s breakfast dish ($11); tiny crescents of Chino’s melon draped with smoked country ham ($14); a lobster-enriched seafood stew with almonds, aioli and roasted tomato sauce ($40); and utterly gorgeous, sesame-coated tuna ($32), served in overlapping slices (they resembled a small carved fish) atop sliced baby bok choy. A shiitake-mushroom fritter crowned this succulent marvel. Desserts, all $11, include a modern-as-George’s upside-down pineapple cake with basil ice cream and saffron syrup, and a frothy ricotta cheesecake with chocolate sauce and a coffee-flavored “crisp.”

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