The Chef's Got Your Number
By Robin Kleven Dishon
The area code for La Jolla may be 858, but the really happening number in town is 808. That’s the prefix for the Hawaiian Islands and pretext for a sleek new dining room from a savvy veteran chef.
Along with Santa Anas and surprise showers, March brought us 808 La Jolla, a tropical expression of Pacific Rim, European and Asian cuisines. Owner/chef Jean-Marie Josselin is the kitchen’s one-man tornado—a French native who long ago fell in love with Hawaii and founded the highly regarded A Pacific Café on Kauai in 1990. Last year, he opened 808 Las Vegas in Caesar’s Palace.
Now, Josselin’s taken over a niche in La Jolla’s Aventine, remodeling the former Pasquale’s into a showplace for contemporary Hawaiian cooking. He’s in the open kitchen every night, wooing new fans with a cuisine based on fresh seafood, island flavors such as ginger, passionfruit and Maui sweet onions, and a constant quest for the best of the local farmers’ markets.
“I used to work in San Diego, and I always loved the city,” says Josselin. “One of the neat things about San Diego is the produce here... For a chef, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”
Josselin’s fusion-inspired cuisine mixes multiple cultures and ingredients as smoothly as a musician lays down multiple tracks. He treats seafood with respect: “People tend to overdo it with fish and put too many things with it. I try to keep the layers going so you taste the fish.”
With the chef’s classical training in Paris, his penchant for world travel and fascination for all things Asian, the dining room (designed by Josselin) and the fare both shimmer with a confident Chino-Euro vibe. Suspended spotlights illuminate the high-ceilinged space, accented with straw-textured walls and superb antique pieces. Orchids and palms add an elegant jungle chord, as does the muted Hawaiian music on the sound system.
Diners get a tease of the imaginative dishes-to-come through the complimentary amuse-bouche sent to each table. One night, the chef offers sweet and smoky barbecued eel with a whipped pouf of wasabi and soybean paste; another, it’s mahimahi wrapped in crunchy shredded phyllo and perched on tangy green papaya salad.
On the regular appetizer menu, eel and foie gras share their smoothness in a spring roll ($10.95) that’s fusion at its finest. More traditional, but equally exciting, is the three-tiered sampler of scallop and shrimp potstickers, buttery lobster ravioli and shrimp dumplings spiked with Thai basil and fennel seeds ($14.25).
True to Josselin’s philosophy, multiple flavors complement, never compete. In the “deconstructed ahi roll,” a stack of sushi rice, ahi and nibble-sized lobster tempura play well together with avocado and white truffle oil ($10.50). A “firecracker roll” of spiced grilled salmon lounges in a cool pool of cucumber purée, while sweet onion vinaigrette tempers peppery microgreens and suavely fatty fish in a sashimi salad ($11.25). And the superb lobster–coconut–red curry–basil soup ($6.50) highlights each of these notes, not to mention lemon grass, hot chilies and Kaffir lime.
That soup, by the way, illustrates Josselin’s interest in “restorative cooking”—recipes based on Asian theories of healing and maintaining good health with herbs and spices. Look for additional restorative dishes on the menu in the future.
For his entrée lineup, the chef casts a wide net and reels in some of the city’s best fish—watchfully cooked for just-done results. The selections change nightly, but the following deserve a regular spot in the rotation: Monkfish ($23.50), firm and succulent as lobster, is a natural for the gourmet black truffle treatment. Opakapaka—Hawaii’s prized pink snapper with the impossibly delicate flesh—is reverently served with simple mashed Yukon golds and a Pinot Noir beurre blanc ($25.50).
A favorite preparation for mahimahi involves a light crust of lime, ginger and butter, a quick wok-charring and lots of local veggies ($24.50). On the more elaborate side, lean roasted ono ($25.25) comes with Thai-style coconut curry and a langoustine risotto that could qualify as an entrée on its own.
Heaven forbid, should you not choose seafood, Josselin offers a fine duckling braised with caramel and lilikoi (passionfruit) juice, the meat infused with fruity appeal echoed in the mashed purple sweet potatoes underneath ($24.50).
We’ve tried such desserts as white-chocolate pudding gilded with crème brûlée ($6.75) and melted chocolate cake in a port glaze ($9.50). They’re both pleasant, but given the richness of the preceding courses, we recommend a glass of high-quality dessert wine instead. The choices—sherry-like Tokaji from Hungary ($10) and honeyed French Sauternes ($12)—make palate-cleansing digestifs that won’t leave you feeling overstuffed.
The rest of the wine list is less interesting, with few choices by the glass, nothing under $8 a serving and most bottles more than $40. A couple of personal favorites and good buys are Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris and Hess Selection Cabernet, both $32.
With a full liquor license (and a stunning little bar illuminated by oversize Japanese lanterns overhead), there are cocktails of every stripe, but your drink may be some time in arriving. While the kitchen rolls along as smoothly as a hula, the service has some kinks to be worked out. We’ve enjoyed a couple of excellent servers who knew the menu, offered informed commentary and kept a watchful eye on their tables. But we’ve also seen busboys and other servers so distracted—not busy, but simply not paying attention—that we considered waving a napkin to get a needed piece of silverware or water refill to the table. And one evening’s bartender was so enraptured with certain customers that everyone else in the room almost ceased to exist.
With a restaurant this new, the fabulous food deserves service its equal to keep customers coming back—and bringing their friends. That said, we’ll be thinking 808 when we want the number for super seafood and fusion flair. Chef Josselin, mahalo nui loa (thank you very much).
808 La Jolla serves dinner nightly at 8980 University Center Lane (Aventine La Jolla); 858-552-1048. Valet or self-parking available.