Under the TBL in La Jolla

Trey Foshee uncensors himself at TBL3


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SOMETIME AROUND COURSE 12—roasted Chino Farm carrots that taste, freakishly, like dry-aged beef—I start thinking about deep vein thrombosis. About how it sounds like an ailment related to marching bands. Or jazz slang for something sleazy. Is it a quick undoing of the mortal coil? And is the pain eased by recent ingestion of local spiny lobster over sweet potato-coconut pudding, washed down with an ’08 Maximin Grunhauser German Reisling (course eight)?

We’ve been sitting at TBL3 for three hours, with four courses to go. In Italy, that’s a power lunch. In New York and Chicago, all-night, multi-course feasts are sport. Instead of spending $700 to watch the Bears lose, Chi-Town foodies plop down $400-$3,000 for tickets to Grant Achatz’ restaurant, Next.

Good or bad, blame the French (sound advice in most situations). In the ’70s, chefs went nuts for nouvelle cuisine—creative modern dishes, using super-fresh ingredients in small portions. Diners often ordered them all, which created chaos in kitchens. Thus, degustation menus: six to 12 predetermined courses, with wine pairings.

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1250 Prospect St., La Jolla
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The trend came stateside in the 1980s, often credited to Chicago’s Charlie Trotter. His success was, a contentious topic: “It’s an all-access pass to the chef show!” “It’s dinner as a hostage situation!”

Former New York Times critic Frank Bruni derided it as a power grab by chefs with artistic inferiority complexes. Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, and Mario Batali all dissed it. Now, Batali offers a seven-course at Del Posto in New York for $145 (add $135 for wine pairings). Boulud’s six-course at Daniel is $195 before wine. Attitudes, they adjust.

The soul-sucking scoundrel known as The Recent American Economy made degustation even less sexy. For a while, anyone caught eating more than three courses for a grand total of $19.99 was a secessionist. But in 2011, with NASDAQ rehabbing and comfort food fatigue upon us, chef Trey Foshee decided the time was right for TBL3.

Food & Wine named Foshee one of America’s “Best New Chefs” in 1998. A year later, he left Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort to open George’s at the Cove. Over 14 years, he and owner George Hauer have built a three-story pinnacle of San Diego cuisine. He’s also built himself a pair of golden handcuffs, marshalling over 1,200 meals on a busy night.

Chefs are not immune to the grudge match between quantity and quality. A restaurant whose chef obsesses over every microgreen will soon serve fresh, hot bankruptcy. One that cranks out 5,000 meals a night without top-notch cooks has already beheaded the goose that lays the golden eggs; they can only hope to sell before it starts laying ping-pong balls. Balance is the only option, and near impossible.

George’s achieved it through segmentation. Foshee oversees the casual Ocean Terrace, but the 193-seat California Modern is his big-budget show room. Now the creation of TBL3 sends a clear message: All along, we’ve been tasting an edited version of The Foshee Show.  

 

TBL3 has rules. Only Tuesday through Thursday. Reservations required three weeks in advance so Foshee can create a menu, scour markets, import if need be (San Diego’s not a black truffle haven). It’s $180 per person for 12 to 16 courses, plus $60 for wine pairings.

Our particular feast? Mostly great (“My god, this cauliflower does taste like roasted chicken”). Some phenomenal (boring ole broccoli gussied up with bottarga, marinated kombu, and tofu). Some so-so. One even kind of gross (doesn't matter if that foie-spackled sesame ice cream tasted like gold-spackled Jesus, it’s hard to enjoy gray food that looks like a cataract).

Taste, of course, is the ultimate marker. But a menu this massive allows for risk. Presentations have art-school ambition. Our meal starts with raw veggies “planted” in a bed of black stones; later, raw salmon as vivid as Cheetos arrives in a glass dome of smoke. Foshee toys with flavor expectations (veggies taste of meat, meat of veggies). He alters forms (like that foie, frozen and shaved like sawdust—a nifty, unforgivable crime). Dishes are sequenced according to flavors, temperatures, textures, richness, and theme. It’s a 12- to 16-act production with carefully choreographed peaks and valleys. Like Tommy, The Food-Nerd Edition.

Is it worth $646 (for two, with wine)? Ask your accountant. If taken from a worthy offspring’s college fund, probably not. It’s cheaper than NYC’s Masa, pricier than Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 (George’s serves more food than either). I know a construction worker who paid more for Bowie tickets.

The bigger question: Does it fit San Diego? We’re a late-blooming metropolis, largely built after the advent of the microwave, drive-thrus, working mothers, and the hyperspeeding of American life. We’re hard-wired for the dine-and-dash. Plus, haute cuisine is an indoor activity. That’s great in Chicago and NYC, where weather has the charm of a bipolar sociopath. But we’re fresh-air addicts; indoor lighting makes our well-tanned skin crawl.

"For a while, anyone caught eating more than three courses for a grand total of $19.99 was a secessionist. But with NASDAQ rehabbing and comfort food fatigue upon us, Foshee decided the time was right for TBL3."

In 2008, El Bizcocho’s tasting menu-only experiment failed under chef Steven Rojas. I interviewed several of SD’s top chefs for this story. All agreed: the concept doesn’t work here. Tourists come for the sun, not dinner. And locals don’t do degustation.

So why would one of its most successful chefs bother? Maybe because Food Network recently raved about his fish taco—tasty indeed, but almost insulting as a calling card. Maybe he’s envious of Addison at the Grand Del Mar, where William Bradley and his coven of talented chefs cook exquisitely for much smaller crowds, becoming the most decorated San Diego restaurant, well, ever. Maybe Foshee just wants to cook his duff off.

Fact is, most elite-level chefs not named Ferran Adrià are forced to tone down their creativity to be successful. The average customer does not play roulette with dinner (“I’ll have the chicken”)—especially in San Diego, whose culinary rep is still a work in progress. TBL3 is where, a few times a month, one of the city’s best puts on an elaborate show of what’s possible when he’s not restrained by food costs, risk-averse diners, or the business of running a restaurant. He charges an arm and a leg accordingly.

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