On The Hake
Mexico City group debuts in La Jolla
Go past the predictable nature art and the overpriced jewelry and the good steakhouse. Don’t gawk at the Euro trophy spouses or you’re gonna miss it. If you hit George’s, you’ve gone too far. Look down. There, like a short man squeezing his head between the hips of two taller people to ensure he’s in the photo, is The Hake, La Jolla’s newest brasserie.
“Prospect Street” is Spanish for “cozy bosom of the sun.” Or something. Maybe that’s why this subterranean space has turned over more times than a hotel bed the last few years. Unlike neighbors George’s on the Cove and The Steakhouse at Azul, it has no ocean view. People don’t come to Prospect for gritty sub-street urbanity. They come to eat colorful food under the flamboyant sun, with views of Prozac-colored sandstone, seagull-painted rocks, cute seals, and shimmering topaz.
White-linen Italian joint Pasquale on Prospect made this dugout work for nine years during the good American economy, finally succumbing to the downturn in 2010. Then came short-lived Mexican seafood spot Tikul. After that, one of La Jolla’s most tied-in locals tried the Southern-gourmet concept Aquamoree. No go.
None looked as cool as The Hake. Both Tikul and Aquamoree tried to go Black Amex-modern. The Hake has subway white tiles on pillars, wooden bistro chairs, rusted ornate grates on AC ducts, exposed plumbing, salvage-store pendants, crafty purse hooks, wooden window shutters hung on walls (It makes no sense! And it’s awesome!), weird wallpaper—you name it. It’s nailed the relaxed-upscale bistro sexiness, like downtown’s Café Chloe.
Subtle Flavor: Smoked mahi tacos
The Hake’s concept of gourmet Mexican seafood seems a good fit for the area, too, even if Tikul failed doing the same. A ton of Mexico City money first came to La Jolla in the ’80s, helped stimulate growth, then stayed to enjoy it. The restaurant group behind The Hake is Operadora Bajo de la Tintorera, one of Mexico City’s most successful. With well-respected chef Federico Rigoletti, they know a thing or two.
Then again, Tikul was a project from one of Puerto Vallarta’s biggest restaurant groups. So, who knows. Restaurants are fickle. Rent on Prospect is grotesque (Pasquale cited $15K/month when he closed).
Boasting top-notch seafood in a seafood city—let alone in the same neighborhood as Nine-Ten, Whisknladle, and George’s—you’d best spend money with the right merchants. And The Hake does, claiming elite local vendors (Catalina Offshore, Pacific Shellfish, Chesapeake). You can taste the quality in the local, sushi-grade tuna tartare. With Dijon, lemon olive oil, capers, jalapeño, onion, and chive, it sure doesn’t sound like a subtle dish. But it is. No ingredient is hammered, and the tuna’s luscious sea-fat comes through. Served on housemade sea-salt chips, it’s excellent.
Fresh Catch: Tuna tartare
Part of the menu is dedicated to tiraditos, a South American tradition like a cross between sashimi and ceviche. It usually consists of thinly sliced fish in light, fancified citrus sauce. Yet there’s nothing dainty about The Hake’s hamachi tiradito. Under a delicious pickled shiso dressing is a hugely generous portion, almost an entire Japanese yellowtail. Only problem is that it needs a snorkel. It’s like the child at the salad bar who covers a few bits of iceberg lettuce with a cup of ranch dressing. A little restraint, and the dish would be an unqualified winner.
Nothing wrong with the smoked mahi tacos. Local catch is rubbed with guajilo adobo (chile sauce) and charbroiled. Served street-sized in a corn tortilla, it’s topped with a fresh slaw, chipotle aioli, and a thick slice of atomic-green, fresh avocado. Whereas badly smoked fish can taste like a damp campfire, The Hake’s has a subtle fuming. Subtlety is not a selling point of their petite Carlsbad Aquafarm mussels in saffron-chorizo broth, though. With big chunks of chorizo, it’s hard to taste much beyond the cumin. We’re promised a touch of Asian on the menu, and get it with chopped rib eye in a Korean sweet-soy marinade, wrapped with housemade pickles in butter lettuce. Good stuff.
This is about when a female jazz singer starts in, accompanied by a keyboardist. Very few restaurants attempt this sort of in-meal entertainment anymore, let alone in a small, crowded space. It works nicely, adding romance to a room already ripe for couples charting ovulation.
Entrees keep to The Hake’s m.o.—top-quality raw materials, simply prepared. But sometimes simplicity can be its own problem. A cayenne shrimp is just that—pretty much all pepper dust, including paprika. Served butterflied in shell, it’s hard to know how to eat it. Like cucarachas, a Latin specialty that you eat shell and all? No, says our server. Peel it off. Okay, fine. But it’s impossible without ripping the shrimp to shreds because the shell hasn’t been successfully loosened from the meat. My wife just gives up, ditches the fork, gets cayenne under her fingernails and turns her napkin into a murder scene. Gal’s hungry.
“Oh, that was meant to be served with a finger bath,” offers a different staff member.
Big Finish: Dark chocolate-hazelnut cake
A few minutes later, the dish all but cooled and the murder scene complete, a server arrives with a finger bath. “Careful, it’s too hot to touch,” he warns. He’s right. It’s scalding.
The Hake serves two generous octopus tentacles as a main course. It’s not common on menus, mostly because it’s a stubborn protein. Octopi make up for their bonelessness by having brawny arms that aren’t easy to tenderize. Some chefs add a touch of vinegar (acetic acid breaks down connective tissue), soak with wine corks (cork tannins help), marinade in olive oil, beat the crap out of it, etc. But all methods are moot if it’s overcooked. Ours is bland and a little fibrous, both suggesting a little too much time in the slow-cook. Taken as a bite with the arugula salad in Dijon vinaigrette, it gets the flavor and moisture it needs. But when you order two hunky tentacles of Mexican octopus, you want the protein to stand on its own.
The catch of the day (striped bass) is perfectly cooked. Problem is, that’s about all that’s done to it. It represents the potential problem at the extreme end of the “simply prepared” movement. It’s mostly just caper butter, with a medley of Kalamata olives, heirloom tomatoes, and watercress. It’s less an elevated dish than a top-notch protein with maitre d’ butter and some chopped veggies.
So it seems The Hake’s entrees are two extremes, either hammered with one dominant spice or not really spiced at all. Some more nuance would do wonders.
Still, I’d come here for the ambiance and dessert alone. The coconut sabayon is almost insulting in its simplicity—a bowl of cream spiked with broken meringue, toasted coconut shavings, berry compôte, and micro-mint. But it’s excellent. Even better is the dark chocolate cake with hazelnut crust and Nutella ganache under cacao nibs, goji berries, and sea salt.
I love this room. I love the quality ingredients. But I could love it more.