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Swelter Me

The new Cusp restaurant is one hot ticket


Pepperoni rolls at Cusp

Pepperoni rolls at Cusp

7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla

Troy's Picks

Pepperoni rolls
Pork belly
Jidori chicken

La Jolla Hotel’s newest top-floor reconcepting is worth the visit, if you can take the heat

Some restaurants are built for daytime, with umbrellas, shade trees, and flowers spilling over iron gates like hippie hair. Cusp is not one of those restaurants. On a warm afternoon, it feels like that car in the mall parking lot that kills dogs.  

A Pinot Noir comes out a bathwatery 70 degrees. Teardrop-shaped wooden tables host ponds of condensation. Servers, decked out in stylish denim, have pit stains. Pit stains don’t bother me. It’s what hard work looks like. But the daintier La Jolla clientèle isn’t as forgiving.

The issue is the narrow room (the size of a 747 fuselage) that doesn’t let heat escape. The sun uses the windows like a grade-school bully uses a magnifying glass (you’re the ant). Meanwhile, the open kitchen flanks you with a secondary heat wave.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution. Sink into the nifty, receded lounge that La Jolla Shores locals have long used as a nightcap destination—whether it was named Elario’s, Clay’s, or The Grill. Sip a refreshing Romanza, made with Campari, orange Curaçao, and grapefruit from the produce aisle, not a can.  

Sunset here always has been, always will be, magical. The 11th-floor restaurant has arguably the best view in La Jolla—a city where even bus benches have million-dollar vistas. Sure, The Marine Room and others have brilliant water close-ups, but Cusp has it all. Mount Soledad lowers a shoulder into the ocean to the left; below, it’s a bird’s-eye perspective into the backyards of Shores residents; out yonder, SoCal’s prototypical eye-candy combo meal of palms, water, and sun.

Cusp also has what previous restaurants in this spot didn’t—Kimpton Hotels, one of America’s most respected, funky-hip boutique chains (they also helm downtown’s Palomar and Solamar hotels). A $4-million overhaul has brought style to the boxy property. Fire pits line the driveway; dark rust-colored sculptures adorn the walls; baby blue accents give a pop of color. It feels much less dead.

L.A. designer Gulla Jonsdottir (Red O, Roosevelt Hotel) updated the restaurant’s look. From the elevators, you encounter the shale-and-stone, wave-shaped bar. In the dining room, all seats stand at attention for that view (ask for the elevated booths). In the open kitchen (with seating for 10), cooks with facial jewelry wear paperboy hats. Kimpton doesn’t enforce shaving or starch as a source of pride.

Cusp’s kitchen is the realm of chef Donald Lockhart, most recently the executive sous at The Fairmount in OC. He’s got a light touch. Sometimes too light. His generous red snapper ceviche tastes like it was wrangled off Point Loma that morn, but the dish begs for some zip and depth (more pepper, spice, something). The only impression is high-quality fish and Meyer lemon, elemental to a fault.  

Same with his charred octopus salad. I prefer light dressings, but we found ourselves unsuccessfully scavenging the bowl for more mojo verde (tomatillo-based dressing with a blast of lemon). Our server presents Lockhart’s version of the burrata salad with heirloom tomatoes with pride, saying, “It’s different—no balsamic reduction.” Yes, and it misses that reduction. Or some darker, deeper flavor. Otherwise, the dish is a perky monotone. The pork belly fares better (every dish “fares better” with pork abs), if a touch sweet with the honey glaze.

Pepperoni rolls just win. Every latchkey kid from the 1970s knows the concept—dough surrounding a saucy pizza center. Lockhart’s chewy, flaky dough eats like a savory cinnamon roll, with pepperoni, cheese, and a whole basil leaf replacing frosting and sugar.

The daily house-made pastas are very good, though they beg for more inventive sauces. The pork ragout papardelle is doused in almost the exact same sauce as the daily special—a ravioli with blue crab, tarragon, and saffron. The pasta is perfectly al dente, each strand keeping its distance from the other with aplomb. But the tomato sauce needs a little more spice, a little more roasted flavor, a few more notes to its song.

Based on apps and pasta alone, I tasted very little wow-power on the menu—until the Jidori chicken and Moroccan-spiced king salmon. The salmon is excellent, topped with a crispy rub over a bed of caramelized fennel, charred mandarin, arugula, and a tomato brunoise. The chicken, though, is the star. The skin cracks like thin glass, and nearly has a deep-fried ohgodyes to it. “What is in those potatoes?” I hear a nearby diner ask his wife. I sympathize with his pleasure overdose—but it’s an organic polenta, incredibly rich with butter and pan jus. Some of the best polenta I’ve had in years, even if the suggested pairing is “more cardio.”   

For dessert, the ice cream float with house-made peach soda is a subtle gem. When used in dessert, peach can become overly concentrated and cloyingly sweet, but Cusp’s is well balanced. Go ahead and just drink it out of the glass it’s served in. We won’t judge you until we’ve had a few drinks in us.

All told, Cusp has been served well by the Kimpton treatment—an artful, hip overhaul for one of the finest perches in the city. At printing, management was measuring the windows for heat-tempering blinds. Luckily, fall is here, and they’ve got another eight months to think about shvitz prevention.

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