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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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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.  

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