A R Valentien
[Get a table]
11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
f I ever staycation in San Diego, I’d think I’d choose The Lodge at Torrey Pines as my home away from home. With its stately expanses of dark wood punctuated by stained glass and stone, in a style reflective of Craftsman architecture from the early 1900s, it doesn’t look much like anything else in town, so maybe I’d be able to fool myself into thinking I’d actually gone somewhere. The kilt-dressed men who greet you at the front portico definitely add to the suspension of disbelief.
But my main reason for picking the hotel would be powered by the same motivation by which I plan all my vacations — the food — because I’ve eaten at The Lodge enough to know I’d be fairly content dining within its confines for at least a few days’ worth of meals. The signature restaurant is decorated in calming earth tones and lined with cushy upholstered booths; on the walls are works by California impressionist painter A.R. Valentien, for whom the place is named. It’s one of the most serene eating spots in the city, though the low-ceilinged dining rooms get a little noisy when there’s a full house.
Stewarding the kitchen is executive chef Jeff Jackson, who’s overseen all things food since the hotel’s inception. Under his toque are decades of experience in restaurants from Chicago to Los Angeles; he even had the honor of representing the USA at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition. But of all his accomplishments, I expect this refreshingly ego-free chef would most like to be remembered for his efforts to pay it forward, food-wise. Many younger chefs who’ve passed through his kitchen and come out the better for it have established themselves at places that share similar culinary sensibilities: The Fishery, Tender Greens and Blind Lady Ale House, to name a few.
Jackson’s culinary style was locally focused and farmers’ market – driven before it became the thing to do. Apropos for the Arts and Crafts – inspired setting, the menu is executed through quality craftsmanship and respect for fresh products, from produce to proteins. He holds his ingredients in such high regard that early on he created an annual fall food event called Celebrate the Craft (on October 31 this year), at which local farmers and purveyors share equal billing with their better-known chef clients.
Although A.R. Valentien’s menu changes seasonally, the list always starts with a charcuterie platter that holds three generous slices of homemade pâté — a coarse, country-style pâté of duck and pistachio; a lush-textured short-rib terrine, reminiscent of a good potted meat; and the smooth, spreadable perfection of chicken liver pâté. They’re served with complementary condiments or garnishes, from truffle vinaigrette and white peach purée to long ribbons of quick-pickled zucchini, and all the grilled Bread & Cie levain you’ll need.
I like vegetables just as well as the next omnivore, but here I turn into a vegetable-eating machine that’d make a mother proud. Keen chefs turn good vegetables into better: Compound butter studded with chopped pistachios melts over warm beets and their leafy tops; yellow wax beans get savory in a sauté with shallots and bacon; and a quick grill mellows but doesn’t mute the tang of a green tomato, which interplays nicely with the sweet topping of a crab-stuffed squash. Even the whole-leaf Caesar salad, so deceptively simple yet easy to botch, exceeds most versions in recent memory.
That the vegetables rival even the main meat or seafood on the entrée plates is no small feat. Even though I was excited to see sablefish, one of my favorites — buttery, tender and sustainable — I actually finished the accompanying caramelized cauliflower with capers, tomato and sweet peppers before my last bites of the crisp-skinned fish. Sweet-and-sour pork is familiar, but here the flavor combination is accomplished by pairing pork loin and belly with balsamic-glazed roasted radicchio and sautéed apples and figs. There’s no food trickery or fancy tools, just deft cooking technique and creative pairings, exemplified by a dish of roasted breast and confit leg of Liberty Duck given new interest by a sandy “sauce” of almonds, fried bread crumbs and roasted grapes.
A well-priced set menu is also offered at both lunch and dinner, designed to highlight the current crop of local farms, including Sage Mountain, Chino and El Campito. You can order anything à la carte too; I was tempted by an heirloom carrot soup with coriander.
Lest you think all food at The Lodge is of the special-occasion variety, check out any of the hotel’s eateries during lunch, and you’ll see a burger on nearly every table. Though known for farm-to-table food, A.R. Valentien is equally famed for the Drugstore Hamburger, a decidedly unfancy, plainly delicious, juicy burger on a sesame-seed bun with shredded lettuce, chopped onion, tomato and dill pickle slices. It’s so good that I’ll need to make sure that my staycation spans at least two lunches.