Botanical Study #8, verso - A.R. Valentien
courtesy - The Blue Heron Gallery
It's Restaurant Week in San Diego. For the seventh year, over 180 different fine dining establishments are open at discounted prices for the biannual event. Menus are scaled down and delectable fixed price offerings are available for the culinary curious. This gives us plain folks a chance to go to places that are normally out of our reach in these miserable economic times.
Tuesday night we were treated to a great meal at 333 by our good friends Bill and Jean. Last night the members of the Fallbrook Gastronomic Society, our loose knit group of foodies (once given the moniker of "the avopigs" by Colleen Aichle), decided to sup at A.R. Valentien at the Torrey Pines Lodge.
A.R. Valentien was the art director of Rookwood Pottery for 25 years. He moved to San Diego and started Valentien Pottery on 30th and University in 1905 with his wife Anna Bookprinter, a student of Rodin. They are often referred to as the "first family" of the San Diego craftsman renaissance.
My food group are pretty hardcore foodies and cooks. R & D recently came back from a three day personal symposium with Thomas Keller that was filmed for A&E. Several of the group have recently returned from Napa and Sonoma. We are all lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time at nice restaurants.
Last night was not a great eating experience. There were eight of us and we were seated on the veranda at 8:15. When I made the reservation no one thought to inform me that people would be smoking big fat cigars on the veranda as well, not 20' from our table. It was like a rich frat boy symposium of loud and obnoxious stogie smokers.
We complained to our server and were told that there was nothing that they could do. I thought that there was a law in California that outlawed such behavior near where people were dining? One of our group members was having an extreme reaction to the smoke and most of our eyes were tearing up. They could not or would not find us another table. I guess that is how you treat the tourists on the discount plan.
Service was pretty lousy all night, with interminable waits between courses. We had all eaten at the restaurant many times before, and this was the only time any of us had experienced such lapses. And to be fair, they were very busy. We had a lot of options in picking a restaurant this week but decided to have our group meet at the Lodge because R&D have so much respect for Chef Jeff Jackson's work and reputation.
Our group was originally going to be 10 people and we had a cancellation and scaled back to 8 yesterday morning. Good thing. The patio acoustics are terrible and with the background noise I could barely communicate with Doug on the other end of the table so we spent the dinner attempting to talk in staccato sign language.
I started off with the corn soup with a sort of deconstructed scallop mousse. Almost cloyingly sweet but good. Very good. We ordered two extra plates of the pistachio and duck pate with the white peach puree and truffle vinaigrette for the table. Incredible. Leslie had the chicken liver pate with the pork rillette which was absolutely delicious as was all of the bread all night. Especially the multigrain slice which was one of the best I have ever tasted.
The entrees finally came after several glances at our watches and I think the table was collectively unimpressed. I had a chicken under brick with sweet corn piccalilli and beans. Cooked perfectly with very moist meat. Yet the chicken was so heavily brined it was difficult to enjoy. I liked the texture of the crispy skin but just could not get past the salt. Many of the diners had the steak and the braised short rib with spinach with garlic and bordelaise. The consensus reached was good short rib, okay steak. It is admittedly apples and oranges but the steak at 333 far surpassed this one. Leslie asked them to hold the onions and got back a plain steak with no garnish or side whatsoever. She mentioned it to the server and received a bare spinach dish.
It is difficult enough to sit through a two hour long meal while bathing in a fine mist of acrid cigar smoke. Unremarkable food made our job no easier. Thank god we have such a great group and enjoy our own company as much as we do. We have been dining together for a long time and there will always be another restaurant. We were starting to swelter in the heaters and asked three times before they were finally turned down.
The whole experience was so disheartening that we thought about just skipping the dessert. When it came after just a very long wait, there was no wine pairing. When we inquired we were told that the sommelier was in the basement. It finally showed up.
Dessert was just okay but better than the entree. I had a fruit terrine in a light gel of some kind with a passionflower sauce. Connie had a sorbet course that she found tasteless. Jim tried it and was turned off by the bland gelatin base under the sorbet. Leslie's white chocolate and mint mousse with chocolate ice cream was terrific.
We got the bill and saw how our $40/65 dollar dinners had ballooned up and that the bill was now the price of a used car. Not fancy but running. $25.00 a bottle corkage fee, gratuity, etc., the thing had really catapulted. Over seven hundred and change. And to a man or a woman, it would have been all right if the food had been better and if we were not forced to breathe stinky cigars all night from arrogant young men who had not yet come to grips with the reason why they needed something so long and tubular in their mouths.
We polled each other at the culmination of the meal. I went first and said 6.7 out of 10. The rest of the group topped out at 6. As a final capper, my wife just called to tell me that the leftover steak that she took home had somehow mysteriously morphed into someone else's chopped up doggie treats, the boxes being mixed up inadvertently by somebody in the kitchen, I suppose.
I probably made a mistake by suggesting the restaurant and feel sort of bad. Connie and Dixon were opting for Pamplemousse. I would have gone back to Vincents in a second if I had been more prescient.
I guess there is a moral to the story somewhere. Don't ever sit on the veranda. Don't order the salted chicken. And don't expect to be treated like a first class guest if you order off the Restaurant Week menu at A.R. Valentien.