Clean as Country Water

A.R. Valentien

11480 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla

If this were February, I'd be writing about a Valentine's Day destination. But don't overlook the romantic A.R. Valentien as a stunning in-spot to take special guests during the holidays. Set in a Craftsman-style lodge on a golf course overlooking Torrey Pines State Beach, the restaurant rambles through several intimate wood-beamed rooms. A.R. Valentien was an early-20th-century local painter-ceramist, and his ornate vases and sunny Impressionistic landscapes decorate the niches and walls. As the host leads you to your table, you can't help but notice that diners are spread evenly through the rooms (rather than jammed together). The heavy tables, leather-seated chairs, and plush booths are also well spaced, so you probably won't overhear other tables' conversations (unless they happen to be loud talkers or chronic gigglers), and they won't hear yours. The lighting is subdued but bright enough that you can read the menu without a keychain LED -- and see your food. Or you can eat outside on the heated patio, which offers views of the stone-walled lodge, the pool, and glimpses of the greens.

You'll see plenty of pretty greens on your plate, too. Chef Jeff Jackson changes the menu every day to showcase local produce that's been pulled from the ground mere hours before. The rest is all natural luxury: hormone-free poultry, top-quality meats, seafood at the peak of its season, everything prepared with a minimum of "gussying up" and a maximum of flavor. If you're getting burned out on the fancy, fatty food of the holidays, this approach will prove a relief as well as a delight.

The attitude here is generous and genuinely hospitable. You notice this first when servers bring a dish of mixed olives marinated with orange zest (we had to pay eight bucks for these at Laurel two weeks ago) to the table, along with country-style sunflower-seed bread and thin-sliced rustic whole wheat or sourdough. Dinners begin with a complimentary "amuse," which changes nightly. One evening it was a bite of French boudin blanc (chicken sausage) with caramelized onions. A few nights later, we received two miniature lobster ravioli, with crunchy vegetables in the filling rather than cream or cheese, and a mini-mound of balsamic-dressed frisée on the side. (I hate to kick a gift horse, but the pasta was rolled out a bit too thick.)

One rare treat that's only in season during late autumn is fresh black European truffles -- the underground "mushroom" that grows under oak trees, where it's found by the sensitive noses of pigs and specially trained dogs. (Dogs are now preferred as truffle-hunters: Hogs like to eat their catch and are difficult to leash-train.) The flavor is so subtle it can't be described, so unique it defies comparisons. It has the quality that Japanese call umame, "meatiness," that enhances whatever food it's cooked with. Jackson heaps generous shavings of these earthy gems atop a flawless risotto tossed with truffle oil, chives, and chervil (a fresh herb with a faint aniselike flavor). This appetizer is on the costly side ($24), but if you try it, you won't forget it.

A fixture of the menu since day one, tuna carpaccio -- Italian sashimi -- offers silky, paper-thin slices of crimson bluefin embedded with cooked parsley and fried capers, plated over pungent horseradish cream. Piled onto crunchy buttered country-bread toast, the combination is as vivid as curtains-up on a Broadway musical. The same toast accompanies a French charcuterie platter of three house-made pâtés, served with small mounds of whole-grain mustard, cranberry compote, julienned celeriac, and thin-sliced pickled green-and-gold zucchini. A chicken-liver mousse is a suave, creamy classic, while a duck-pistachio country-style pâté offers multiple textures, from chewy-coarse to smooth to crunchy with nuts. "Potted" beef short-rib meat makes a soulful terrine, a deep-flavored delight to spread on the toast with mustard. Anyone who's picnicked in Paris will thrill at this plate. Never been? Save the jet lag and picnic here.

Vegetable-based starters are equally creative. Normally, I shy away from the frilly endive called frisée, a staple of French bistros, but here it's the basis of a festive salad with roasted Gala apples, braised pork belly, chopped hazelnuts, and a creamy cider vinaigrette. The apples and the dressing tame the bitterness of the frisée, while the pork belly makes an entertaining change from bacon lardoons: Some pieces are crisp and fatty like cracklings, others are as moist and shreddy as the best carnitas. A caramelized pumpkin salad was disappointing, though: My partner and I hoped for something like the soft candied-pumpkin appetizer of Afghan restaurants. Instead, thin pumpkin slices were brittle and a bit charred, hiding with prosciutto slices under a take-charge stack of bitter red dandelion leaves.

At one meal, I decided to invest in the tasting menu. (The tasting dishes aren't listed on the à la carte menu, but all are available singly upon request.) The array began with a pair of miniature ravioli, again with too-thick pasta skins, filled with chopped beef short-rib meat, and served over a dull cannellini bean purée. The second appetizer was better, pristine guerrero negro scallops from nearby Baja in tarragon cream sauce, with soft-braised fennel julienne and a topping of bright young green beans punctuated with preserved Meyer lemon zest. The modest portion was just the right size.

After an interlude of cranberry-ginger sorbet (graciously served gratis to everyone at the table to keep us all on the same schedule), my tasting entrée was a gorgeous "hot-date--marinated Colorado rack of lamb." Its hot date left the lamb in a very good mood -- that is, chopped dates were rubbed into the top of the lamb before it was cooked. The two large, thick rib chops were served rare without my even asking, and the scrupulously trimmed meat was clean-tasting and tender in a pool of its own jus made slightly sweet from the tryst with the dates. "I've never tasted lamb this good," said one of my tablemates. "It's -- like butter." The meat came with soft, dark-green Swiss chard dotted with garnet pomegranate seeds, looking very Christmasy next to the rosy meat. In this dish and many others here, the food is not only delicious, but for restaurant cooking, unusually healthy, with little added fat and only "good carbs." Instead of heavy sauces, a few exquisite ingredients glory in their natural flavors.

Back on the regular menu, New York strip steak enjoys similar treatment. Valentien is one of the few local restaurants to offer Prime-grade beef that's been dry-aged in a meat locker for up to three weeks. (Most restaurant beef today is wet-aged, which tenderizes the meat but doesn't enhance the flavor the way dry-aging does.) Ordered very rare, the steak arrived nicely charred outside, sliced after cooking to let its juices pour out and serve as a sauce. Onboard were red-wine--braised escarole, cooked pleasantly soft, and a large herd of small, roasted Russian banana potatoes. Their yellowish flesh is buttery-tasting even served "straight up," but if you want a richer flavor (as my partner did), you can fork-mash them with the table butter. Just don't tell Chef Jeff I said so.

Arctic char, a cold-water fish the pale coral color of salmon trout, proved another healthful hit. The skin was cooked hard until crisp and crackly, while the meat was rich and soft. It came with whole braised leeks, tender Bloomsdale spinach, and oyster mushrooms. The leeks leaked their liquid, which mingled with the fish juices to make a lovely, spontaneous sauce.

A few weeks ago I expressed general skepticism about duck confit, saying that only once, when Alain Rondelli was the chef at Ernie's in San Francisco, had I tasted a great version. (If you wonder about Ernie's, rent a copy of Vertigo. Hitchcock recreated the romantic restaurant as a setting for Jimmy Stewart to court Kim Novak.) Chef Jeff, it turns out, makes that confit! The skin of the leg-thigh piece is fried to a crunch, while the flesh inside is moist -- the opposite of most restaurants (even in France), where the flesh tends to be dry, while the skin is either soft or gone AWOL. With this prodigy come quickly roasted skinless medallions of breast, unadorned but tender. That evening, accompaniments were an apple-cranberry compote and a cube of thin-sliced, stacked-high potato gratin, held together with cream, not one of those healthy items. A few nights earlier, the duck's accompaniments had been fuyu persimmon and young turnips, definitely "good for you" -- but I can't say I'd prefer them to a great, gooey gratin.

One of my companions is a regular at the restaurant. She recommended the veal cheeks, nuggets coated with parsley, Dijon, and bread crumbs that, as she says, "fall apart at a touch of the fork." They come with a mysterious delight that the menu calls "white purée" -- a mixture of mashed potato and whatever interesting roots are in season -- parsnip and celeriac that night, possibly rutabaga replacing the parsnip by now. It's creamy and a hint sharp, and not a drib or drab remained when we were done. Long branches of watercress offer textural contrast and an acerbic note, although their legginess makes them difficult to eat without looking like a goat chomping a mouthful of ivy.

We weren't jazzed by the roasted Wright's naturally raised chicken. "It's good chicken, but -- it's just chicken," said one of my companions. It came with whole-grain polenta (from the South's fabled organic cornmeal maven, Anson Mills), rather heavy-textured that evening from a few moments' overcooking. Several large, flat matsutake mushrooms, which look but don't taste like shiitakes, added an earthy, near-funky flavor and a chewy texture. "This is what oatmeal would taste like if it were a fungus," said one of my friends.

Every evening, diners are treated to a gratis side dish of a featured vegetable of the day -- Italian broccoli one evening, flat green beans a few nights later. They were both excellent, indeed.

The wine list is long but runs steep. (In fact, the $30 extra you pay for matched wines on the tasting dinner is well worth it for four well-chosen pours. Incidentally, if you veto one of those choices -- as I did with an opening glass of bubbly, which I don't care for -- the staff will gladly substitute another that's equally appropriate and more to your tastes.) At another visit, I tried the exotic Tabla Esprit de Beaucastel ($15/glass), an odd blend of white grapes. I found it delightful, its chardonnay component lending backbone, grenache providing lightness, and the viognier contributing a liquid-sunshine cheerfulness.

The cheese assortment includes four tastes from different dairies, three from Sonoma County, one from Dodgeville, Wisconsin (home of the Land's End mail-order catalog). All were distinct and interesting, served with a heap of ripe red grapes and nuts. The current tasting menu also ends with a cheese rather than a pastry, a rich Shropshire Blue that smells something like a horse stable (in a pleasant way), served with Bartlett pear, greens, and hazelnuts. The "sweet" that completes the tasting menu is a glass of Beringer's sensuous Sauternes-style dessert wine.

Pastry chef John Harmeyer is in charge of the desserts. Our favorite was a raisin brioche bread pudding, light and comforting, with a lush, eggy custard sauce resembling half-set crème brûlée. I was fond, too, of a baked apple, each half topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It reminded me of tarte tatin, hold the tart. If you prefer a heftier dessert, the pear and persimmon clafouti isn't the classic custardy French model, but an American twist that's been showing up lately at local restaurants (and in the Food Network's recipes): This is more like a weighty, buttery cobbler with the fruit mixed into the batter. The best part: a scoop of delicately herbal chamomile ice cream. For chocoholics, there's a very sweet Valhrona chocolate tart, its filling resembling chocolate pudding. The chocoholic at our table took a few bites, then went back to the bread pudding. But you need not order any dessert: At the end of the meal, each table receives an assortment of small sweets, such as tiny house-baked cookies and/or irresistible miniature donuts.

"You know how you always ride me because I never took you to Chez Panisse when you were in San Francisco?" I asked my partner as we left. "Well, you've been there now," I told him. "This is the way that Alice Waters cooks. Things taste wonderful by tasting like themselves."

ABOUT THE CHEF

"I started in the restaurant business at age 13, as a dishwasher and a busboy in Oklahoma City, where I grew up," says chef Jeff Jackson, now aged 48, "and worked all through high school. Pretty soon they let me start peeling carrots and potatoes, then cooking the vegetables, and it just went from there. All my brothers and my sister went to university and studied engineering. That was the family path. Me? I thought if I went to college, I was gonna get a job where I'd sit at a desk eight hours a day. That did not appeal to me whatsoever, so I approached my parents and told them I wanted to go to chef school. I'd heard about the Culinary Institute [of America]. I thought that I might as well have been talking about the man in the moon. But to my parents' credit, they allowed me to go to the Culinary."

What impressed Jeff most there was the wisdom of chef-instructor Eliot Sharon: "He explained to us that cooking is a craft that you learn from master craftsmen, and what you need to do is find the best chefs you can, work for nothing, and learn your lessons...So I got involved with French chefs." First he worked in Dallas for the respected French chef Jean Lafont, who was attempting to bring nouvelle cuisine to Texas, where nobody had ever heard of it. But he soon realized that "as a kid from Oklahoma, I had no connection to his food, no way to relate to it. So the sommelier and I sold everything we had, packed up our bicycles, and went to Europe, and we cycled through France and worked the vendange [wine-grape harvest] and stayed for about six months."

Back home again, he got a job at Le Français in Wheeling, Illinois. "That, I consider my graduate school," says Jackson. Jean Banchet, the chef-owner, was famous for his exquisite food and his horrendous temper. Even though Jackson had been a high school football player and towered over the little tyrant, he suffered like everyone else. "There were many days when I'd drive to work and sit there in my car and start crying, knowing I was going to get beat up on. But then you walked in, and there's foie gras, and guys coming through the back door with venison or wild boar that they'd just shot, and everything was amazing! Three years of yelling and screaming, but every single thing you did in that kitchen was done correctly. After a while, you realized that Banchet's yelling and screaming was not personal, it came from his sincere passion."

After ten years at Shutters in Santa Monica, Jackson became head chef at the new A.R. Valentien. "The change to the kind of cooking I'm doing now happened for me when [they hired me] to open up the Lodge. I came down and I met [owner] Bill Evans, and he asked me, 'What would you do?' And I said, 'You've got the greatest produce in the world right here, farms all around.' A few years earlier, I went out for dinner with my wife, a very nice restaurant. It was the days when an entrée had to have the protein and three or four garnishes and two or three sauces, and everybody in the kitchen had touched the plate at least three times. And the technique was there -- I used to base my opinions on technique, whether the food was prepared properly. But there was so much going on on the plate that I got palate fatigue. And a little light went on in my mind: Less is more.

"I made a 180-degree turn and started focusing on procurement of [fine] ingredients and then utilizing the classical techniques to prepare them. I borrowed from Northern Italian cooking -- to me, they figured it out hundreds of years ago. The food stuff's first. A lot of my job is pulling the hands of the cooks and the chefs away from the plate. Because when you're young, it's part of the growing process that you want to see how much you can put into a particular dish, and before you know it, you've got this mess. My rule is, I want three or four flavors on a plate, no more, and three or four textures -- and then leave it alone. So that's what we strive for. We're lucky that we've got great foodstuffs here that you can prepare simply with some salt and pepper and olive oil or butter, and they're wonderful. I've never before worked in an environment where you can get carrots right out of the ground. The difference between a fresh carrot and one that's two days old is amazing."

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