Top of the World, Ma!

Sky Room

La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

La Valencia is a sheerly gorgeous hotel. Walking through that Spanish-Moorish tiled lobby en route to the Sky Room elevator, you want to sell your shack and move right in. A small, old-timey operator-run lift, with an accordion-grate steel inner door, takes you up to the restaurant. “Where to?” the operator said. “Top of the world, Ma!” I muttered under my breath (Jimmy Cagney’s last words in the Depression-set gangster masterpiece White Heat). I guess the posh atmosphere made my inner-teen-beatnik feel socially split between slumdog Cagney and a regular Sky Room habitué.

The newly redecorated restaurant has dusted away a former fustiness: it’s clean and sleek with shiny black and chrome and tall mirrors. The space is divided by pillars into several intimate areas of one or two uncrowded tables each. All 11 tables are decorated with a vase of white roses, and all enjoy panoramic ocean views. A class act, updated.

Sky Room has changed in other ways, too. A bit over a year ago, shortly after its reopening, the Union-Tribune ran a scorching review, noting “so-so” food for exorbitant prices. Since then, there have been drastic alterations in menu and personnel. Prices have dropped — still on the steep side, but well below the Gordon Gekko–style “flaunt it while you got it” realms. Most of the ultra-luxury ingredients have disappeared, along with the “Continental” cooking-style and old-fashioned dress rules. (You’ll still want to dress nicely to fit in, but jackets aren’t required.)

The reopening chef, a young New Zealander, is gone as well. (My dinner was prepared by the young, talented chef de cuisine and executive sous-chef.) The management is currently interviewing candidates for the executive chef position. Perhaps that’s why they’re offering the alluring bargain prix-fixe meal of $55 for three choices through August. The tiny restaurant was half empty on a Wednesday night, which is half-priced-wine night. Looks as if the long closure for renovations broke the habit-patterns of the “La Jolla blue-hairs” who sustained the old Sky Room.

Sam and I chose the later of two dinner seatings to maximize our eating time and in hopes of catching a sunset. It wasn’t a great sunset (marine-layer grays), but it was an amazing view until darkness fell. And only at dark did the music track (some mild, inconsequential stuff) come on the sound system — before then, luxurious silence.

The menu now tends toward classic California cuisine, relatively simple preparations of fine ingredients with some Asian and Mediterranean flavors — a lot like nearly every other upscale San Diego restaurant, only more expensive than most.

In an exchange of emails (initiated by the announcement of the “bargain” prix fixe), the manager assured me that it would be quite all right to combine both the $55 three-course tasting meal and the $75 five-course at the same meal — a good way for a twosome to wring out much of the menu without venturing into the pricier à la carte realm. In practice, the waiter told us the chef wasn’t happy about this order because of the difficulty in timing it. Sam and I passed word to the kitchen that it would work out fine — send out the dishes as they were ready because we’d be sharing everything anyway.

The breads were interesting — slices of regular baguette, seeded baguette, and whole-wheat olive bread (the last a tad stale-tasting). The water, no extra charge, was glorious Evian. It’s a lot better than Golden Hill’s natural “mineral water,” even when the latter is filtered. After our clotted commute, dodging automotive idiocies on parade, we needed a glass of wine while we perused our menus. The Dutton chardonnay ($16 per glass) filled the bill deliciously, but had I looked at the list first, I might have splurged on the French White Burgundy ($20).

We deliberately chose to eat on a Wednesday, when bottled wines are half price. The list is spectacular, especially if you’re not shy about spending your mortgage money on first-growth Bordeaux or Burgundies. Duckhorn Sauvignon, a yummy old favorite, was on offer for $60, standard restaurant price. Sam, seized by an impulse of saintly generosity, told me to pick a Burgundy — his treat. I chose from low on the list — an 11-year-old Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot ($185). It was still youthful and even a little tannic, and what a treat! Muscular, but supple and complex, it had so much personality it was like having another friend at our table.

I’m not sure the three-course meal would normally include an amuse, but we each received a Chinese porcelain soup spoon filled with exciting, spicy gazpacho topped with minced fresh micro-herbs.

The three-course meal offered a seasonal vegetable soup or salad first. The soup was cream of broccoli, a beautiful composition with swirls of crème fraîche, minced chives, and tiny red specks on top — bacon! It tasted less like broccoli than some other veggie that I like better, with a faint, smoky note, the bacon reappearing throughout in firm, meaty bits. “Our chef, Taylor, is a master of soups,” said the waiter fondly, collecting the clean empty bowl. “He competes with himself to make ‘soup of the week,’ ‘soup of the month,’ ‘soup of the year.’ ”

The five-course began with hamachi tartare, chopped and shaped into a round mound. Alongside was a puff of avocado mousse and a modest, charming salad of baby beets, tiny Japanese cucumber slices, and greenery in a citrus vinaigrette. Surrounding the tartare were crimson jewels of caviar — beet caviar. Fooled me totally. “I’d order this again anytime,” said Sam. Same here.

Next on the higher-priced spread was a large seared scallop, pale pink inside, served with a heap of tiny fingerling potato slices and another heap of bitter greens with a bacon dressing. We couldn’t identify the species of the greens (familiar flavor, but naming them gave us both “senior moments”). The scallop’s only sauce seemed to be the clarified butter of the sauté — but scooped onto a bite of baguette, that sauce was pink and smoky. Bacon! “This kitchen seems to tend toward austerity,” I observed. “Great ingredients, very plain preparations.”

That observation held true for the five-courser’s first entrée (of two), grilled Kurobuta pork tenderloin (which is also an entrée choice on the three-course). The chunks of pork were pink inside but excessively charred on the surface, overwhelming the meat’s flavor. They were plated over a minuscule slick of “salsa verde,” a dark-green sauce dominated by minced parsley, accompanied by a sweet-tart Asian-oid shredded jicama slaw.

On the three-course dinner, I chose the fruits de mer — velvety lemon-thyme linguine in a reduced lobster stock with tomatoes and white wine, topped by fish, lobster, prawns, shelled mussels, and scallops — every species cooked to tender perfection, with that lobstery broth generous in its sensuality. It’s comfort food for sophisticates, as pleasing as a back rub.

At the next table, a handsome 30ish couple were planning their “wedding rehearsal dinner.” (I overheard them quietly conspiring with the mâitre d’ about the catering menu.) The bride-to-be had the bouillabaisse. The groom had the cocoa-dusted venison, huge and fascinating-looking, the deer ribs sticking out like antlers on a big buck. They both seemed very happy with their food, which is why I’d guess these are good bets for entrées. Love may be blind, but I don’t think it dims the palate much.

Our server, seeing us repeatedly switch plates (often several times in a single course — “Did you taste this garnish? Try it again!”), was catching on to how foodie-friends eat “family-style” and starting to warm to it. He’d been picking up the amber-glow brother-sister vibe between Sam and me, and by now he liked it, however exotic it was for Sky Room. “We’ve been friends sharing our food for years and years,” I said. “Friends who eat ‘family style’ become families.” The seven-course dinner has an intermezzo, the three-course doesn’t, but it was served to both of us and consisted of a palate-clearing yellow watermelon sorbet, a charmer of a dish.

By the final entrée of the seven-course, the kitchen had “gotten it,” too. We each received a half portion of the “Greg Norman” Wagyu steak pavé (which was plenty — half of both halves came home with me). It was also heavily charred (like the pork) on the outside, rare inside, and delicious — if less tender and fatty than other Kobe beef I’ve tasted. “Who’s this Greg Norman character?” I asked Sam. “A golfer,” he said. “What does he have to do with Wagyu beef?” I asked. Sam shrugged. Maybe Norman raises it; maybe he takes the calves on rounds of 18 holes. The beef came with superb garnishes: a soft, gentle, fine-chopped ratatouille, tiny tender onion rings in airborne batter, and a lightly fried, barely battered Japanese green chile, semi-mild, complex, and deep-flavored enough I’d like to grow it in my yard next year. With this dish, that fine French Burgundy nearly met its culinary match, meat almost worthy of it (but for that too-bitter black charring). I was losing my Jimmy Cagney under-mind, settling into luxury as though born to it.

For dessert, the three-course offers an artisan cheese plate (how tempting, with wines still left) or a multi-layered Napoleon-like nocciola cake plated over orange balsamic with chocolate gelato. Made by the hotel pastry chef, it is not excessively sweet and is tremendously professional, and French-y. What caught my heart more was the seven-course’s lemon verbena sponge cake, made by the Sky Room’s own chef, with strawberry gelato and a blueberry Port coulis, with local fruits from Crow’s Pass. It’s less professional, more of a “grandma-style” dessert, exuding sagacious simplicity.

“I’ve always wanted to eat at the Sky Room,” said Sam. “I’d come back in a snap.…” “When you find a proper partner to romance,” I teased. But the food actually ranged in quality, from flawless soup and hamachi to interesting beef to over-austere scallop and overcooked pork. I had the sense that the restaurant is holding its breath, awaiting the hiring of the new executive chef. I didn’t want to wait; I wanted to try it now, while I could afford it, with the $55 menu. If you’ve always wanted to eat here but have flinched at the regular prices, this is a good moment to carpe diem and see La Jolla and its waters from on top of the world.

More Better Bites at Bargain Prices
Oceanaire has an early-bird three-course prix fixe, $30 a person, 5:00–7:00 p.m. Monday–Thursday. The chain that owns it is in financial trouble, but the downtown location is a cash cow, so don’t worry — other locales may be closing, but ours will be the last to go.

Bandar, the superb Persian in the Gaslamp, is offering three courses, Monday–Thursday, for $35.

Soleil at K has three courses for $35, apparently nightly at any hour; no choices of foods; call for details.

Terrible News for Foodies
The Better Half has abruptly closed, swamped by a load of debt inherited from the previous owner and by the deep recession that’s hit Hillcrest perhaps worst of all restaurant-rich neighborhoods. Saying “RIP” isn’t good enough for this loss, so I’m bringing out the big-gun words of consolation: Om, mani padme hum. Let’s hope this jewel soon reincarnates somewhere else.

Sky Room
(Very Good to Excellent)
Hotel Valencia, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-0771,
HOURS: Dinner seatings 5:30–7:15 p.m.; 7:45–9:30 p.m.
PRICES: Three-course prix fixe, $55; five courses, $75. À la carte appetizers, $12–$27 (caviar service m/p); entrées, $34–$45. Wine bottles half-price Wednesday nights.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-style, with fine fresh ingredients, Mediterranean and Asian influences. Huge wine list with a few bottles under $40, many excellent choices about $60, plus top French bottlings (many with some bottle age on them), including legendary choices (e.g., La Tâche) at four figures. Good but costly half-bottles, steep by the glass.
PICK HITS: Hamachi sashimi; daily vegetable soup; fruits de mer. Good bets à la carte: bouillabaisse; cocoa-crusted venison.
NEED TO KNOW: The three-course $55 menu expires at the end of August, so reserve now if you want it! Romantic, deluxe atmosphere with stunning wraparound view, quietly dressy. Elevator access via hotel entrance, smaller door left of Whaling Bar entrance. Free valet parking. Later seating allows more leisure (and sunset view in summer).

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Some of what you say is true but you should do more homework, so credit goes to who it really belongs to. Chef Vaughan Mabee (the New Zealander you referred to in your article) has left the La V, you are correct, but not before he put the "Skyroom" on the map with best restaurant 2009 editor's pick, best of best from southern California food writers awards and dozens and dozens of others, including first 5 star rating from Abe Opincar before he depated. Watch out for Chef Vaughan, who is now working with Chef Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian Spain in the highly acclaimed Relaix Chateau, 3-Star Michelin Restaurant (chefs do not land there without talent) Those 2 young chefs who cooked your meal are still able to execute Chef Vaughn's 5-star menus, which is good news, after 3 pain staking years of training them. Chef Vaughan happens to reside literally in a different league in the world of cooking, but some people just don't know the difference. Disappointing... By the way the "old Skyroom" as you call it was never empty when Chef Vaughan was there, maybe that's why they now practically have to give the food away to get any business!!

I didn't see any reason to fully research a chef who's gone (and whose cooking got slammed in our local daily.) I don't have an infinite number of words per review. If he's now working with Martin Berasategui, he must've been good, so this sounds like, once again, San Diego lost yet another hot chef to local conservatism and hostility to creative cooking. But say -- you mention a rave from Abe Opincar (who used to review for the Reader as "Max Nash." Always liked his writing -- where's he been writing more recently?

Thanks! A delicious review. Obviously I've got to get back to Whisknladle somehow -- they still have my favorite starter but all the rest sounds like it's really leaped ahead. And fun to read Abe again.

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