The odd, random, surprise lightning and thunderstorm aside, Summer in California is officially in full swing. Vacations are underway and mid-year mini-sabbaticals are commencing for many of us. The next 10 days in our schedule include hanging with some family from South Louisiana and showing off the best sights and food that California, up and down the coast, has to offer. Let the Road Trip begin…
It’s kind of impossible not to hit up one of the hottest new restaurants in the southern most city of our state and have any kind of credibility on this upcoming travel blog. Juniper and Ivy in Little Italy is captained by Top Chef All Stars winner and well known celebrity chef Richard Blais, who happened to be in the house last night.
The Crew: My nephew Gary, my wife Dee and Gary’s wife, Amy. This is a formidable group that is downright intimidating in its sheer potential for volume consumption as well as for their discerning palates combined with “not gonna lie” straightforwardness when it comes to what they like and don’t like. Gary can pretty much tell you if the knife used to slice your food had been waved over a clove of garlic on the way to the cutting board.
Generally, the food here is tantalizingly good. It has rich and complex flavor without seeming to try too hard. These deviled eggs are created from an egg white meringue and a yolk mousse. There is a slight sweetness present in the meringue that is intriguing. This is a nice representation of what is to come — enticing flavor profiles combined with creative technique.
There are substantial vegan dishes on the menu as well – Oops, I just realized this is not one of them. The summer squash dish here was fresh, succulent and nicely seasoned. The chermoula sausage was a great accent in the perfect amount on this plate. Any more than these pepperoni thin slices and the sausage would have overtaken the dish, which might not have been a bad thing – but then it would have to be called Chermoula sausage accompanied by some squash. Either way…Winning!
As a result of this dish, we ended up dallying in the “Raw” section of the menu a little longer than we anticipated. The halibut ceviche pictured here was forward and well-seasoned but, somehow, not overly pickled or vinegary. The lack of the acidic astringency was perfect on a warm, slightly humid summer evening.
Oysters. We from South Louisiana know oysters since we lay claim to some of the most succulent, fatty, briny oysters known to man, minutes away from our bayou front homes in the Gulf of Mexico. These Fanny Bays were pre-shucked to save on prep time which costs them their natural liquour, but the lost liquid was more than amply replaced by well-balanced red wine mignonette, kimchi cocktail pearls and a dousing with liquid nitrogen just before serving to chill and somehow condense all of the flavors into a mouth filling delight.
The Tuna tartare mixed with a celery vinaigrette, summer melon and a prosciutto aioli was a type of Left Coast poke. I’m not sure I’m a fan of fruit mixed with my perfectly good tuna, but I’ll chalk that up to personal preference. This dish was refreshing and a bit of a palate cleanser.
When your server tells you about something on the menu that pretty much everyone on the staff eats at every opportunity they can, that’s a pretty good signal that you should try it. This Baja Yellowtail in Shark sauce and served on a crisp, salty mini tostada wasn’t on our list, but easily finished in the top three best things we ate all night. Salty, creamy and beautiful, simple flavor — we seriously considered getting another order of these, but as you’ll see, we had a long ways to travel on this evening.
Shishito peppers — they have a mild flavor that is enhanced by roasting with an ever so slight bitterness that makes your palate sit up and take notice. About one out of ten of these will knock your socks off with some heat. These were bathed in a Wagyu beef tallow aioli that you could use as skin cream if you could keep from licking it off of yourself. I don’t think we’ve gotten a spicy pepper in maybe our last three orders of these at different establishments — something tells me the odds are going to catch up with us soon…
This take on beef tartare has historically been one of my favorite dishes here. Carne Cruda Asada on toast and topped with sunny side up quail eggs — this is like breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single bite. I could eat the tartare with my fingers out of a 55 gallon drum as my last meal on earth and there is nothing about a quail egg you could ever tell me that would stop me from eating them in any form. Put them together and it’s like some kind of gastronomical black magic.
Housemade linguine pasta, cooked slightly al dente and mixed with olive oil, chili flakes and clams. Simple, fulfilling and basic — always a good combination.
When you have 21 courses (including the amuse bouche and complimentary snickerdoodle cookies at the end) in a night, all executed at a high level, one of them has to come in last. For me, this chilled Baja shrimp dish was it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, but I’m a shrimp lover. This dish had papaya and a lime vinaigrette which gave the dish an overall sweet and fruity flavor and pretty much drowned the shrimp for me. It was refreshing and, for many who like the idea of eating shrimp more than the shrimp flavor itself, probably a home run. I’ve already said my piece on the seafood and fruit deal — simply not my thing.
If you read the blog last week on another place down the street, you know my take on octopus. This octopus offering retained its toothiness and was accompanied by a bed of black baba ganoush and sweet tomatoes. It’s weird how the savory sweetness (is there really such a thing?) of a tomato can have so different an effect on a dish as opposed to the more sugary sweetness of a fruit.
The house made duck breast pastrami is fabulous. Think of this as a two bite, creamy, mild, tender Reuben sandwich. If someone didn’t tell you it was duck, you’d wonder how they did whatever it is they did to make the pork so good.
Dirty little secret time — Amy, born and raised in the Sportsman’s Paradise where hunting rabbit is like walking down the sidewalk chewing gum for the rest of the world, had never eaten rabbit before this meal. Never. In fact, having moved into their new home only three months ago, Gary began raising rabbits in the backyard. The on-going family argument — were the cute little bunnies food or pets? There is no longer an argument due to this dish of pulled rabbit leg and veggies soaked in a soy sauce concoction that is the poster child for Umami flavor. Please observe a moment of silence to honor those bunnies who are about to give their lives in the line of duty…
The only place I’ve ever seen Copper River Salmon on the menu was in Seattle — until now. The season for it is only about 4 weeks long from May to June and almost all of the catch is snapped up by restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Ordering this was a no-brainer. For salmon and non-salmon lovers alike, if you see Copper River and can be assured that it is fresh — order it. It is the non-fishiest salmon you’ll ever eat, with an incredibly luscious texture that seems to simply devolve on your tongue, allowing the subtly nuanced natural oils and flavor to run down your gullet like warm rivulets of golden mead…or something like that. I’m getting all weepy eyed thinking about it…
As we sat in front of the pastry station, we periodically saw this dish go out. Honestly, we were so busy talking and eating that we never asked what it was and assumed it was a dessert, which we knew pastry chef Sam (Samantha) had on lock. I finally realized when checking out the menu for about the 30th time that there were no smoked desserts on the menu.
So, we had to circle back around and get this Buttermilk biscuit with smoked fois gras butter and, Slap Yo Mama, was this good! Like, we invented biscuits in the South, so we’re pretty good at spotting a biscuit a mile away. This was no biscuit, my friend. This was like the Lord of Biscuits. It was actually more like an angel food cake stepped out on her biscuit husband and had babies with a gentle, tender corn bread fella. And the fois gras butter? It really shouldn’t need any more description, but the smoke lent a tantalizing overtone of tanginess that ended up accenting each bite. This would have been a great opener, but it was an even better lead in to dessert.
Let’s talk about Samantha, shown here working the pastry station. She was an incredible machine (a cute, precision, nimble machine), churning out hand constructed desserts with speed, aplomb and intensity, yet keeping us entertained with charming and graceful patter. It also turned out that we have a mutual North County chef friend — none other than Yancy Knapp, sushi chef at, where else — The Wrench and the Rodent Seabasstropub!
Sam tore us up with dessert. Sure, we were planning on trying a couple. How could we not, sitting in front of her all evening? But, really? All of them? This is the signature dessert – the Yodel. As the hot chocolate is poured over it, this dish becomes what can best be described as a creamy, silky, velvety ganache — eating it is like wrapping your tongue in a chocolate flavored silk robe.
I had my eye on this Corn creameaux all evening and it was worth the wait. Sweet corn gelled into sheet form and topped with blueberries and blueberry sorbet. Corn really should be a dessert.
The Pretzel — croutons, pecans, something like a house made trail mix topped with more sorbet. By this time we were waning into Comaville…
But, no one ever accused me of being a quitter. This coffee cake was enough to give us a second wind with a coffee sherbet and fabulous, cinnamony praline crumble.
I wish I could have gotten a picture of Sam squeezing out this Caramelized Peach Mousse — it’s that little striated, extruded ribbon you can see just under the peach slices. The tip on the pastry bag must have been 3” wide and the smoothness and continuity of motion needed to get it just right was incredible — as was the dish.
And the night finally came to a welcome end with melon sorbet, fresh fruit and olive oil cake. Welcome only because our legs were cramped from sitting, our cheeks were stiff from smiling and our gums were bleeding from chewing. Other than that, all was right with the world and we considered our road trip successfully launched.
Stay tuned for more from the road. Cheers, my friends!
Left Coast Cookery
2228 Kettner Blvd.
(between Juniper and Ivy)
San Diego, California 92101