There were a lot of “I don’t know’s” heading into dinner at The Hake. A chef friend had mentioned that she couldn’t wait to see what Chef Aarti Sanghavi was up to at the newly renovated and re-opened The Hake in La Jolla. I kinda nodded, smiled and murmured something like, “Yeaaa…I’ll have to check ’em out, too.”
Then a couple more chefs made the same statement in less than a week, and I shook the cobwebs loose. “What’s The Hake and who is Aarti Sanghavi?” were some of the questions I apparently needed answered. I’d never heard of them.
I have now.
What I know about Indian cuisine can fit on a thread of saffron. It’s not a cuisine I grew up with nor are most of the spices in my daily lexicon of food understanding. I mean, I know I like Indian food, inasmuch as I’ve been able to experience it here on the West Coast. But, I’ve never been to India and, even though I can pronounce and identify most of the spices and flavors, I don’t have an elevated understanding of what end purpose they are trying to achieve other than highly pungent and aromatic tastiness, which typically both satisfy and ruin my tastebuds for the balance of any given day.
I confess this, because, heading in to The Hake, I didn’t know what to expect. Nor might you. Was this going to be a primarily Indian flavor and spice dominated meal, the complexities of which I wouldn’t be able to truly appreciate? It was entirely possible, since my familiarity level with Indian cuisine is roughly the same as, say, the average lunch-time diner who randomly points at menu pictures of whatever looks most appealing at that particular moment.
Turns out I needn’t have been concerned. While there is definitely the expected Indian influence in Chef Aarti Sanghavi’s cooking, it is neither a prevalent theme or an overwhelming presence. In fact, what Chef Aarti is doing in her peerless style is incorporating what many of us will consider exciting new spices and ingredients as accent notes, replacing more familiar flavors in just the right amounts so as to make her offerings unique, but not unrecognizable.
For those of us on the West Coast who are much more familiar with Asian and Latin-esque flavors on the “exotic” end of the spectrum, Chef Aarti’s creations will have warm spices, creamy textures, and aromatic herbs in all the right places, with flavor profiles that vary from the norm by exciting tasting nodes in a different sequence than we might otherwise expect. That she is doing so utilizing fresh as can be West Coast ingredients seals the deal, checking off that “local” box, an inherent and necessary signature flair of any respected San Diego chef.
You’ll notice, right out of the gate, distinctive elements such as coriander seed in the housemade Opah chorizo and egg offering. The coriander provides a cleansing counterpoint to the spices and a subtle textural contrast to offset the creaminess of the masala and sous vide egg. Meanwhile, beautifully presented lobster masala presents first as a perfectly cooked lobster, with the blanketing warmth of the masala wafting just up the back of the throat to end in a light wispiness around the general area of the sinus cavities. Covered in cilantro and accompanied by a charred lemon, the totality of the the perfect bite mimics cuisine closer to home, south of the border, where, instead of chile, the substitution of the lightly applied Indian spices brings a new dimension to a perfectly executed, luxurious and welcome seafood entree.
Throughout the meal, slight tweaks and special touches such as Naan bread and bone marrow in place of toast points and olive oil for the Hake rillettes and uni & jalapeno-laced butter on the grilled ribeye serve to add novelty to a gourmet meal in a fine dining setting. In fact, for those of you who may, like me, acclimate quickly to new flavors and culinary concepts, you’ll likely find yourself wishing there was a little more kick to each offering by the end of your meal. And, that’s not a bad thing, although, I do have the distinct feeling we might want to be careful what we wish for… Enjoy, and Cheers, my friends!