Sky Room at La Valencia - La Jolla, CA

Dinner - Friday, December 21, 2012

The setting is the Spanish-influenced La Valencia Hotel, a ninety-year old institution nestled along the La Jolla coastline. The chef is Luke Johnson, formerly of the locally-lauded Red Velvet Wine Bar. The occasion is... la fin du monde.

With the Sky Room scheduled to permanently shutter at the end of the year (part of an overhaul of the hotel's food and beverage department), our friend James arranged a dinner to celebrate its end, aptly scheduled on December 21. We had missed Luke Johnson at his previous post, and we were determined not to lose track of him again, come hell or high water - thus, we found ourselves in a black jewel box overlooking the glittering Christmas lights of La Jolla on a quiet evening at world's end.

Salsify, grapefruit, chives
The first bite turned out to be our favourite course of the night. Shelled Kumamotos were served on a cold chive juice, with dollops of puréed salsify (very good - the first chill of the year really brought out the plant's essence). A curd of grapefruit balanced the brininess of the oysters. Shaved salsify and grapefruit sacs provided texture and concentrated flavour - a winning dish.

Lentilles du Puy
Onion, pork, sweet potato
A complete about-turn from the preceding course. I've never seen poor lentils abused so much - the soup was a congealed, unseasoned travesty. Indeed, the only redeeming components were the tender pork belly and pickled onions.

Turnip, orange, trumpet mushrooms
Gnocchi, veal cheeks
Beets, lemon, Parmesan
Soft, pillowy gnocchi with quickly charred exteriors - very nice. The slow-cooked veal cheeks were tender and flavourful, if rather salty. Fortunately this was partially offset by the beets and an exceedingly well-placed disc of candied lemon. In this context, the Parmesan foam was quite enjoyable, suffusing the other components with a welcome umaminess.

Celery root, pine nut, raisin, sage
With the menu in general demonstrating an overtly modernist bent, this dish was surprisingly traditional - perfectly cooked loin of venison with its jus, served on a hash of celery root, Granny Smith apples and pine nuts. As a backdrop, a cream of celery root, and a smear of rasin purée. Perhaps ironically, I liked this far more than the kitchen's technique-driven "specialties" (save the first course).

Intermezzo - verjus gelée, mint
High acidity as expected, but with enough sugar to make it a very pleasant intermezzo. Simple and nicely executed.

Fromager d'Affinois
Honeycomb, fennel, cornbread
The ultrafiltered double-cream cheese displayed its typical oozy characteristics - always a pleaser. I loved it with the honeycomb and candied fennel, and even enjoyed it in combination with the crumbled cornbread. However, the cornbread purée, which tasted like raw dough, threw the whole table for a loop.

Butternut squash
Chocolate, spice, streusel, chestnuts
Mignardises - White chocolate, cocoa, sea salt
It's a good thing the world didn't end this night - our meal would have been a rather sorry way to go out. There was a lack of editing in almost every dish - technique diarrhea, if you will. Still, the chef is a young fellow who will perhaps mature with time. Given the impending closure of the restaurant (and his correspondingly despondent mood), it's rather hard to fairly evaluate our meal. Would I recommend this dinner to someone else? No. Would I give him a second chance and try his next venture? Likely yes. Goodbye, Sky Room, and rest in peace - you will not be missed.

Sky Room at La Valencia
1132 Prospect St.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: (858) 551-3761