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Chilled tomato soup with heirloom beans, basil and manchego; photography by Andrea Bricco

Sky’s the Limit

by Kersten Wehde | Riviera San Diego magazine | September 27, 2012

At a time when we’re all taking sides in the never-ending San Diego Fine Dining Debate—why chefs leave and restaurants shutter, whether we’re hostile to haute cuisine, whether our collective palate is too stunted (or evolved) to enjoy (or suffer) the kind of gastronomic magic that New Yorkers and Catalonians enjoy—it takes a little chutzpah and a lot of talent to launch a successful tasting-menu-only concept in San Diego, let alone in an octogenarian icon like La Valencia Hotel. Not to worry: Luke Johnson, the fearless chef at the venerable Sky Room, has plenty of both, and he seems set on keeping them right here in America’s Finest.

While you can order à la carte, submitting to the multicourse tasting menu makes far more fiscal and gustatory sense. I didn’t even see a menu until after my second dinner at The Sky Room, nor did I ask to. Not everyone will appreciate this white flag of a dining experience, which may (should!) take hours. One evening, I overhear a young woman protesting to her date, “I can’t have another course; I’m stuffed. Let’s just take it home.” My friend and I look at each other as if she’d just asked to perform the tablecloth trick. In addition to being exquisite and delicious, the portions aren’t exactly Bunyan-esque, even after eight courses. She bargains with her server to bring dessert and pack up the remaining three courses in to-go boxes. This is the equivalent of buying a front-row seat at Wimbledon so you can set up your camera and watch it later, alone, on your laptop. The Sky Room service is akin to spa pampering, and Johnson’s immaculately plated dishes rival the MCASD collections down the street.

Every course on the summer menu is seasonally driven and interesting, with a fine-tuned sense of surprise. A favorite is the chilled tomato soup, a light arrangement of thrice-filtered tomato water poured on heirloom tomatoes and beans, basil purée and dehydrated manchego. It’s all so refreshing, the dish tastes downright salutary. I want to dive into it and swim around like Scrooge McDuck in a pool of gold. Course No. 3, a medley of Santa Barbara spot prawns, fennel, orange and argan oil, is perfectly paired with a powerful and bright Austrian riesling. The fifth course, a savory duo of pork preparations—a save-it-for-last slab of crispy belly and decadent ravioli filled with cured pork confit that’s been blended in a Robot Coupe to give it an almost rillette-like texture—is highlighted by blueberry foam and a silky ribbon of sweet corn. And the impossibly tender Colorado lamb tenderloin, redolent of rosemary, comes with a vellum-thin, triple-blanched garlic chip, oyster mushrooms and a truly heavenly accent: a dusty dune of lamb fat powder. I wish I could save some and sprinkle it on the sponge cake that comes with dessert.

If the servers’ rhapsodies about the dishes are too involved to remember, the paper menu is a decent guide, though sticklers for preparation details will be out of luck. Devoid of verbs or explanation, Johnson’s is a menu exemplifying what famed NorCal chef David Kinch once called “comma cuisine,” an allusion to the modish just-the-ingredients-ma’am style of menus in the early ’80s (the dish pictured above is advertised: “Tomato, beans, basil, manchego.”)

After an S.D. stint at Laurel, Johnson worked at Mélisse and Alinea (Michelin two- and three-starred, respectively), where he honed many of the techniques used to transform those shopping lists into cohesive plates. A few years ago he landed back in San Diego to be the executive chef at Little Italy’s Red Velvet Wine Bar, which closed last year (much to the chagrin of foodies who had trumpeted its glory or cunningly kept the secret to themselves). When his Sky Room appointment was announced, Johnson groupies citywide swooned with gratitude that he hadn’t been scooped up by the likes of, well, Mélisse or Alinea.

The exciting news about Johnson landing somewhere local was only slightly tempered by the unfulfilled promise of a desperately needed remodel, the initial prospect of which elicited sighs of relief among design buffs when Pacifica Companies took over the property. While the Pink Lady epitomizes the charm and gentility of an 86-year-old oceanfront icon, The Sky Room, with its mirrored columns (which manage to obfuscate the one thing the 35-seat space should have in spades: intimacy) and DoubleTree ballroom carpet, feels like an ode to ’80s excess. Patrick Bateman would love it. The restaurant renovation was tabled—not abandoned, mind you—when it became clear that a remodel would require razing the entire 10th floor and upsetting much of the rest of the hotel’s operations, given that materials would have traveled either by pool-shadowing crane or the ’20s-era elevator. Eventually, The Sky Room will be a feast for the eyes regardless of the direction of one’s gaze. Until then, the breathtaking 180-degree vista of La Jolla shoreline is décor enough, and after sunset, the visual flair of the food practically merits applause.

For all the affluence in its ambience, The Sky Room service sets a new standard among San Diego’s fine dining restaurants: Servers are communicative but not casual, attentive but not fawning, and profoundly knowledgeable. This is no longer the velvet-roped Narnia of the noblesse oblige, and the service reflects that shift to a complaisant but still sophisticated style of dining. Much credit must go to Food and Beverage Director Andrew Mosblech, a gregarious wine pro whose French and Italian accents are perfect, and whose pairings are generally flawless.
Neither the success nor the failure of The Sky Room will tell the future of fine dining in this city. But it will be interesting to see if this bright young talent—so inventive, so determined to put his skills to work in San Diego—can upend The Sky Room’s “oysters Rockefeller and rare filet” vibe and draw a new, adventurous crowd, one that celebrates a chef taking chances and votes with their wallets.

Behind us, the ostensibly overfed woman is finishing her strawberry sorbet. “This is the one that’s going to make me fat,” she moans. “This is the one that’s going to make you happy,” her server offers.

Yes, let’s hope this is it.

The Sky Room
1132 Prospect St., La Jolla
858.551.3761,
lavalencia.com

Open Tue.-Sat., 5-9pm
Tasting menu: $95
Wine pairing: $55

Where to Sit
There are few superior places in Southern California to sip Champagne than a window table during sunset.

Eight is Enough
You can order à la carte, but you’ll go home hungry and jealous of the wiser patrons who opted for the eight-course tasting menu.

The Dress Code
“Smart casual” has supplanted the fusty rules of yesteryear but the décor still demands a bit of sartorial gravitas. Anything from either Wall Street movie should cut it.

Who’s There
La Jolla’s old guard, hotel guests, celebrants of all makes and models, Luke Johnson votaries

Park It
No need to hassle with the downtown La Jolla traffic snarls; valet is free with dinner.