George’s California Modern has been tickling my interest for some time. The hip sibling in the George’s at the Cove family, this restaurant is on the ‘must-do’ list for any up and coming gourmand and drink-geek like me. Views to die for, innovative coastal cuisine, and the freshest ingredients possible? You had me at ‘views’… Finally, after dancing around the tantalizing issue for some time, a friend and I decide to meet up at this quietly famous San Diego institution and see what all the proverbial fuss is about.
It’s a little early in the evening. The sun has yet to descend completely and is painting the buildings and surrounding landscape warm hues of orange and red. Amazingly enough, I could have parked right in front of the restaurant, or I could have taken advantage of the eager parking valets, but as I am early I decide to park up the street and take a leisurely stroll down Prospect Avenue in La Jolla. I am reminded as to why this community boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the nation. Beautiful ocean views and inspiring architecture gaze down on the pristine beaches below, now awash in the sun’s fading light. The restaurant is located right in the heart of La Jolla’s business district and sits on the lower level just below George’s Ocean Terrace. As I walk down the front steps, I begin to see that George’s California Modern is exactly what it says it is: a sleek and modern representation of the finest living California has to offer. Giant glass doors swing open easily and the friendly hostess gives me a knowing smile as I am trying to take it all in at once. Now, I’ve been hearing this word a lot lately, and I don’t entirely know what having “swagger” means, but it seems to be an indeterminable kind of cool that ups one’s standing in social circles and makes the bearer enviable to everyone around them. If swagger could be applied to a restaurant, George’s California Modern has it in spades.
The hostess offers to take me directly to my table, but my dining partner has yet to arrive, so I opt for a drink at the bar. The bar itself is not huge, having eight or so stools surrounding it. As I sit down it is already almost full of patrons looking to get an early start on their meal or perhaps just enjoying a post-work libation. Instead of the typical racks of bottles and dishware, the back end of the bar is a cool grey slate of concrete, while the right side wall of the restaurant serves as the de facto ‘back bar,’ giving the space an open, welcoming feel.
The young couple next to me enjoys large glasses of wine and I am veering that direction until I notice the cocktail list. I am a sucker for fresh ingredients in a drink and George’s California Modern has no shortage of that. Rather than take the pre-flavored liquor or the syrup route, they use seasonal herbs, vegetables, and fruit to add unexpected and delicious turns to their beverages. I’m feeling a little bourbon-esque, so I go for the Sleepy Bison, an intriguing concoction of bourbon, carrot, almond milk, grapefruit bitters, and nutmeg. The drink is complex and refreshing without overshadowing the bourbon, and I grin a little to myself in pleasant surprise.
I take a minute to peruse the wine list while I sip on my cocktail. It is extensive, to say the least. The list is an honest 16 pages of vino for anyone from the casual sipper to the persnickety connoisseur. I find it surprising that the list tends to be heavier on international and Oregon varietals rather than the typical California Coastals that are so prevalent in most wine lists. Surprising, yes, but surprisingly refreshing.
As my friend arrives, we go ahead and tell the hostess to show us to our table. The dining room follows the bar and entrance’s sleek, modern design, with a minimal approach to the decoration and is much larger than I had originally assumed, having probably thirty or so tables. They’re tucked in and around corners, giving each area a subtle sense of privacy. I notice again and again throughout the course of our meal that even as busy as this restaurant gets, it remains quiet, as if we’re all in on a huge culinary secret, and we mustn’t let the outside world know.
I am seated right at the window, and stare out at the edge of the world. The sun is just about finished with its daily chore, and city lights begin to sparkle off in the distance as the coast commences to wrap back around. The menu is unexpectedly succinct, having no daily specials and no prix fixe menu that I can discern. As one might guess from the name of the restaurant, each dish has a modern twist on some tried and true staples. You aren’t just getting Pacific Swordfish. You’re getting it with glazed Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, sunchoke puree, charred lemon, potato, and toasted garlic parsley. The chicken entrée isn’t just chicken, it’s Jidori Chicken with maple-parsnip puree, porcini brazed onion, Chino farms broccoli, and chicken jus.
The busser drops off a loaf of unsalted sourdough wheat bread with three different seasoning options--sea salt, seasoned salt, and black pepper--as our server walks up and introduces himself as Shane. I tell Shane that lately I’m in to wines with a bit of uniqueness to them and he recommends a 2008 Pascual Toso Malbec from Argentina. I find it to be peppery, spicy, and rich. I am, in a word, completely in love. At this point my companion and I put ourselves in Shane’s capable hands and tell him to go wild with the appetizers. He thinks we should try one of their more famous ones and also something…different. I tell him to surprise us, and again Shane doesn’t let me down.
The first appetizer is the California Modern flagship appetizer, their “Fish Tacos.” The menu dish description says, “Hard to explain, just try it.” And boy are they! The dish consists of Yellow Fin tuna, corn nuts, and an aioli sauce. There isn’t a taco “shell” per se, as it’s more of a deconstructed taco. Altogether it is magnificent. Like the menu says, it’s hard to explain, you should just try it.
For our other appetizer, Shane pulls a fast one; he brings out a non-menu item of pickled radish with truffle clams topped with candied Buddha’s hand and trout roe. The slight citrusy notes of the Buddha’s hand balance the pickled radish and both give the clams a bit of flavorful pop. The presentation for both plates is much like the restaurant’s décor, a blend of minimalist and elegance. In direct opposition to the dazzling array of flavors, each dish is plated simply, letting the individual ingredients tantalize you, rather than hide under sauces or be fooled by overstated garnishes. They are both divine, and we quickly finish them up in anticipation of what is to come.
Shane brings us a 2009 Finca Antigua Tempranillo blend from La Mancha Spain and San Diego’s own Green Flash Stout. The wine has a hint of mineral with elements of dark cherry and a touch of the spice that I love. Green Flash’s Stout is a dark, dark stout with a hint of chocolate and strong coffee overtone.
Next we have Seared Beef Carpaccio with shaved onion and a truffle aioli over a Jerusalem artichoke-watercress salad with a levain crisp on the side. Tender and flavorful, the Carpaccio is sliced about as thin as one could imagine, and the aioli is an understated treat compared to the typical mustard sauce one might find in less innovative restaurants. The artichoke-watercress salad is a crisp, cleansing complement to the dish. It is magnificent and gets eaten more quickly than decorum usually allows.
With the Carpaccio, we also have Grilled Sardines with a Buddha’s hand confit, prosciutto, and Chino Farms persimmon. My companion eyes them skeptically, but I remind him that Shane has brought us this far, and he wouldn’t let us down. The sardines have a smoky, “big” taste to them, not at all salty like we have (unfortunately) come to expect from sardines these days. Both they and the prosciutto have just enough natural oil to them to bring out their flavors without it being distracting. I wrap a bit of the prosciutto around a sardine and sprinkle some of the Buddha’s hand and persimmon on top. The citrus from the Buddha’s hand makes the meat flavor pop, and the persimmon at the finish provides just the right ending.
For our entrees my friend opts for the Niman Ranch 21 day aged Strip Steak in a red wine sauce with smoked potato puree, glazed carrots, shiitake confit, and an onion-mustard jam on the side. The marbling is outstanding and the meat positively bursts with flavor and juices. The smoked potato puree is truly unique and delicious, tasting exactly how it is described--slightly smoky potatoes in an excellent puree. Along with stealing a few bites of astoundingly tender beef, I end up with a little of the confit as well, and if it weren’t for the sheer genius of the steak, the confit might have stolen the show.
I myself go for the Braised Lamb Shank. Served in an osso buco style, the bone-in shank rests on a bed of butternut squash risotto with a sweet onion-raisin relish and a feta salsa verde. It is a rich, fatty, almost decadent entrée with the meat quite literally falling off the bone. I am provided a knife, of course, but I don’t ever need to touch it. I am in love with the sweet onion-raisin relish, as I wonder how uncouth it would be to order more on the side. The fruity play of the raisin mingles wonderfully with the tangy onion. The squash risotto isn’t nearly as rich as I feared when I ordered it, and the feta salsa, while not being a ‘salsa’ in terms of what one gets at their local taco shop, adds a cheese-fueled punch to the squash.
To finish off our meal we start with a glass of muscato that is slightly sweet with effervescence and a hint of fruitiness. Shane pleads with us to try either the Doughnuts and Dips or the Soufflé Cheesecake, but we’re stuffed and decide to go for the Trio of Seasonal Sorbets to lighten things up at the end.
The trio turns out to be Meyer lemon, pineapple, and strawberry. Far from the over sugared sorbets one may find at local creameries, these sorbets taste natural and fresh, each one better than the last and just as good as the next, a veritable Möbius strip of delightful flavor.
Much to our dismay, the sorbet is not in fact an eternal loop of taste-bud delight. We finish off the last dish and bid adieu to the capable staff of George’s California Modern. Neither of us speaks, as we are quietly ruminating on the epicurean experience we just had.
Insider Tip- It’s fairly common knowledge that parking can be an issue in La Jolla, so it’s well worth it to pull right up front to the restaurant and have the friendly valets take care of your car for you.