A luminous glow beckons us to Nine-Ten’s colonnaded entrance as we pass charmingly soft lit shops that lining La Jolla’s Prospect Street. Twinkling lights demarcate the restaurant’s street front patio, its cheery maroon umbrellas and intimate tables suggesting the sunny calm of lazy weekend brunches. We are swept up by the restaurant’s romantically referential colonial architecture, which, amidst towering palm trees and the salty briskness of ocean air, conjures balmy Caribbean getaways.
While the restaurant’s exterior hints at a dreamy colonial nostalgia, Nine-Ten’s interior is distinctly contemporary. We are first greeted by the boisterous chatter of happy hour revelers emanating from the restaurant’s Lounge, which is packed nearly to capacity early on this midweek evening. We wind our way past the crush of bodies into the blissful minimalism of the main dining room. Bathed in cool greens and pale blues, the room evokes both the calm stillness of Monet’s Water Lilies, and the meditative tidal rhythms of its coastal location. Pebble filled hurricane lanterns flicker at each table, and contribute to the feel of naturalistic modernism. Sea green banquettes line one wall and create intimately cozy nooks, while a smattering of tables are distributed with precise equilibrium through the remaining space. Large scale paintings, in bright, warm hues, enliven the space and add vitality to the Zen-like simplicity. Soothed into sweet solemnity, we await the commencement of our culinary tutelage with an almost monastic serenity.
Overwhelmed by the menu’s multitudes, we willing put ourselves at the “Mercy of the Chef:” Nine-Ten’s special prix-fixe menu, $80 per person and $120 with wine pairings, highlighting the chef’s nightly inspirations. We are first presented with a little shot glass full of bright orange carrot soup, sprinkled with minuscule diced scallions for a color contrasting garnish. I gulp it down, and am immediately hit by a wave of spicy heat that is quickly tempered by the sweet, earthy richness of the carrot broth that follows. This amuse bouche invigorates our palates with fresh, bright flavors and hidden depths, a fitting introduction to Chef Jason Knibb’s sophisticated culinary whimsies.
Our sashimi first courses arrive together on identical rectangular glass plates, accompanied by flutes of sparkling, ruby colored Gruet Brut Rose. In front of me, delicate slices of smoky, pinkish Hamachi Sashimi curl around themselves, resembling miniature water hyacinth blossoms. Tucked within their folds, a miniature forest of baby shiitake mushrooms flourishes, permeating the cool, creamy fish with an earthy acidity. A generous dusting of sea salt on the plate adds sharp, briny accents, bringing the sashimi back to its oceanic source.
While my dish’s aesthetic reflects a distinctively Asian minimalism, my dining companion’s Tasmanian Salmon Belly Sashimi is an exercise in orchestrated chaos. Slices of marbled pink salmon are dispersed with a purposefully haphazard abandon across the dish, sprinkled with dollops of Straus Creamery yogurt, golden char roe, and young celery. Julienned Granny Smith apples are bundled together in the corners, an orderly geometric contrast to the organic fluidity of the composition. While the dish projects a playful absence of control, tasting its components reveals an extraordinarily balance. The creamy yogurt accentuates the buttery, velvet salmon, while punctuating its sweet notes with subtle sourness. The crisp, tart apple slivers contrast with the sashimi’s dominant silken textures while the roe deliver unexpected briny flavor explosions as they pop in the mouth. The dry Gruet tickles the palate, blending its Pinot Noir pepperiness with a Chardonnay’s floral notes, for a refreshing pairing.
The pungent, slightly sour aroma of black truffles precedes our second courses: The Perigord Black Truffle with housemade Tagliatelle Pasta and the Perigord Black Truffle with Yukon Potato Gnocchi. Both dishes mirror each other, with decadently large shavings of deep black truffles covering little mounds of creamy starchiness in twin white bowls. The flavor profile transforms with the first bite: the almost domineering truffle scent lightens to an ethereal lightness, blending with the buttery richness of the pasta and gnocchi. Deeply gratifying, both dishes manage to impart the warmth of comfort food with distinctive opulence, taking the culinary jewel of Perigord truffles and making them subtle, understated, and intensely approachable. The Brandal Albarino paired with my tagliatelle is a light, creamy accompaniment, free of the cloying sweetness of some white wines.
The sensual feast continues with our third course dishes. Like the truffle course that preceded it, the Local Halibut announces itself with a warm, toasty, buttery fish scent. A large, golden fillet, sprinkled with miniature cauliflower florets, rests on a verdant bed of arrowroot spinach on the plate, encircled by a painterly smear of off-white cauliflower puree. Hidden flavor surprises reveal themselves upon delving into dish: pine nuts and sultana raisins add rich sweetness to the dish when juxtaposed with the slightly bitter spinach and flaky mild fish, while fried capers add a salty crunch. It is at once delicate and assertive, and stakes its claim in our memories with its fresh seasonality. The mild sweetness and vanilla notes of the Robert Mondavi Chardonnay highlight the dish without overpowering.
The Calamari and House Made Chorizo makes an attention-commanding visual display. A study in black and white, the dish is “framed” by the square of its plate and resembles an Abstract Expressionist composition, with pools of deep black squid ink risotto layered over and streaking across the brilliant white square of the calamari steak, while miniature tentacle “starbursts” and brown chorizo nuggets add organic and textural nuance. Like its visual presentation, the dish’s flavors are more aggressively assertive than the Local Halibut, dominated by a smoky spice that permeates the risotto and, even infiltrates the creamy mildness of the calamari.
In a similar juxtaposition of innovation and simplicity, the Port Wine Braised Beef Short Rib and Jamaican Jerk Pork arrive together in startling contrast. The former is given a straightforward, minimally adorned presentation: the large hunk of dark beef is crowned by roasted shallots and accented by a creamy white smear of horseradish puree, mixing with the shortrib jus, dotted by curling Brussel sprout leaves and a little cluster of matsutake mushrooms. The dish is a well-balanced study in winter seasonality, with the melt-in-the-mouth shortrib permeating the taste buds with heady satisfaction of hearty roasted meat while the sharp spice of the horseradish puree and bitter hints of the Brussel sprouts meld with the beef to create sublime flavor comfort. The Eponymous Meritage, and its hints of crème brulee caramelization and smokiness, adds new richness and fuller body to the dish.
The Jamaican Jerk Pork, on the other hand, veers away from traditional culinary presentation and flavor. Two cubes of pork belly are encased in a clear jalapeno gelee that captures a few of the black eyed peas and caramelized plantain cubes sprinkled around the plate in with the meat. Green Swiss chard, orange baby carrots, and a deeper orange sweet potato puree enliven the plate with vibrant bursts of color. The dish’s bright colors and glassy “packaging” reference a Pop Art-like material play that is truly novel to see on a plate. Deconstructing the composition reveals delicious approachability. The crispy, sweet pork references both the classic smoky familiarity of barbeque while hinting at the exotic with Asian spices. The gelee is a culinary revelation: it immediately dissolves, infusing the mouth and every taste of the dish with the essence of jalapeno heat, and just as immediately departs, without overwhelming the delicate balance of ingredients. The 10 Rows Pinot Noir, with notes of its butterscotch, complements the sweetness of the pork and sweet potato puree, while cooling the palate from the jalapeno’s spice.
The welcome culinary assault continues with our cheese and dessert courses, which we willingly subject ourselves to, despite our waning appetites and growing stomachs. The cheese plate offers a delicious impromptu snack before we delve into our dessert finale: the sharp, creamy, and nutty characters of each cheese complement and contrast with the sweet and pickled flavors of the raisins and pear mustard accompaniments, while the house made bagel chips and almonds act as delightfully crunchy blank canvases onto which the rich flavors of the cheese can be layered. Of the pairings, the DOW’s 10 Year Tawny Port steals the show, with its smoky sweetness, reminiscent of figs, dates, and dried fruit. The Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc has a quieter presence, adding peachy floral notes that lighten the heavier cheese flavors.
The Extra Bitter Chocolate Mousse and Olive Oil Semifreddo provide fittingly sweet conclusions. The Olive Oil Semifreddo is an unexpected treat: drawing on the floral sweetness of under-utilized fruits like fresh quince as a plate garnish and persimmon in the accompanying quenelle of sorbet, the fluffy, buttery, impossibly light semifreddo custard is refreshing rather than heavily sucrosed and rich. True to its name the Extra Bitter Chocolate Mousse is also very tempered in its sweetness, capturing more of the pure cacao flavor of chocolate than sugar. The subtle mousse blends with the nutty richness of a hazelnut puree, while a black truffle emulsion adds bitter pungency. The smoked sorbet is both straightforward and baffling, with a taste that conjures memories of campfires and smoked salmon while still maintaining its pleasing dessert profile. It is a surprising and original dessert, one that reacquaints the diner with chocolate, and highlights characteristics that are rarely explored.
By the end of our meal, I begin to think that the real “Mercy of the Chef” is in the feast’s conclusion, when the chef mercifully saves us from ourselves and our gluttonous impulses. We stagger away from the site of our epicurean saturnalia, weighed down by our excesses and our reluctance to bid adieu to Nine-Ten’s exquisite full-sensory epicurean pampering. For the first time, I feel I have tasted the sweet ambrosia of prosperity, experiencing a dinner of regal proportions in the vein of Louis XIV or the bacchanal Romans. I savor the lingering flavors of the feast, wondering how I will ever go back to my more humble proletariat diet.