Since opening in 1998, Tapenade has established itself as a La Jolla institution. Diners frequent the sophisticated establishment for acclaimed chef Jean-Michel Diot’s Provençal-style French cooking. Diot, who comes to San Diego after a successful career in Paris and New York, offers a consistently award-winning menu, while Tapenade’s welcoming atmosphere and excellent service complement the cuisine. For an exceptional experience, Diot offers a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings, offered daily.Read More ...
If there is a formula for the ideal restaurant experience—one where every need is met, every sense delighted, every dish inspired, and all of this without pretense—Tapenade Chef and Owner Jean-Michel Diot must have discovered it. His downtown La Jolla restaurant offers a harmonious fusing of delightful elements: modern sensibility, understated elegance, gracious hospitality, and exquisite, engaging cuisine.
Parking easily on Fay Avenue and entering the restaurant, our experience began with the smiling face of Ludovic Mifsud, Tapenade’s gracious Maitre D’. Greeting us at the entrance, he stood between the restaurants two main areas—to the right, an inviting bar and lounge; to the left, an equally enticing dining room. Framing the entrance were two semi-private dining areas—a round room enclosed in lush, velvet drapes for up to eighteen guests; and a charming, intimate alcove behind a low wall, set with a single table. The latter, offering a rare degree of intimacy for parties of two to eight, may well be one of the best tables in the city for special occasions.
We were seated at one of many tables against long booths in the main dining room. Tall, sloped ceilings buffered by long canvas sheets, cheerful yellow walls, and large windows made the space seem as bright and airy as the outdoors. Black and white photos in large frames as well as oversized canvas prints adorned the walls, each image celebrating the pleasures of food and wine. Simple, translucent curtains shielded the room’s windows, while a door to a charming outdoor patio stood open. The room epitomized casual elegance, with clean lines and carefully chosen textures that faded into the background, leaving only a warm setting that seemed to facilitate the lively buzz of conversation. I felt as if I were in a modern café in France or New York.
Chef Jean-Michel Diot hails from both, so it is no surprise that Tapenade seems like it could be found on another coast or another continent. Diot came to America from France in 1987 and spent ten years in New York City, where he opened three restaurants and garnered much acclaim. With numerous awards and glowing reviews under his belt, he moved to La Jolla, opening Tapenade in 1998. The result of a career split between countries is a culinary style that delightfully blends classic and modern French with a hint of California influence, all with a complex maturity that can only come from a seasoned chef.
We knew we were in for a treat when an amuse bouche—a dainty sliver of toasted baguette topped with a light pink swirl of dried fruit and goat cheese mousse—teased our palates. Lingering over the mousse's simultaneously sweet and tart flavor, I turned my attention to the wine list, which was approachable yet encompassing. Compiled by Chef Diot himself, the list focused on French and French-style wines, offering a combination of small and well-known producers. The front of the list offered smaller portions, including wines by the glass and half bottle, and a selection of "premium wines" available by the half-glass, glass, and small carafe. The 100 or so wines by the bottle included an excellent selection of Bordeaux and aged Burgundy wines dating back to 1988.
We gladly enlisted the advice of our server, who after discussing both the menu and wine list suggested a half bottle of 2002 Puligny Montrachet Louis Latour Chardonnay. Green, grassy, and crisp, the Burgundy wine was versatile and very food-friendly, and would prove to pair well with each course. We toyed with the tasting menu—a five course prix-fixe option offered daily, with or without wine pairings—but ultimately decided to order off the main menu.
Our first course offered a contrast in traditional and modern, with two dishes that spanned the range of tradition, taste, and flavor. The Escargots de Bourgogne au buerre d' ail, traditional Burgundy snails with fresh herbs & garlic butter, arrived in a white porcelain dish with six snail-sized cavities, each holding tender meat beneath a pool of hazelnut butter and parsley pesto. It was the sauce—a resonating, complex blend of herbs, nuts, garlic, and butter—that made the dish sublime. Each bite burst of flavor, the tender, dark meat a vessel for the savory sauce. The meat itself resembled shellfish in consistency, with a decidedly earthy flavor. Even - nay, especially - if you don’t think you like snails, you must try this dish.
The Salade de Crabe Dungeness, Salade de Mangues, was light and airy; the exact counterpart to the hearty snails. Likewise, it was creatively "Californian" in its execution where the escargots were classically French. A large white plate divided down the center by a generous swath of mango gastrique held on one side a salad of micro-greens and clover sprouts, and on the other a cylindrical, two-layer form beneath a curved waffle shell. The bottom of the form comprised plump bits of crab meat mingling with hints of cream, horseradish, and subtle spice. Atop, the cooling citrus of diced mango, pomelos, and oranges mingled with the piquant flavor of petit diced red onion. Together the tastes were fresh, vibrant, and delicate, the creamy crab filling out the light mango and the mango serving to tame the succulent crab.
Our next course featured Tapenade's signature dish, Raviolis aux Champignons: house-made wild mushroom raviolis served in a port wine & white truffle oil sauce with aged Parmesan Reggiano. Plump packages resembling dumplings sat in a pool of almost foamy broth, begging to be sliced into. Thin, al dente dough gave way to a deep blend of ground porcini, morel, and button mushrooms that melded in an earthy mélange of flavors. A forkful—earthy filling, light, savory broth, and the distinct flavors of parmesan and truffle—achieved what can only be deemed perfection. Harmonious, engaging, and intriguing, each bite was wholly triumphant.
The longest standing dish on the menu, Homard au Mais Blanc, Cepes et Vanille Tahitienne, was also the most arresting. The presentation seemed angelic: pale white, foaming broth spread across a wide bowl, gently blanketing plump pieces of pink lobster, verdant English peas, pale porcini mushrooms, and tiny pearls of corn. A familiar sweet aroma reminded me of powdered sugar, funnel cakes, and childhood bliss. The captivating smell was the Tahitian vanilla, the dish’s star ingredient. A spoonful of the broth evoked memories of melted ice cream on warm summer evenings—it was the most astounding taste of the entire meal. No bite went without some of the sweet vanilla cream—each piece of tender, succulent lobster, each crisp pea, each slender porcini mushroom and delicate baby Yukon gold potato. Sweet and savory, delicate and determined, it was no wonder this dish had remained on the menu for years.
With the last of our Latour Chardonnay dwindling, we moved to a glass of 2000 Bridgeview Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir from Oregon. Served chilled, the wine’s subtle fruitiness burst forth, tempered by light tannins and a long, complex finish. It paired perfectly with our last entrée, the Confit de Canard.
The Duck Confit was classic where the lobster was creative. A plump, bone-in duck leg, which had been slow cooked for six hours, rested on a boneless thigh, towering beside a pool of deep-red port wine sauce, a medley of haricot verts and chanterelles, and a mash of Yukon gold potatoes sprinkled with corn. Thin, perfectly crisp skin gave way to tender meat that pulled apart effortlessly—it was intoxicating, almost smoky, in flavor. The accompanying port reduction was sweet and tangy, adding complexity to each bite. The corn mash—a blend of sweet corn kernels and buttery mashed potatoes, resonated with the freshness of in-season corn, filling the otherwise starchy potatoes with rich flavor. The chanterelles were dense and earthy and a perfect antidote to the sweet, flavorful sauce. There was not a bite that was anything less than captivating.
In fact, there was not a bite of our entire meal that had not been captivating, satisfying, and pleasurable. Content and delighted, dessert hardly seemed necessary. Yet, the excitement in Maitre D' Ludovic Mifsud's eyes was enough to convince us to sample some of Pastry Chef Jerome Maure's creations. Indeed, dessert proved irresistible, even in our sated state.
The Declinaison de Fraises et Rhubarbe was summer at its peak. A white egg-shaped form of pistachio and white chocolate ice cream set atop a cylindrical tower, a cookie crust surrounding a medley of chandler strawberries and rhubarb. The tart fruit blended perfectly with the creamy ice cream, both serving to keep the other in check. The surprising brilliance of the dish was the inclusion of fresh basil amid the fruit. Its earthy freshness kept the otherwise rich dish somehow grounded, awakening the palate after each bite.
We were bid farewell with silver tray of petit biscotti and almond cakes, affording us one last bite of sweet pleasure before departing. As we stood, reluctantly leaving the lively space for the world beyond, I knew that Tapenade had just found itself another loyal customer. I was already looking for my next excuse to return.
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Outstanding food and outstanding service. Everything was superior. Striped bass prepared to perfection. Asparagus soup was excellent. Paired nicely with Vouvray. Delightful amuse bouche at start and finish of meal. You won't regret having dinner at Tapenade -- a very special dining experience.
Excellent service, delicious food, great atmosphere.
Tapenade has been our favorite restaurant for the nine years we have lived in San Diego. The food is always excellent, varied, seasonal and interesting. We have enjoyed introducing friends and our grandaughter to Tapenade. Tapenade is always a wonderful treat and is resaonably priced for the quality and type of food.
I totally recommend this restaurant. The food was outrageous.
Just make a reservation and go!!
Good fresh and NATURAL oysters and delicious snails (escargots). Also the ravioli are an excellent choice and veal if you are still hungry! Be patiente with the service, and do not espect prime quality customer oriented one. Enjoy the wine (look first for the best price: Luois Latour always pays) or better off, bring your own bottle.
Great food wonderful service would recommend it to all my friends.