Visit awhile with Anthony Sinsay, executive chef at newly opened Duke's La Jolla, and you might wonder if his last name should be "Sensei." The Nestor-raised chef talks about food with the high-minded Zen of a martial arts master.
The San Marcos married father of two spent eight months in the test kitchen prepping for the opening of the two-story, 350-seat restaurant, which occupies the long-shuttered Top of the Cove location. Although Duke's - named for Honolulu surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku - is a chain with six locations in Hawaii and Southern California, the chefs at each outlet are given freedom to put their own stamp on the menu.
For Sinsay, that has meant infusing virtually every dish with his philosophy of sustainability, his Filipino heritage, and the modern and classic cooking and plating techniques he honed over the past 10 years at restaurants in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Santa Monica and San Diego (Harney Sushi and Burlap). Here's a look at six dishes that define both Duke's and its newest top chef.
1) Charred Snap Pea Salad
Local snap peas and black and watermelon radishes are tossed with buttery Marcona almonds and pats of creamy whipped Brie and topped with a burnt pineapple vinaigrette that's the epitome of umami: sweet, sour, salty and smoky flavors all in one. It's a spin on the burned garlic dish Sinsay created at Harney Sushi and reflects his philosophy of serving "simple, great products not fussed with." $9.
2) Poke Tacos
Duke's signature starter celebrates the freshness of raw ahi tuna, tossed in a shoyu sauce with Maui onions and served in wonton shells topped with wasabi crème fraîche and black sesame seeds and served on a stabilizing bed of avocado mash, which cools and balances the shoyu's spicy acidity. $13.
Where: 1216 Prospect St., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 454-5888
3) Tahitian Octopus
Sinsay has switched up Duke's classic of Tahitian shrimp served in a grilled half-papaya. Instead, he uses octopus slow-cooked in oil and papaya seeds, which are usually discarded but have unique meat-tenderizing qualities. After a quick flame char, the tender tentacles are served with chunks of papaya, pink grapefruit and compressed cucumber that have been tossed with lime juice, sugar and salt and served on a bed of fresh coconut cream. It's a knockout mix of textures, acid, and fat and sweet/salty sensations, and it's true to Sinsay's waste-nothing mantra. $13.
4) Mussels Adobo
Sinsay's most personal dish, first introduced at Burlap, is a tribute to his late grandmother. The mussels are served in a sweet/savory broth of coconut, chili, soy sauce and vinegar inspired by the Bicol Region of the Philippines. Topped with crispy elephant garlic chips, the broth is good enough to drink (and many diners do). The finishing touch is grilled slices of pan de sal rolls from local Valerio's Bakery, where Sinsay's mom would drive him every week for a bag of the Filipino sweet dinner rolls. "When my children eat it, it's like they're with their grandma again." $9.
5) Roasted Duke's Fish
Duke's No. 1-selling entree is an oven-roasted fish filet (on my visit, mahi mahi) served over coconut bamboo rice and topped with Duke's signature mayo-pesto glaze. Sinsay adds some color and whimsy with roasted long-tailed carrots, a pomegranate vinaigrette and edible flowers. $27.
6) Meyer's Ranch New York steak
Sinsay changed up Duke's steak/potato/creamed spinach standard by perching the beef on a platform of Weiser Farms pewee marble potatoes roasted in beef fat. He also replaced the creamed spinach with creamed Hawaiian taro leaf. Sinsay has tamed the taro's tough/toxic qualities with a long cooking process that took months to get right.