3 to try: Creativity reigns at restaurants in La Jolla, Kearny Mesa and Jamul
La Jolla’s Blue Ocean and Harumama are two seaside restaurants in one; Convoy’s Realm of the 52 Remedies’ omakase cocktail-dinner pairing is a feast for the senses; and the chef’s table at Jamul Casino’s Prime Cut steakhouse offers perfect pampering
Maybe it’s San Diego’s fiercely competitive restaurant climate, the millennials’ desire for experiential dining, or just good, old-fashioned inspired thinking.
Whatever is driving the region’s recent spurt of culinary creativity, it’s a trend we welcome without reservation.
Out-of-the-box approaches to dining are flourishing around the county and we happily discovered three recently: the two-restaurants-in-one concept at Blue Ocean/Harumama in La Jolla; the omakase cocktail and dinner pairing at Realm of the 52 Remedies on Convoy Street; and the newly debuted private chef’s table at Jamul Casino’s Prime Cut steakhouse. Here’s a look at the innovative ways they’re shaping the local scene.
When husband-and-wife restaurateurs Jenny and James Pyo took over the Prospect Street location that once housed The Hake, they could have spun off one of their already-proven concepts or create a new one. They didn’t do either. With the keys to a sprawling, 5,400-square-foot piece of prime La Jolla oceanview real estate, they decided to divide the dining room into two outposts of their more popular eateries, Blue Ocean and Harumama, which they opened in November.
The Pyos got creative with their new space, perhaps taking a cue from the upstairs neighbor, the iconic George’s at the Cove, which itself is multiple venues in one (George’s California Modern, Ocean Terrace and Level2).
The 54-seat Harumama, which serves ramen, udon, bao buns and ridiculously adorable character steamed buns (fashioned to look like little cows, pigs, chickens, pandas, bees, bunnies and polar bears), is located right up front. To the rear, Blue Ocean occupies the part of the restaurant that boasts (what else?) a blue ocean view. A more formal dining experience with 90 seats, it specializes in sushi, sashimi, specialty rolls, appetizers and entrées.
There is no cross-menu ordering, so while the Pyos didn’t have to choose between their concepts, you do. On a quiet Tuesday night recently, four of us decided to eat dinner at Blue Ocean and get dessert at Harumama. We chose well.
Unlike Blue Ocean in Carlsbad, the La Jolla sister restaurant doesn’t offer robata-grilled skewers. You won’t necessarily miss them. Start your meal with the one of the best oyster preparations in town: plump, briny Shikokus topped with sturgeon caviar, ikura salmon caviar, togarashi spice, chive, lime and heavenly mascarpone foam. It’s bright and lush and tickles the tongue with its double doses of roe. Move on to the sweet, crunchy and utterly addictive caramelized eggplant, with cashews and sesame, and be prepared to fight over the last piece. I could see munching that out of a popcorn bag, zombie-style, with my hands.
The pristine slices of fish in the screaming yellowtail are transformed into perfect pops of flavor by ponzu and crispy garlic, through the spicy mayo on the baked green mussels could have used more punch. The sushi rolls were beautifully plated and satisfying and the Korean barbecued short ribs are tender and rich.
While I’ve been marveling at photos of Harumama’s character steamed buns since it opened in Little Italy, then in Carlsbad, in 2018, I wasn’t prepared for how delicious those little balls of visual delight would be. We had the special holiday peppermint-chocolate penguin (in a Santa hat!) and bunny filled with Nutella. Don’t make me choose between them.
Realm of the 52 Remedies
There’s no place in San Diego as opulently over-the-top as the Convoy Street speakeasy Realm of the 52 Remedies, which looks like what would happen if Animae and Raised by Wolves had a bar baby.
Located inside — and a world away from — the boisterous brewpub Common Theory Public House, Realm is accessed through a door that opens into a brilliantly white, and silent, natural “apothecary” of spices, herbs, tinctures and tonics. On the night we were there, co-owner Cris Liang explained the concept of traditional Chinese herbal remedies that were created centuries ago to treat 52 ailments.
The apothecary smells like a spa so I don’t necessarily want to leave, but Liang has us go through a sliding door and into what Eater San Diego called a stunning cocktail den where you can “drink like a Crazy Rich Asian.”
With a whimsical design flair bordering on mystical, Realm of the 52 Remedies is a warren of small spaces — a bar, booths, low-slung seating areas — that could be in the most sophisticated jungle you’ve ever seen.
The speakeasy sports a cocktail menu of classics, signature, Asian-inspired drinks and creations that pay homage to bars and mixologists from around the world. The list was curated by bartender Chris “Dong Kyu” Lee, who splits his time at Bar Old Fashioned in Seoul, one of Korea’s top bars. Small plates come courtesy of chef Jonathan Bautista, whose impressive résumé includes top positions at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Kitchen 1540 in Del Mar and L.A.'s INK.
The collective creative genius of Lee and Bautista come together in their recently launched omakase cocktail and menu pairing. You’ll be at their mercy, which means your experience will likely be way more adventurous than if you were choosing your own drinks or dishes. Curated especially for you after a quick post-reservation consultation, the four or six omakase lineup is a progression unlike any I’ve had.
A friend and I had the Supreme Elixir of six cocktail and food pairings. Portions are right sized, so neither of us came away full or tipsy. The inventive pairings are harmonious but the cocktails and the dishes took turns being excellent. Overall, there wasn’t one course where they both stood out.
The hands-down best cocktail was served third, the Winter Remedies — Eagle Rare bourbon, cinnamon syrup, Chinese five-spice bitters, lemon juice and ginger foam. It was complexly smoky and warming on a (California) cold night.
After being handed the menu, I was afraid of two of the dishes — their ingredients sounded too freaky to be good. Of course, they turned out the best ones: the first course was ikura salmon roe with caramelized banana, cauliflower and furikake seasoning; the final course was a black pepper financier, with fish sauce caramel, sesame butter and a pistachio crumble.
What possessed Bautista to concoct those ingredients? We don’t know and we don’t care. They work, inexplicably. That is the triumph of true creativity.
4805 Convoy St.. Kearny Mesa (entrance inside Common Theory Public House). $40 and $60 for four or six cocktail tasting; $70 and $90 with optional food pairings. Reservations required at email@example.com. (858) 256-0441. 52remedies.com
Jamul Casino is notable for having a woman tribal chair, Erica Pinto, and a woman general manager, Mary Cheeks. And in the kitchen of its glamorous signature steakhouse, Prime Cut, is a trio of culinary superwomen: Cheryl Cruz, chef de cuisine; her sous chef Marites Cotillon and Annika Racadio, the pastry sous chef.
Together, they are putting together one of the more elevated, bespoke dining experiences at any casino steakhouse and beyond — The Chef’s Mercy Table.
How it works is when you reserve your table, you’ll speak to directly to Cruz about your likes and dislikes. Based on your conversation, she’ll then work with Cotillon and Racadio to craft a three- or four-course dinner just for you. If you opt for the wine pairing, Cruz will consult with Prime Cut manager and sommelier Dennis Reiter on the perfect matches.
The cost of your dinner/wine pairing will vary but you can count on it being one of the most ridiculously reasonable tasting menus in town (think Restaurant Week pricing). Our three course dinner was $59, plus $25 for the wine pairing.
The Chef’s Mercy Table is one of the booths closest to the kitchen; with each course Cruz and Cotillon present their dishes; Racadio shows up with dessert. The knowledgeable Reiter goes over the wine selection. It all feels very personal and special. With our check, we even got a hand-written card from our server, Sandy.
None of that would really matter if what they were serving wasn’t terrific. We loved everything we tried but particularly the rich crab bisque, with truffle butter, micro chervil and the best brioche toast we’d ever had, and the stuffed Cornish game hen, with wild mushrooms, that brioche, sage, heirloom carrots and dark chocolate demi-glace. Reiter’s pairings (Peju Napa chard with the bisque, Cloudline Willamette Valley pinor noir with the bird) were spot on. Racadio’s balanced, expertly executed desserts, like the ginger spiced cake with almond toffee brittle, raspberry coulis and grapefruit ice cream, are the perfect meal-enders.
Cruz and her team of wonder women are turning out creatively experimental fare in a singular format.
14145 Campo Road, Jamul. Reservations: (619) 315-2279. jamulcasinosd.com/restaurant/prime-cut-steak-seafood
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