Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: George's California Modern

Snapper crudo at George's California Modern
Snapper crudo from The Fanciest George
I wanted our first anniversary dinner to be somewhere special, so we chose a place I've wanted to go for years: George's California Modern, one of the pillars of San Diego fine dining. It's the swankiest of the three George's concepts, which are stacked neatly one atop the other, all overlooking the La Jolla coastline.

As we stepped off the noisy street and through the entrance of the Fancy George's, the atmosphere immediately changed. The empty bar served as a quiet, dignified, solemn staging area. There was little indication we were in a full-service restaurant till we were led down a hall to the main dining room. Our genial server immediately congratulated us on our milestone (as would happen another half-dozen times or so over the course of the night).

Our cocktails were strong, tropical and delicious. Amy ordered an English milk punch, which was not milky in the least, but had a smoky foretaste and followed up with a hit of herbaceous pineapple. My drink, simply labeled "Tiki," was actually the creamier one thanks to the coconut. It was sweet and a bit bitter, maybe from the absinthe, with a citrusy passion fruit finish.

We got bread with three house-made spreads to start off (for $2 a person—I guess this is what pays for that prime La Jolla real estate). The Prager Brothers bread was wonderful, earthy with a healthy outer crust. Spread number one was an unsalted butter, rich and creamy, not a standout until I added a sprinkle of the accompanying craggy kosher salt, which made it a real treat. Number two was a Thai basil hummus which was, well... aggressively basil-y. Not bad, but a bit one-note. Third and most interesting was the spinach and artichoke butter, reminiscent of a Boursin-style spreadable cheese, but subtler and smoother.

Pork belly at George's California ModernI got pork belly (Drink!) as my appetizer, which was nice and tender, but exceedingly salty. In my mind, the elements of a successful dish should taste great on their own, not just when combined, but here the pork belly was much better when the salt was mellowed by the hearty, almost creamy barbecue baked beans. The crispy fried greens added a nice textural element, though I would have also liked a bit more of the pistachio for a different kind of crunch. There was plenty to enjoy here once I escaped the salt—I just shouldn't have had to in the first place.

Amy's snapper crudo was light and refreshing; the sweetness of the fish echoed in the cubes of fresh watermelon. A well-assembled bite would also include a bit of rice cracker crunch and some heat from the chile. It all rested in a creamy buttermilk sauce, unusual but satisfying. I would have liked more acidity, but I can appreciate the novel direction.

Amy's beef tenderloin appeared in the form a posh, delicious holiday dinner. The juicy, delectably tender meat was well-crusted on the outside and topped with a buttery, sweet and tangy bone marrow vinaigrette. It came with creamed kale, which we agreed should immediately replace creamed spinach worldwide; the hardier green retains some firmness through the creaming process instead of becoming a wilted mess. They may have gone a bit overboard with the root veggies, though they were well prepared; the carrots and potatoes had a lightly crisped exterior. The parsnips were nice as well, tasting halfway between the potato and carrot. It came together into something like a traditional feast in miniature.

Duck at George's California Modern
With my duck entrée, it felt as if the chefs had designed a culinary playground—there were just so many elements that bounced off one another in interesting ways. The duck breast itself was simple enough, but it seemed destined to be paired with the preserved kumquat as a nod to duck à l'orange. If I instead grabbed some of the peanut, pickled veggies and cilantro, I got whispers of something Vietnamese. Broccoli popped up twice but in very different forms, served in florets with a nice chargrilled flavor and as a purée that brought out a slight sweetness. The heavily crisped duck leg sprinkled throughout was a joy. Most interesting of all was the green onion pain perdu, which didn't read as French toast in the least, but rather as a savory scallion brioche, fluffy but a little crisp on the outside. There was almost too much going on here, but it was undeniably unique and tasty.

I insisted on a dessert for each of us, a foolish mistake that I don't regret in the slightest.

Amy's warm chocolate tart was piled with fresh berries, black and red and gold. The chocolate was rich and dark, with a melty consistency somewhere between the inside and outside of a lava cake. Crunchy chocolate soil and a toffee-like dark chocolate tuile piled on the decadence. The crème fraiche ice cream was nothing more unusual than a standard vanilla, but it didn't have to be. Delicious.

Doughnuts & dips at George's California Modern
My doughnuts and dips was like five desserts in one. The four large, fluffy donut holes were doused in sugar and designed to be dipped into one of four small ramekins: a vanilla crème brulée complete with caramelized crust, a thick chocolate custard, a sweet and deeply strawberry compote, and a tart raspberry jam. It was wonderful. I nearly died finishing it.

Having experienced George's, I can see why it's so well regarded. It's not a place to go for a casual dinner, but it is most certainly a place to go. Despite the occasional flaw or excess flourish, it's one of those elite places, like Market or Nine-Ten, that define high-end American cuisine in San Diego. Restaurants like George's serve are an essential part of our rapidly rising national reputation as a food city.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

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