By Wendy Lemlin
I’ve always been a fan of Chef Anthony Sinsay. Since I first tasted his creations at Harney Sushi, where he was one of San Diego’s first chefs to experiment with the then-revolutionary magic of “molecular gastronomy”, and later at the now-defunct Burlap, I’ve been more than a little in awe of his ability to coax multi-layers of flavor from relatively simple ingredients. I was expecting great things from him at the newly opened Duke’s La Jolla, but even so, on my recent visit I was wowed by how the Exec Chef is able to let his sparkling culinary personality shine within the confines of a corporately owned restaurant group with numerous eateries in California and Hawaii. I think his creativity will be very instrumental in modernizing the traditional menus of a long standing brand.
First, a little about the restaurant itself. Commanding an enviable location on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove, with waterfront views that would reach the Aloha State if we could actually see that far, the Hawaiian-themed restaurant occupies the space left vacant, lo these many years, by Top of the Cove. Flaming torches flank the entrance, but this is not some cheesy South Seas tiki wanna-be. Once inside, guests first encounter displays of standing longboards, and a wall of Duke Kahanamoku and surfing memorabilia. (The restaurant’s namesake was a native Hawaiian, born in 1890, a six-time Olympic swimming and water polo medalist, and considered the father of modern day surfing.) The casually comfortable décor is all about warm woods, beachy colors, palm trees and surfboards. The main level has a bar and indoor dining room that opens to the covered al fresco patio, which would have those great views during the day, but on a breezy January night was chilly, despite a plethora of heaters. The smaller upstairs level isn’t officially open yet, but will be ideal for private events.
So, what did I eat? First of all, let me disclose that Chef Anthony knew I was there to
write a review and was only too happy to offer suggestions and explain how the dishes were prepared. I don’t eat meat, and was pleased to note that there were plenty of seafood and vegetable options. My dining companion and I shared our dishes, most of which were “small plates”, so we could sample a representative variety and still be able to waddle out the door when the meal was over.
I began, as one should always do when trying to conjure up a Hawaiian vacation, with an orchid flower-garnished cocktail. My Lavender Colada said “aloha” with a California twist, the floral lavender undertones enhancing the refreshing, but not overly sweet, tropical pineapple and coconut flavors.
We were off to a great start with a fantastic Crudo of Hawaiian big eye tuna ($13), the super-clean taste of the raw fish so nicely set off with the sweetness of tiny pieces of caramelized pineapple, a lightly acidic white soy ponzu, black lava sea salt, and thin slices of Serrano chili.
Charred Snap Peas ($9) were a perfect accompaniment to the crudo, with the crunchiness of the smoky pea pods and radish slices, locally sourced from Suzie’s Farm, providing textural contrast to the buttery tuna. There were pieces of marcona almond and silky daubs of brie, but the surprise delight was the burnt pineapple vinaigrette that highlighted it all. Sinsay burns the pineapple—“We annihilate it,” he smiled, “I mean, completely black.”— and the ash gives the vinaigrette a complex combination of flavor nuances—acidic, sweet, and smoky all at the same time. Who would think that burned fruit would be such a good thing?
Mussels and fries go together like romance and moonlight, and the next two dishes accomplished that admirably, although both the Mussels Adobo ($9) and the Kennebec Fries ($6) are each sufficiently crave-worthy on their own. The Philippine inspired mussels are a signature dish for Chef Anthony. “This is my mother’s recipe,” he explained. “It is deeply personal for me. Everything in it is about my childhood, and it brings up so much nostalgia, that I get a little emotional every time.” The broth of the Philippine adobo marinade and coconut milk was so tasty, I couldn’t stop dipping thick pieces of the traditional grilled bread, known as pan de sal, to get every last drop.
Now, about those Kennebec Fries. Sure, French fries are just about everyone’s guilty pleasure, and hip restaurants are always trying to gourmet them up with truffles, duck fat, or fancy dipping sauces, but I have to say that these are, in fact, the crispest, Best Fries Ever. In Sinsay’s preparation, the cut potatoes are steamed, oven dried, frozen, and finally fried. Who even thinks of going through all these steps, just for fries? Amazingly crunchy on the outside, soft at the core, and given a dash of togarashi salt for pizzazz— they are a pleasure worth any amount of guilt!
It seems that it is de rigeur for every restaurant in San Diego to serve fish tacos. OK, I get it, fish tacos have become emblematic of our local cuisine. Personally, though, while I can certainly enjoy them for a casual bite, I feel that there are so many more interesting things happening in our culinary scene these days, that there’s a part of me that really wishes that we could move beyond identifying our city by its fish tacos. That being said, however, these ($16 for 2) did the San Diego tradition proud with fresh corn tortillas, stuffed full of grilled, sustainably harvested line-caught mahi mahi, red cabbage, and radish sprouts, served with the poblanos and crema mixture known as rajas, and tortilla chips.
The Tahitian Octopus ($15) was exceptionally tender, thanks to its confit preparation with papaya seeds, a natural tenderizing agent. Char grilled and served with smoked papaya, cucumber, lime, and coconut milk, the dish had a full array of taste components, from umami to smoke, from citrus to sweet. I keep vowing to no longer eat octopus, after having learned how intelligent they are, but then along comes a dish like this, and my good intentions go straight to hell. Or, in this case, heaven. What can I say—the spirit is willing but the palate is weak.
Beauty is in the mouth of the beholder and the Eggplant Miso ($7) was a stunner. “I call this my ‘Japaterranean’ dish,” Sinsay said of the flower petal-strewn combination of miso glazed Japanese eggplant, daubs of thick, slightly sweet, sesame yogurt, and mint leaves. Simple and complex at the same time, it was one of my top selections of the meal.
Salmon is high on my list of favorite fish, and the Creative King Salmon ($27) did not disappoint! Grilled rare, just the way I like it, my fillet sat on a bed of roasted sunchokes and baby celery, surrounded by mussels and a black garlic broth. Chef Anthony explained that the exceptionally flavorful broth is made from the whey of boiled buttermilk steeped with black garlic and horseradish. Normally the dish would include chorizo, a spicy Portuguese sausage, but because of my non-carnivorism, Sinsay left that out and added charred black garlic for an extra level of smoky zing.
I’m not a big mahi mahi fan—the texture, which always feels a little dry in my mouth, even when cooked perfectly, bothers me—so I think I would have enjoyed the Roasted Duke’s Fish ($27) with a basil lemon glaze more if it had been prepared with some other type of white fish. It’s also worth noting that this is not one of Anthony Sinsay’s original recipes, but a variation of a staple at all the Duke’s restaurants.
I didn’t think I could eat another mouthful, but then, out came dessert. Malasadas ($9) are balls of fried dough dusted with cinnamon sugar, similar in texture to beignets, churros, or cake donuts. They were brought to Hawaii by the whalers and fishermen of Portuguese descent who settled there, much like in my home town of New Bedford, MA. I’ve eaten A LOT of malasadas in my life, but I can unequivocally say that none have been as light and airy as these, which were accompanied by a housemade guava jam. Compared to the gigunda serving of Duke’s iconic Hula Pie ($10)—a mound of macadamia nut ice cream, chocolate sauce, macadamia nuts and whipped cream on an Oreo crust, (none of which are made in-house)—which we “just had to try”, the malasadas were like puffs of tasty clouds in a sky of indulgence.
I’m thrilled that Anthony Sinsay is back in San Diego. With its five star location, and inviting atmosphere, as well as approachable pricing that compares well to other comparable restaurants in la Jolla Village, I predict that Duke’s La Jolla will be riding a wave of success with Sinsay at the helm.
Duke’s La Jolla Lunch: Mon-Sun 11:30am- 3:00 pm
1216 Prospect Street Aloha Hour: Mon-Sun 3:00pm – 5:00 pm
La Jolla, CA 92037 Dinner: Mon- Sun 9:00pm- 9:00 pm