[Updated] George's California Modern

>> Monday, April 25, 2011

Date of Dining: 4/23/2011
Price: $65 per person for 5 course tasting menu
Location: 1250 Prospect, La Jolla, CA 92037
Restaurant Website

The Quick Bit:
+ Great Ocean View from dining room
+ Attentive Wait Staff
+ Good price/selection of wines
Δ Caliber of service could be more consistent
Δ Kitchen and Front of House could communicate better
Δ Food could be more inspired
Δ Portion size perhaps could have been larger for the price
Δ Pacing of the courses could have been more relaxed

When I first moved to San Diego, I was still a closet foodie. Upon doing some research, the fine dining restaurant that seemed to be the consensus best restaurant was George's California Modern (better known just as George's). Being the closet foodie, I feared that by going there I was way ahead of myself in my ability to appreciate the food, and developed almost an Eleanor-like trepidation about the place. Fast forward to today and I had still never been to George's.

George's kitchen is run by Trey Foshee, a graduate of CIA Hyde Park. His style emphasizes the flavors of that which are fresh and local. As such, the produce at George's is sourced from Chino Farms, and the menu makes no secrets about hiding that fact. Chef Foshee was named one of America's Ten Best New Chefs in 1998 and a James Beard House Guest Chef.

One of the little-known things about George's is that there's actually a 7 course tasting menu for $95 (George's also offers a 5 course tasting menu for $65 which everyone knows about). Apparently the 7 course menu is so unknown that when I called to make reservations for the 7 course menu two weeks in advance, the special events director that I was direct to was unaware of it. However, she did go check with the kitchen and then confirmed that they do in fact have a 7 course menu. Furthermore, when I inquired more about the tasting menus, I was assured that I would be able to pick some dishes that I definitely wanted off the main menu and the chef would be sure to incorporate those into the tasting.

Excited that I would get to pick the highlights of the meal, I set about studying the menu of the restaurant prior to arriving so I could determine which wine to bring. I was even called to confirm my reservations and asked during the confirmation if I was still interested in the 7 course tasting menu. Because I figured I would have some command of the menu, I confidently selected a Spanish Red, which would otherwise be very dangerous to bring to a seafood establishment. Upon our arrival, the waiter asked what we would be having and I informed him that I would like the 7 course tasting and that I had 3 of the courses I wanted. He diligently wrote down my requests and went to check with the kitchen if my request could be accommodated. However upon his return, I was informed that I was not allowed to order the 7-course menu and that I had "not called early enough" to arrange the menu. To add insult to injury, I would not be allowed to select any courses from the menu because the tasting menu for the night was solidly prix fixe. Of course this caused even more problems because one of my companions had a dining restriction against pork, which was the main course of the evening. Luckily, the waiter confirmed that a substitution to a hangar steak was an option for this course. Despite feeling like I had arranged to go on a date with Bait and Switch to end up on a double date with Conflict Diamond instead (see 5:40 of video), we went ahead and ordered the 5-course tasting menu.

Update: I was contacted by the General Manager of George's to say that I should try the "Chuck Eats Tasting Menu" and to get that menu, should contact the restaurant at least 4 days in advance and not dine on a weekend. Furthermore the reservation should be made specifically with their Director of Sales, Kristine Fogarty.

Amuse Bouche:
Crab with picked ramps on top of shaved radish and bits of apple
This course failed as an amuse. Because of the way it was composed, it was very difficult to get all the elements into my mouth in a single bite at once. Once the elements were in my mouth, I felt like there were too many vegetables and the flavors formed a dissonant chord rather than the harmonious one. I also felt like the course lacked some salt (at least in the crab) to bring out some more flavors.

First Course:
"Inside Out" Fish Tacos 
After being featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate on the food network, this dish has received a lot of attention, and rightfully so. The fish for the day was yellowfin tuna, but the waiter informed me that the fish changes daily based on whatever would work the best. A tune tartare filling is wrapped in a sliced tuna shell with bits of fried corn on the outside and the dish is accompanied by a piece of fried avocado.

This dish was the best dish of the night - the flavors were outstanding and there was both hot and cold contrast and textural contrast in the dish. The oil of the fish was well-complemented by the oil in the avocado. The cilantro added a very good freshness to the dish as well.

My only complaint about this dish is that while it was a great dish, it was not a "wow" dish for me. I feel like I have eaten the elements of this dish before, but it is more evolutionary (to include texture contrast) than revolutionary.

Second Course:
Smoked foie gras - picked plum puree, beats, marinated konbu
This was another successful dish. One of my companions had a bad experience with foie gras (goose) in the past and was fearing that she wouldn't like this dish. However, the foie gras (duck) in this convinced her that she just had one bad experience. The marinated konbu was a nice compliment to the foie gras and the beats. I didn't really understand the picked plum puree as the sweetness of it was covered up by the sweetness of the beats, and there really wasn't enough of it to add much flavor. The slice of ginger added a nice small spice kick.

As for minor nitpicks, the flower didn't really make sense to me in this dish, and the large piece of ginger didn't make much sense either. I feel like mincing the ginger and integrating it more in the dish would have made more sense than just sticking a large slice there.

Third Course:
Porcini-Glazed Bone-in Halibut - peas, asparagus. braised radish, Meyer lemon yogurt
Although there are many incarnations of the dish, the halibut at George's seems to be considered the signature dish, and has both been much maligned and praised. I fall into the camp of hating it.

First the good stuff; what I noticed immediately when this dish arrived was that the aroma of the halibut was heavily prevalent and that the dish could be experienced with smell much before taste. The halibut was cooked well, as were all of the vegetables.

Despite good cooking technique, this dish fell flat. While the individual components were made well, I didn't understand the big picture of the dish. The peas were bathed in the Meyer lemon yogurt and I didn't feel like they taste worked at all. The long green leafed herb was overpowering in the dish. After eating the small spring with a bite of halibut, I only tasted the herb.

Fourth Course:
Cider Braised Pork Belly and Slow Roasted Loin - Chino Farms Greens, blue cheese,
caramelized onion arancini
I took one bite of the loin and another of the pork belly and sent this dish back. Whoever seasoned it was very heavy-handed with the salt, and the only thing I could taste was salt. I had to drink one and a half glasses of water after the two bites to recover my palette from the salt overload.

After the pork was removed, we were informed the chef decided to substitute with the hangar steak.

Fourth Course (take two):
Prime Hangar Steak
Before getting into the steak, let me point out that the companion with the pork dining restriction was served this at the same time as the pork. When the pork was removed, the companion's hangar steak was not removed. This made it so that one person at the table was eating while the rest were watching him eat. By the time the replacement entrées were brought, the first person had finished eating. At this point he was forced to watch the rest of the table eat.

While I understand that restaurants are a business with a bottom line, usually when you go to a restaurant that is "fine dining" it is a reasonable expectation that if multiple entrées at a table are sent back, then all the entrées will be returned so that there is not the "watching other people eat" issue. I guess the problem at George's is that there is somewhat of an identity crisis with whether the restaurant is fine dining or not. My definition of fine dining is that the food costs at least $50 per person. It is conceivable that a couple could go to George's and order an appetizer to share, 2 entrées, and a dessert to share and for that meal to come up less than $50 per person. However when someone orders the tasting menu, they've now crossed the "fine dining barrier" so the service could stand to potentially be improved.

The steak was cooked very well, and the hangar cut imparted a lot of natural flavor into the beef. The greens with shitake complimented the steak very well, but the mashed potatoes were a failure. They potatoes had a smoky flavor to them, but the smoke was more of an acrid and offensive smoke than a gentle infusion of smoke. Furthermore, it seemed like the temperature of the potatoes was not correct as I found clumps in the potato that made the texture unpleasant as well. The half baby carrot also didn't make sense to me as the flavor didn't really contribute much to the dish.

Fifth Course:
Red Wine Compressed Chino Farms Strawberries - goat cheese espuma, lemon balm, baby brioche, black pepper sorbet, strawberry dust
My first bite into this was one of immense satisfaction as I felt the dessert had captured the essence of strawberries. My second bite included some of the goat cheese, which I felt complimented the strawberry, but mellowed the flavor somewhat. My third bite included some of the sorbet, and I was almost forced to spit out the food. The black pepper flavor of the sorbet was so compressed that the pepper gave a huge offensive peppery kick to what otherwise should have been sweet and delightful. The sorbet was akin to inviting a heavy metal guitar soloist to launch into a solo during the climactic moments of a classical symphony.

By the time I had removed the sorbet from the dish, my palette had been contaminated by the pepper. Each bite no longer tasted as good as the previous ones and the dish was ruined.

Blogger's note: When I first returned from George's my inclination was to write this review immediately and completely vent my anger at not being able to have a 7 course menu and the somewhat sloppy policy of not removing the table's entrees. Instead, I decide to wait at least 48 hours to see if cooler heads would prevail. What has been written is perhaps not as bad as it would have been if I had written it immediately, but I think it still captures the essence of what I felt was a very disappointing experience.

While I've been told that I'm developing a reputation as a very harsh and unreasonable critic on this blog, my experience at George's failed to live up my expectations. My guess is that the 7 course tasting menu is simply unavailable on weekends, and had that been communicated to me from the start, I would be more forgiving in some of the comments. The food was average (for fine dining), but above average compared to some other places in San Diego. The only really good dish was the inside out fish taco, but I wouldn't really even call it memorable.

Usually after an experience at a restaurant like this, I would say that I'm never going back, but since George's is my Eleanor in San Diego, it is likely I will return someday. Hopefully they will do much better at that time.


James April 25, 2011 at 11:58 PM  

It occurs to me that I have a pretty good basis of comparison with Relate since they were both 5 course tastings with many similar elements to the menu.

Here's a quick mini-shootout:
George's winner Relate (First Visit)
amuse < amuse
fish taco > scallop
smoked foie < foie terrine
halibut < redrock
beef = beef
strawberries < Napoleon

I put the beef as even because I enjoyed the beef at George's more, but the garnish was just so offensive at George's while the garnish at Relate was very good. I took some liberties with matching the dishes because I wanted to match fish course to fish course. If you put the chicken liver mousse against the foie at George's, then Relate would still win 3-2 instead of 4-1

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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
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