TBL3 @ George's California Modern

>> Sunday, December 4, 2011

Date of Dining: 12/1/2011
Price: $180 for TBL3 tasting experience
Location: 1250 Prospect Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037

The Quick Bit:
+ Great artistic plating
+ Great concepts for the courses
+ High caliber of execution
Δ Service could have more properly reflected a high end fine dining experience
Δ Menu could have had a better sense of progression

In my last trip to George's California Modern, I had some issues with communication in what I expected from the restaurant. While it wasn't necessarily a direct result of my experience, the TBL3 experience at George's was born following my visit for customers to allow the restaurant to know they wanted the best available high end dining experience.
The rules for TBL3 read as something fairly draconian:
If you’re interested in reserving a TBL3 experience, call Kristine Fogarty at 858.454.4244. TBL3 is available for six people maximum (two minimum) on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evenings with a seven-day advance notice required. The cost is $180 per person for 12-to-14 courses, $260 with beverage pairings, plus tax and gratuity. Reservations are non-cancellable. Seating for TBL3 is 8:00 p.m. or prior.
However, Yao @ Insert-food had previously done the TBL3 experience and was not deterred from bringing me along with him for a second experience.
As I stated last time, George's for me has been my Eleanor. I was hoping that perhaps this time my experience would be problem-free. The first issue we encountered was that when we informed the front of house that one of the diners had an allergy to broccoli, we were told that this type of experience does not adjust to dietary restrictions. Luckily while broccoli was served, it was easy enough to remove from the plate of the affected individual.
TBL3 menu - click for larger image
This was my first serious excursion with a new camera and I'm still working out the kinks. I found the photo quality high, but I hope to improve it even more over the next few months
First Course:
beet - yogurt quinoa
turnip - apple, bacon
carrot-orange soup - star anise, chervil
 The beet course was more about the texture of the toasted quinoa in contrast to the texture of the beet. The yogurt served as a neutral "glue" for the two components. The quinoa preparation was very surprising to me as the toasty nuttiness of the quinoa was balanced with the slight sweetness of the beet.
The turnip course was shaved ribbons of turnip molded into the square and topped with the apple and bacon. This preparation was extremely impressive with the technical execution of such fine cuts as well as the final flavor profile. The apple and the bacon had the correct mixture of sweet, sour, smoky, savory, and texture.
Of the three items on the first plate, I found the carrot-orange soup the weakest. However, it was still a great dish. The chervil foam was the flavor that I really gravitated to in the soup and I actually wished there was more of it.

Second course:
seaweed toast - house made ricotto, Chino Farms crudite
vegetable composition (not in order): carrot, red cabbage, cucumber, radish, celery, orange cauliflower,
celtuse, turnip, parnsip, persimmon, purple mustard
The seaweed toast course was extremely enjoyable. All the flavors of the in-season vegetables were on display in their full glory. The presentation was also striking to me. When taking the first bite, the flavor that shone through was mostly the nori toast. The second bite featured a big pop in sweetness where the vegetables actually overpowered the flavor of the toast. I greatly preferred the second bite to the first, and especially enjoyed the orange cauliflower. It seems like the course was designed to eat in one bite, yet it is too large to consume all at once.

Third Course:
fluke, aji, hamachi caviars
aji - konbuto caviar
fluke - sturgeon caviar
hamachi - finger-lime caviar
Overall, I was really impressed by this dish. The hamachi course was really carried by the quality of the fish itself, but the finger lime caviar added a nice hit of acidity to really even out the oils of the hamachi. The fluke was mainly carried by the quality of the sturgeon caviar, but it still served as a wonderful vessel for delivering the product. The inclusion of some baby red onions really added the nice hit of acid needed to balance the dish as well. The cucumber spheres inside the sturgeon caviar brought out some freshness that really heightened the caviar itself. The black sheep of the course was the aji; the fish itself had a little too fishy of an aftertaste to it, and the caviar didn't really contribute anything additional to the course.

Fourth Course:
local spiny lobster - daikon, ginger, coconut-sweet potato pudding, avocado
When this plate arrived, every person was struck by the presentation. The flowers on the plate were ginger flowers, which when sucked at the end produced a little bit of ginger nectar.
I really like this dish even with all its flaws; it's almost like the sibling that always gets in trouble, but that you still love since they are family. The quality of the lobster and the spot on preparation speak for themselves. The coconut-sweet potato pudding had just the correct balance of coconut, sweetness, and texture. The thinly sliced daikon added more natural sweetness, and I already mentioned the nectar from the ginger flower. This was a symphony of harmonious sweet flavors in a crescendo towards the booming finale.
However in the chord there was the one slightly out of tune instrument that just affected the pitch and ruined the climactic note - the olive oil. Had the olive oil been infused with ginger, the course would not have had the one dissonant note. There was also a little too much unripened avocado on the plate that broke up the sweetness of the dish. Ultimately, I still really enjoyed the dish despite the flaws.

Fifth Course:
miso soup - smoked foie gras, white soy marshmallow, orange
This course was my least favorite of the night. I was really excited with the presentation of this course as well as the fizzing melting marshmallows when the soup was poured. However, the chief complaint I have was that the thermal temperature of the dashi was not warm enough. The whole experience was like drinking a lukewarm soup. Additionally, the globs of what I assumed were miso were instead the orange, which was entirely too concentrated and present in too much quantity.

Sixth Course:
uni - poached egg, meat juices, grilled levain
Any course that somehow includes uni and a poached egg is pretty much automatically a winner in my book. Add in a hearty, savory cotes the bouef broth to tie everything together, and there is an outstandingly tasty dish. What impressed me about this dish was the simplicity of it compared to the other courses. This was a demonstration that the right ingredients with minimal fuss can produce an outstanding payoff.
If there was a complaint it was that the grilled levain was not really needed. The bread seemed a little excessively oily as well.

Seventh Course:
parsnip - six presentations
From left to right (not including the long fried strip):

  • braised parsnip in duck jus
  • parsnip espuma
  • dehydrated parsnip
  • parsnip salad with parsnip leaves
  • roasted parsnip
  • fried parsnip
For whatever reason, I happened to enjoy the parsnip in the same left to right order as I listed above. The braised parsnip really took on the flavor of the duck jus, which provided the necessary "protein" to the course that otherwise lacked one. The espuma was great as well. The hints of coffee left an undercurrent of complexity that the parnsip itself lacks. When the roasted parsnip was dipped in the espuma, there was a magical flavor combination. I'm not usually a fan of dehydrated preparations, but I enjoyed this one. The essence of the parsnip was still captured while the textural contrast provided was essential to the balance of the dish. The salad was very enjoyable as well, and it also was needed in order to bring some freshness and balance to the dish. The roasted parsnip acted almost as the other "protein" on the plate as it was mixed and eaten with the other preparations. The fried parsnip seemed somewhat throwaway as it was shaved too thin to really contribute flavor, but it did add some saltiness to the dish.

Eighth Course:
onion - truffle, comte, white mushrooms
a truffle shaving in every layer
This was my favorite course of the evening. The sheer audacity of stuffing a truffle into every layer of the onion and then roasting the entire thing is an impressive idea to me. Another impressive component was the truffle aroma that emanated out of the plate when placed down. An essential co-star to the dish, the comte really shined when paired with the truffle and onion. The cheese added some salt to the dish and really added some additional nutty complexity to the undertone of the dish. The only nitpick about this dish is that everyone wanted more of the comte - an extra grating of comte after the grating of truffle would have perfected the dish.

Ninth Course:
Oregon troll king salmon - cauliflower, green grapes, seaweed
As a fan of well-prepared salmon, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish as well. The salmon was cooked perfectly with a slightly pink center, and this particular salmon really contained an intense concentration of salmon flavor. The orange, red, and regular cauliflower shavings added a nice textural crunch and slight natural sweetness to the dish. The espuma was a great sauce that married the fish with the vegetables. Additionally, the component of the green grapes mixed in seaweed was a pleasant surprise. The tart sweetness of the grape really complimented the seaweed flavors well.
The one small complaint about this dish is that the salmon wheel contained a wrapping of salmon skin. Unfortunately the skin was not cooked to be crispy for anyone, which is what everyone preferred.

Tenth Course:
squab - persimmon, broccoli, buckwheat
You would think that by the tenth course, the last thing we would want is larger portions. However, each component of this dish was prepared so well that we wanted more. As far as balance, there were two wedges of persimmon included, but a third probably could have realistically been included.
The broccoli was pureed to be rich and creamy - it was almost like a dehydrated cream of broccoli soup. The squab was cooked perfectly medium rare and the flavors were really complemented by the persimmon. The buckwheat added a nice textural crunch as well as the earthy nuttiness otherwise not provided.

Eleventh Course:
venison - smoked beet, red fruits, red cabbage, red wine
This was another very well prepared dish. However, by the eleventh course we were experiencing a little palate fatigue on the savory side, so we probably didn't appreciate this dish to its full potential. The item that stood out the most was the red cabbage. Each person commented that they were normally not a fan of red cabbage, but the preparation on this plate was outstanding and highlighted the depth of flavor present in a well-roasted red cabbage. The venison was well cooked and full of gamey flavor as well. Our table commented that we all love the gamey flavor of meat so much that it is impossible to have meat that is "too gamey."

Twelfth Course:
citron ice cream - pepitas, tangerine, white chocolate
While this was the first dessert course, it also served as a palette cleanser. Shavings of buddha's hand were included in order to add the element of acid. The pumpkin seeds made a great combination with the ice cream, and the white chocolate added a layer of richness to tie everything together and still give the feeling of dessert. Overall this was a great course and was very high on the list of favorites of many people.

Thirteenth Course:
honey cake - pineapple, ancho chili, marcona almond, yogurt, caramel
This was my favorite dessert course. The honey cake and semifreddo were just the right balance of sweetness to milky flavor. Each element contributed to a sophisticated flavor on its own - sweet from the caramel, fruit sweet from the pineapple, nuttiness from the almonds, and a hit of freshness from the micro-cilantro. I wasn't able to taste any of the ancho chili, but one of the diners said it was definitely present and was a great surprise to the dish.
My one slightly complaint about this dish was that it was served in a large and deep bowl, which made it difficult to eat. We were also not provided a spoon.

Fourteenth Course:
hot cocoa - milk chocolate, mint
What other way to finish off the meal than a rich chocolate dessert? While the presentation of the hot cocoa was impressive (the dome was creative and the aroma of the cocoa assaulted the senses), the flavor of the cocoa was too sweet for everyone. However, the cake was very enjoyable as it contained a chocolate gelee that I found both exciting both texturally and in taste. The chocolate dome was also functional; by breaking it some chocolate chunks could be added to the cake for additional textural contrast.

orange and sesame truffles
A standard mignardise accompanied the ending of the meal.
We were also given a Fuyu persimmon as a final parting gift.

While I commended George's California Modern for its excellent service during the previous visit, there did seem to be a few issues this time around. The service we received was still top notch service for San Diego -  however there are a few small things that are expected when paying for an experience such as this. The most obvious issue I had was that not once was a crumber used in between courses. While there may not necessarily be crumbs, the token run across the tablecloth of the crumber makes the guest feel extra special.
Additionally, many restaurants will have the server arrive and fold the napkin (or give a new one) when the guest goes to the restroom. The napkins were not well managed by the wait staff during this visit.
While neither of these two minor nitpicks seem large, with TBL3 being advertised as a premier dining experience, I feel that the level of service should to match the quality of the food.

Compared to my earlier dinner at George's, the TBL3 experience was a night and day difference. While I am still miffed at the kitchen's inability to cope with a dietary restriction in the experience, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, the company, and the whole journey. Some of the dishes served were truly inspired and they were all plated extremely well.
While the TBL3 experience is definitely not for every day, it is a great adventure for that special occasion provided one can follow the rules set forth by the staff. While I can't commit for sure, I do feel like I do want to return for TBL3 sometime during the summer in order to see the sun set during the meal and get the full experience. 
For the excellent food, plating, and overall experience I've decided to award George's the megabyte award. However, it should be noted that this award only applies to the TBL3 experience.


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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.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
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