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A ‘pink lady’ lunch

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review 

She’s old, regal and very pretty. And she resides along one of the most stunning shorelines in San Diego.

Known as the La Valencia Hotel — and “La V” or “the pink lady” by wealthy denizens — the pink-stucco edifice has retained all of its Mediterranean-style splendor since opening in 1926 in the heart of La Jolla.

For those who may never find themselves sleeping in her famous lap of luxury, a meal at the hotel’s flagship restaurant, The Med, is the next best thing.

                   Spicy buttermilk chicken sandwich with fries (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Wander through La Valencia’s unassuming entrance off Prospect Street, then past an outdoor patio and a casual bistro named Cafe La Rue, and you’ll encounter The Med to your left. The threshold leads into a soothing parlor-like dining room replete with heavy wood tables, upholstered chairs, sconce lighting, detailed molding and a cozy fireplace.

Large windows along the backside of the room look out to a panorama of lush landscaping and blue ocean. Also, in eyeshot is The Med’s outdoor terrace, situated about a half-level below the indoor dining room. Oddly, in so many lists of San Diego restaurants sporting the best views, food and travel writers often fail to include The Med.

                              Classic shrimp cocktail over ice (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Executive chef Alex Emery presents a menu dominated by seafood. Beer-steamed clams, for example, prove an excellent starter if you’re keen on spicy chorizo and garlic confit in the scheme.

From the raw bar, he offers a near-classic shrimp cocktail that we found irresistible. Served over ice, the dish held four peeled Mexican white shrimp of jumbo size, standard cocktail sauce and charred lemon. It’s the kind of appetizer that never goes out of vogue in historic, upscale places like this.

Emery is a graduate of the San Diego Culinary Institute and began fondly working with seafood at The Oceanaire Seafood Room in the Gaslamp Quarter. He also cooked at The Pearl Hotel and was a private chef in a few European countries. He describes his culinary style as “classic with twists.”

                A passion fruit “egg” with cookies and nuts (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Crab Louie, for instance, is served normally over iceberg lettuce with capers, hard-boiled eggs and a mayo-based dressing. It’s a construct that came into existence during the early 1900s in San Francisco. Emery instead mingles the lump crab meat with grilled romaine, shaved baguette, avocado emulsion and thousand island dressing. Sticklers of the original version won’t mind his tasteful tweaks.

My companion’s lobster roll flaunted sizable pieces of Baja lobster tucked into purse-shaped brioche with tangy mustard seeds. Silky aioli made with wagyu beef fat, along with browned butter and crispy shallots added further dimension while offering a doable departure from traditional New England lobster rolls.

I veered from sea to land with a fried chicken breast sandwich that exceeds the imaginations of most chefs who offer them. Marinated for two days in buttermilk, mustard powder, coriander and hot sauce, the Jidori chicken is breaded in seasoned flour, fried to a cracking crisp, and served on a Dutch crunch roll. Its unique standout feature is maple aioli, which is smeared judiciously inside the sandwich to lend a teasing sweet contrast to the chicken’s spicy essence.

House-made sweet pickles were included on the side. And both entrees included french fries dusted in brown sugar and Old Bay Seasoning. They were difficult to stop eating.

                                      Beer-steamed clams (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Other lunchtime choices include grilled octopus with white beans and fennel hearts; Skuna Bay salmon rillettes with roe; a blue fin crab cake sandwich with Nueske bacon; local black sea bass paired with seasonal vegetables; and house-made linguine with Manila clams.

Emery also created The Med’s breakfast and dinner menus, as well as the more casual dishes you’ll find in the hotel’s Cafe La Rue and La Sala Lounge.

Since this was a workday lunch, we regretfully passed up some tempting cocktails on The Med’s drink list, which spotlights some classic favorites such as mint juleps, pisco sours and French 75s. Naturally, there’s also a pink lady made with vodka, watermelon, sugar, lemon juice and basil, a frilly drink I’m guessing only us gay males and women tend to order.

Our lunch ended with a splat of passion fruit sauce hitting my companion’s face.

It was an artistically plated dessert of butter cookies, cashews and a meringue-like egg filled with the mouthwatering sauce. A few taps of my fork to gently crack it open had gone awry, resulting in a drastic rupture that sent some of the liquid flying clear across the table. Indeed, the mishap bestowed toothsome levity to a fine-dining experience.

— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at  fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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