By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Ingrid Funes has figuratively and literally made her way to the top since leaving her native El Salvador at age 15 to pursue a restaurant career in Los Angeles.
Now the executive chef of Cusp Dining & Drinks, where customers are afforded opulent views of La Jolla from an 11th-floor dining room and bar lounge, Lunes proves that you don’t have to be a man or an alumna of some highfalutin culinary school to achieve success.
She acknowledges that female chefs are in short supply, especially in finer restaurants such as this. Set atop Hotel La Jolla, the space has maintained a highbrow reputation for years, first as Elario’s and later as Clay’s La Jolla.
“Even though I’m a bossy person by nature, I’ve kept it quiet and stayed humble,” Funes said of working her way up in a male-dominated industry at kitchen gigs like The Beverly Hills Hotel, Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy and L’Auberge in Del Mar.
Her menu at Cusp focuses on seafood but without excluding solid takes on lamb, chicken and steak. Some dishes carry a Latin influence, although her cooking style overall can’t be pigeonholed into any specific ethnic category.
With a stunning sunset dropping below a dramatically illuminated cloud line on this particular evening, we were no less awestruck by Funes’ daily ceviche featuring red snapper. Mixed with grilled pineapple and coconut milk, we feared it would come across too sweet. But the additions of radishes, red onions and jalapenos in the medley delivered a smart, complex balance that was difficult to forget.
A touch of liquid smoke goes into her Caesar dressing, an ingredient that might seem unconventional in the ubiquitous salad, yet tasted so natural in the tangy scheme of things.
Rock shrimp and Spanish chorizo paired awkwardly on the San Sebastian flatbread mantled with red sauce, manchego cheese and fresh cilantro. The chorizo’s robust flavor upstaged the subtle essence of the shrimp. I would have preferred one or the other. Or maybe neither since the auxiliary ingredients played very well together.
My companion hankered for red meat and ended up with a substantial flame-grilled New York steak served with baby carrots, greaseless onion rings and mashed potatoes accented judiciously with horseradish. The steak was cooked to a tender “medium” as ordered and draped in red wine sauce as sturdy as any you’d find in high-end steakhouses.
I chose the catch of the day — sea bass from Baja set in a pond of buerre blanc sauce boasting a fish-friendly zing from yuzu. The filet was thick and flaky and complemented by flash-fried green beans and coveted chanterelle mushrooms.
The plate also featured potato-chive gnocchi, which partly prompted me to order the dish. But they were too dense for my liking. Funes said she used to make them lighter, but customers complained and demanded heavier dumplings. I couldn’t help but wonder: Who are these people?
Other items across the focused menu include rack of lamb with roasted king mushrooms and chimichurri sauce; seafood risotto incorporating lobster, mussels and clams; roasted Scottish salmon in golden raisin sauce; and pan-seared scallops with grilled corn and coconut black rice.
From a short list of a la carte sides, we tried the cauliflower with citrus-y lemon jam and crispy garbanzo beans. Excellent concept, although the additional presence of olive tapenade made the dish too acidic.
Funes also wears the hat of pastry chef and does a fantastic job of it. For a light, summery meal ending, look no further than her deconstructed Pavlova, an Australian dessert of berries encased normally within a meringue dome.
Here, the meringue is strewn throughout the seasonal berries, which derive extra lusciousness from a bedding of lemon curd. We gave it all our love without ignoring a peanut crunch chocolate bar layered with sponge cake and mousse.
Cusp offers a full bar and stylish lounge area. All told, the restaurant sits at the top of the list for places to dine in San Diego with a killer view, detailed food and an ambitious, gifted woman running the show.
Note: Cusp also serves breakfast and lunch, and features happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. daily.
—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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.