Restaurant Review: Nine Ten
Time and place fell into remarkable alignment for a moment during our dinner at Nine-Ten in La Jolla, where detailed, nouveau dishes synchronize to exceptional white-linen service, but minus the starchy airs that once defined restaurants in this locale.
While awaiting dessert I nonchalantly wondered aloud about the time. Beating me in fishing out our cell phones, I assumed my companion was joking when he looked at his screen and responded “nine ten.”
Whoa. My phone flashed the same numbers. If this bizarre fluke was the universe confirming we’d come to the right address for an urbane meal laced with intricate flavors, it was a couple hours late in telling us, although magical nonetheless.
Located at street level inside the 100-year-old Grande Colonial luxury hotel, Nine-Ten is one of the few restaurants in town that has retained the same chef for at least 10 years.
Prior to his arrival, Jason Knibb worked under the tutelage of famed chefs Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yahmagucci.
He’s since earned the restaurant copious honors with inventive cuisine that glides across trendy boundaries and changes frequently; with the exception of a few mainstays that include lush sashimi-style yellowtail (or sometimes tuna) dressed in baby shitake mushrooms and scallion vinaigrette. It’s clean, simple and exquisite.
Devoted patrons can’t do without his Jamaican-jerk pork belly either. Although on this particular visit the normally unctuous cube of meat lacked its prized layer of fat. And the Riesling from Mosel, Germany that our waiter paired to the dish exceeded in sweetness the anticipated spiciness on the belly’s crispy exterior. The flavor was nonetheless porky, augmented poetically with micro measures of sweet potato puree, plantains and savory jellies.
Another appetizer, “charred broccoli bishop hats pasta,” resembled tortellini and tasted rich at times from shaved egg yolks dusting the dish. Broccoli appeared both inside and outside the house-made pasta pillows as it teamed up with zesty Myer lemon and finely grated Pecorino cheese. Creamy, crunchy, salty and tangy — everything jived.
Local organics from Chino Farms took center stage in the “little gems” salad constructed with flash-grilled baby lettuce, mild watermelon radishes and crushed hazelnuts. Somewhere in the scheme were anchovies, invisible to the eye but poking through with their elusive, meaty flavor.
The soup du jour was a velvety leek and fennel puree bumped up with citrus relish, vanilla bean and marinated shrimp. No one sip tasted the same, which is exactly what kept me engaged to the very end of it. My companion, on the other hand, abandoned his spoon halfway through, terming the flavors as “all over the place.”
He soon returned to nirvana, however, with the arrival of Canadian king salmon, lauded for its dense, oily flesh. The entrée involved two thick squares of the fish, seared beautifully with crispy skins and translucent interiors. Knibb’s knack for pairing proteins to the right organics was spot on. Amid dollops of herbaceous stinging nettle puree were carrots roasted in lime ash, tender asparagus and a couple of baby artichoke hearts rising like mini towers from artichoke emulsion.
Sitting beneath my chin was a garden of turnips, carrots, spring onions, potatoes and daikon radishes complimenting braised beef short ribs, which rested in a puddle of opulent consommé. Mustard seeds swathed in Korean gochujan sauce graced a few corners of the meat, adding a faint red-chili tang to the flavor profile. As I expected from a seasoned chef like Knibb, these weren’t your everyday, straightforward short ribs flooding most winter menus.
Our wine pairings this time around rang of solid marriages — semi-citrusy Aliane Chardonnay from France for the salmon and John Anthony Syrah from Napa Valley singing in perfect harmony with the short ribs. We stuck to glass pours, which don’t exceed $15 across the list. Bottle choices cover a wider gamut, with prices ranging between $32 and $500. There’s also a comfy, intimate bar from which signature cocktails and craft beers originate.
Service at Nine-Ten is top notch. The crew is friendly and highly attentive without being obtrusive. Case in point: When I accidentally dropped a fork on the floor, our waiter appeared within seconds to pick it up while another followed behind with a fast replacement. In clumsy moments like this, I greatly appreciated that neither server brought verbal attention to the mishap.
Our dinner concluded with confections from locally schooled pastry chef Rachel King, whose coconut cake with lime puree and mouthwatering passion fruit ice cream wowed us more than her “lemon meringue” with olive oil ice cream. The latter featured an arty presentation of lemon curd piped across the plate and interspersed with pieces of crispy, lemon-infused meringue and caramelized white chocolate. Dessert lovers looking for a weighty sugar fix might find it too abstract.
Nine-Ten’s atmosphere is sophisticated and warmly textured, yet never feels stiff despite its prime location at the south end of Prospect Street. The kitchen also serves breakfast and lunch daily, which opens up the morning for that strange coincidence to occur, as you might impulsively check the time while forking into lemon-ricotta pancakes at precisely 9:10 a.m.