When talking about food with other people, one of the most frequently asked questions we keep hearing is “So what is your most favorite restaurant in San Diego – or any other city that you like to visit for great food ?” And most people are rather surprised to learn that we don’t have one good, universal answer but constantly struggle with it, as it depends a lot on the context. A well made gobernador taco at a Marisco truck, a plain pizza, a Japanese Bento box or dinner at a fine dining restaurant can be equally good and satisfying – as long as you set realistic expectations for each kitchen’s ambitions and limitations. The most important factor for us is that a chef or cook cares deeply about the quality of his/her food preparations, we care more if something is simple but made from scratch than about misleading by relying on trendy dishes and expensive ingredients but in some instances soulless cooking.
When thinking about which meals really stand out for us and are not only good, but memorable and outstanding, we often draw parallels between reading, one of our other favorite activities, and meals: every meal has a chance to become something special, but not unlikely when reading a book, a short story is very rarely as absorbing, in-depth and well written as a long novel. And so a regular two or three course dinner can on a rare occasion be outstanding, but we tend to have much better success with longer tasting menus where similar to a novel author a chef has the chance to express his/her creativity in an unhindered manner. At the same time a tasting menu far from guarantees a special night as too often an author might fail to develop his characters, uses well known sequences or simply copies other successful books. For us a unique, great chef is able to “tell a story” with a tasting menu often through notions of seasonality and locality.
San Diego has a rather small number of restaurants that offer tasting menus, and most of them are quite short, and so it created some buzz when Trey Foshee at Georges California Modern announced his unique special tasting menu concept TBL3 – one table per night only from Tuesdays to Thursday with an ever changing 12-14 course tasting. Many lauded his effort to raise the culinary bar significantly in San Diego, but not surprisingly others like food editor Troy Johnson downplayed it as the chef just being envious of other chefs getting more recognition for their cooking and not wanting to be associated just with his “famous” fish taco. And so he complained more about “starting to think about deep vein thrombosis” and his “palate struggled to sustain” and ultimately he mentioned that “the concept doesn’t work here. Tourists come for the sun, not dinner. And locals don’t do degustation.” Interestingly one and a half years after this article TBL3 still exists and actual expanded the days, which is not really surprising knowing the unique concept and the background of Trey Foshee. He graduated from CIA Hyde Park in 1990 and worked subsequently at a number of well-known restaurants in increasingly more important roles including Rockenwagner and L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, La Folie in San Francisco, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel in Hawaii before arriving at the Tree Room & Foundry Grill at the Sundance Resort in Utah in 1997 where he gained national recognition by being named as one of the “America's Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine Magazine. He then finally settled in 1999 in La Jolla and became Executive Chef and partner at George’s at the Cove. Here he is responsible for all the different restaurant concepts like the Ocean Terrace and the fine dining restaurant Georges Modern with the TBL3. Even though we had a few, quite memorable dinners at Georges before, since its inception TBL3 was of highest interest of us, but only the recent extension of available days worked with our schedule and we finally could experience what TBL3 at Georges Modern is all about.
1st Course: Northern divine caviar, corn semifreddo
What a start to the tasting menu – corn semifreddo which intensified and concentrated the natural flavor of corn without being overwhelmingly sweet. The caviar acted as a salty counterpole but was much less salty then most other caviars and added more of a briny, yet slightly fruity flavor. The grilled baby corn brought a grilled, smoky component to the dish which worked perfectly with the other ingredients and created a wonderful complex, yet refreshing course which helped to open up the taste buds - one of the early highlights of the night.
2nd Course: Melon, Tai snapper, finger lie, kale, mustard
Thinly sliced Tai snapper was paired with an interesting mixture of fruitiness and tartness. Melon juice on one side and finger lime and grapefruit on the other side created a good balance to bring out the delicate sweet flavors of the fish. The mustard based vinaigrette supplied a foundation for the dish whereas the fried kale added a textural contrast.
3rd Course: Tomato, cucumber, eggplant
The broth made of water eggplant, tomato and basil had a refreshing, almost fruity quality but didn’t overpower the different slices of tomatoes. It was interesting to experience the variety of textures and flavor notes of the different tomatoes. The mini gherkin cucumber added some crunchiness to the dish.
4th Course: Potato, truffle, nasturtium, sour cream
Potatoes with sour cream and some herbs are classic German comfort food. Here the dish was brought to the next level with the inclusion of Australian truffles – a very comforting dish which brought back childhood memories and fittingly paired with a white Pinot Noir from Rheinhessen.
5th Course: Local spot prawn, wild fennel butter
Dishes throughout tasting menus are often prime examples for complex, well thought-out creations from chefs showcasing innovative techniques and unique flavor combination but sometimes a dish just shines through its simplicity and the quality of its main ingredient. Chef Foshee served here a perfectly prepared single spot prawn highlighting the succulent tender- and sweetness of the meat just slightly accentuated by the wild fennel butter.
6th Course: Lima beans, squid, dried squid broth
Sometime you experience surprising combinations in a dish where once you taste them you wonder why you never thought of them before as they are quite obvious like with lima beans and squid. Both ingredients not only have an interesting textural contrast between the slight chewiness and the creaminess but the flavor of the subdued sweetness of the squid complements nicely with the earthiness of the lima beans. The strong umami taste of the dried squid broth helped to magnify this flavor combination
7th Course: Stone crab-uni quesadilla, tomatillo-avocado
Chef Foshee’s version of the ubiquitous fish taco has gained quite some recognition far beyond San Diego and here he brought out his next interpretation of a Mexican classic – quesadilla. Instead of the standard meat-cheese combination he chose to replace it with some local stone crab and in a clever twist the cheese with uni which worked extremely well. The house-made corn tortilla was the fitting wrapper but could have been a bit thinner so that the filling might have played an even more prominent role. The tomatillo-avocado salsa completed this great dish with its acidity. The pairing of the dish with a Mexican Cucuapa “Lookout” blonde ale was spot on.
8th Course: Lamb loin, sunflower, farro, chanterelle, pine
A dish which worked through its contrasting textures of tender lamb loin served at room temperature and the mixture of wonderful nutty puffed farro and sunflower seeds. The whipped sour cream was the missing link between them and brought the dish together.
9th Course: Scallop, lemon balm, mussel juice
Not unlike the course with the spot prawn here we had another course where the quality of a single main ingredient takes the center stage (and it is not coincidence that it is again seafood focused). A perfect scallop steamed in the shell showcased it sweet- and tenderness which was highlighted by the acidity of the lemon balm. The plating throughout the tasting menu was great but this course was particular beautiful with the half shell.
10th Course: Mesquite dusted rabbit, fig, pea tendril
Smoking rabbit using mesquite is quite common but in this dish the rabbit loin was actually rolled in mesquite dust which gave it still some smoky flavor but also added some graininess. The pea puree and the mesquite dust both have some related earthy flavors and so the contrasting sweetness of the figs where key to the success of the dish.
11th Course: Beef, marrow, garlic, parsley, truffles
The savory courses ended with a sous vide cooked, tender piece of beef. A very first reaction to the course was a bit of disappointment as it seemed to be the “typical” meat focused last course we have seen so often in a “traditional” tasting menu even though it often seems to be out of place. But fortunately this course turned out to be much more balanced and the beef wasn’t only dominating ingredient because the parsley puree, garlic paste and bone marrow could stand up against the beef and the dish ended up to be quite interesting by combining conflicting flavors.
12th Course: Sorrel granite, meyer lemon curd, Chino Farms strawberries
A well thought out transition to the sweet part of the tasting menu – sorrel with its bright and tart flavor is often used in savory courses but also worked well with the meyer lemon curd. The well known Chino Farm strawberries added the right level of sweetness.
13th Course: Mango semifreddo, cashew milk ice cream, lemon grass, smoked cashew
The description of the course sounded unusual and hard to imagine how it should work together but it turned out to be another highlight of the night. Creamy, yet slightly nutty ice cream worked together with the sweetness of the semifreddo and was counterbalanced by the tartness of the lemon grass gelee. The smoked cashew crumble not only gave some texture but also added a savory component to the dish.
14th Course: Mocha Mousse, espresso salt, sweet cream, cocoa nib
A light, yet intense finish to the night – replacing the after dinner espresso or cappuccino with its flavors. The espresso salt really livened up the dessert and showed once more that salt is often also in sweet courses key to complete a dish.
We had experienced Chef Foshee’s cooking as part of regular menu items before at Georges Modern so we came with high expectations but TBL3 easily met and even exceeded those. It was impressive to see this high level of cooking throughout the whole tasting menu without any disappointing course. Moreover the flow of the courses was very well thought out and it clearly felt like the kitchen enjoyed TBL3 as an opportunity to cook without any limitations. Chef Foshee’s style feels very focused and driven by the essence of a few key ingredients in each dish. Even though many dishes had complex flavor profiles and were playful the kitchen never seemed to forget what each dish was about. The sweet part of tasting menus is often good but still can feel more like an afterthought compared to the complexity of the savory part. TBL3 and pastry chef Lori Sauer are a clear exception from the rule and the sweet part of the night just felt like an extension of the savory courses and was able to continue and complete the experience. But exceptional restaurants go beyond just great food – the ambience with TBL3 literally the best table in the house with a beautiful view of the ocean and great service. It is fun when a server like Mark clearly is enjoying food just beyond as part of his job. Some of the ingredients of the tasting menu actually were foraged from his garden and he had often some interesting thoughts about the different dishes. We have often lamented the lack of outstanding restaurants in San Diego with a unique dining experience, but Georges with TBL3 clearly plays in the same league as the best restaurants in cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.
It will be interesting to see how the success of a concept like TBL3 will effect fine dining in San Diego. Hopefully it will provide the kitchen at Georges Modern a way for dialogue with the guests to test out dishes and get feedback about them so that they might in some form also make their way to the regular menu. But perhaps more importantly we hope to see some “trickle-down effect” beyond just Georges and that other restaurants and chefs might see this concept as an inspiration to develop their own approaches to test out more adventurous and creative cuisines and help to further improve the culinary scene in San Diego.
George’s California Modern
1250 Prospect St.
San Diego, CA 92037