Duke’s La Jolla
Newly implanted in the two-story shell of Top of the Cove, Duke’s La Jolla is the latest in a family of oceanfront eateries tracing back to the Hawaiian Islands. Rather than provide a whopping appetizer-course’s worth of background, I’ll leave the origin story abbreviated, focusing on the present instead of the past. For while The Jewel’s iteration of Duke’s stays true-to-form in some regards, executive chef Anthony Sinsay’s personal twists are enough to make the place unlike any of its predecessors.
A study of culinary modernist José Andrés who previously helmed Harney Sushi and Brian Malarkey’s Burlap, Sinsay previously pushed the envelope of cuisine from a geometric, textural, and aesthetic standpoint. That’s hardly the MO at Duke’s, where agar-agar-borne “pearls” and soy lecithin-supported “air” have no place in conveying the flavors of America’s share of the South Pacific. Nowadays, Sinsay is using his heritage (along with dashes of gastro-science) to impart his signature on a seafood-heavy menu with tropical appeal. Given he is of Filipino descent — a rather under-represented culinary culture here or anywhere — that makes for some unique offerings.
Nothing conveys who Sinsay is and where he comes from more than a loaded bowl of mussels swimming in a simultaneously sweet, tart, and spicy adobo. It’s a recipe straight from his mother, who used to cook this dish on Sundays. The chef says his heart swells with pride each time this dish hits the pass. That’s fitting, because in addition to its matriarchal origins, it’s simply fantastic, especially with two pieces of grilled pan de sol (sweet, airy Filipino bread) to sop up the broth.
Freshness shows up in the pure flavor of bright-red, flown-in-daily ahi tuna sitting in a white soy and caramelized pineapple ponzu. Crisp snap peas, whipped brie, and Marcona almonds make for nice mix-and-match ingredients in a unique starter dish, especially with a smidge of burnt pineapple (Sinsay says he “annihilates” the island fruit) vinaigrette. Some of the softest octopus in San Diego (made so forgiving by papain, a natural tenderizer found in papaya) needs no accessory, but gets cooling contrast from citrus-infused yogurt all the same. Bigeye makes another appearance on the entrée side, this time crusted with a kaffir lime leaf rub that’s almost lavender-like, in its big floral character and served over three-bean salad and an earthy pressed avocado mousse that introduces tasty fattiness to this lean aquatic protein.
For those looking for more approachable fare, a pair of fish tacos taste more of sea than breading and eat like a meal (plus the creamy, herbaceous side sauce is to die for,), spare ribs are slathered in a multi-dimensional sticky-sweet lacquer that’s tart and caramely with a touch of funk from Asian fish sauce, and King’s Ranch filet mignon is served with a deep char, and pungent blue cheese. And if you, like me, are a sucker for pineapple upside-down cake but curse its absence from nearly every menu on the planet, order Sinsay’s caramelized pineapple dessert and enjoy the classic re-imagined and tempered by unsalted ricotta and hiwa kai (black Hawaiian lava salt).
Sinsay’s menu is available in the ground-floor dining room or the smaller upstairs bar, both of which are equipped with decks offering views of the ocean. The surf vibe makes the indoors pleasant enough, but there’s just no beating the beautiful slice of nature provided by that al fresco real estate. 858.454.5888, dukeslajolla.com Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal