San Diego Restaurant Week – Tapenade in La Jolla is French Culinary Heaven

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The 6th semi-annual San Diego Restaurant Week has come upon us!  From January 16 to 21, some of San Diego’s finest restaurants, in fact, 150 are offering 3-course dinners at $20, $30, or $40, a great value considering you would spend $5-30 more at other times!  Restaurant Week gives people who don’t normally come to certain restaurants a chance to try out new foods and experience new cuisines.

Tapenade Restaurant in La Jolla has been a participating restaurants since the start of the San Diego Restaurant Week.  Led by Chef Jean-Michel Diot, Tapenade has worked its way up to one of the best restaurants in San Diego (judged by other critics and diners).  Mom and I had the pleasure of visiting this French restaurant on January 14, just before the start of San Diego Restaurant Week, to preview the special menu items.

When I sat down in the restaurant, I noticed the art on the wall was made of thick woven plant fibers.  It was cool because when you closely examine it, you just see a jumble of squares and rectangles of color.  But when you step away, the green asparagus, yellow squash, red hot peppers, and white onions come into view!  Other black and white photographs of French scenes decorate the wall.

We were greeted by the friendly and knowledgeable Maître D’ Ludovic who almost immediately gave us a plate of two tiny bit-sized delicacies as appetizers.  When I asked for hot chocolate which they didn’t have on the menu, they hand-crafted it for me in a few minutes, and it was awesome!  I was impressed with their prompt and excellent service.   While I waited for the first appetizer, I snacked on the bread with a distinct, olive-scented spread.  The bread was hot off the oven, chewy and fresh.  Topped with the spread, it was so good that even though mom asked me to limit to two pieces, I ate more, a choice I would later regret.  I told mom that I could eat this bread all day.

Chef Diot came along to say hi.  He is a tall man with gentle manners and interested in conversations.  He grew up in Southern France and enjoys cooking with his two daughters Carla 16, a champion at peeling garlic, and Ines 15 who likes baking chocolate chips cookies.  I asked the chef what the delicious spread was, he told me that it was made with olive oil, olive, lemon juice, and anchovy.  I would soon find out what the restaurant was named for when Ludovic came back with the first dish.  When he saw the bowl of spread was clean, he said, “Did you enjoy the Tapenade?”  Now I understand why the place is named after such a tasty spread.

The first and best appetizer on the Restaurant Week menu was “Chinook Smoked Salmon with Fingerling Potatoes and Green Apple Salad.”  Every one of the dishes we tried displayed great contrast: cooked vs. raw, sweet to savory, light to rich, and tender vs. crunchy.  The salmon appetizer was no exception: light and flaky Chinook smoked salmon contrasted with a fresh, raw piece of salmon; the crunchy thin piece of bread tasted great with the tender salmon; the fingerling potatoes were scrumptious, and the green apple shreds that sat atop the slice of salmon were sweet, tart, and refreshing.  The artsy presentation of Tapenade dishes rivals that of The Grand Del Mar’s Amaya (also a participant of Restaurant Week) which I reviewed last month.

Next came the rich beef shank soup with sweet onions and Perigord black truffle (an appetizer), followed by the “House-made Wild Mushroom Raviolis, Port Wine Sauce with Permesan Reggiano.”  The sauce was heavenly with truffle oil.  This is so flavorful that I understand why people come back again and again for this signature dish since it was one the menu 13 years ago.  Another entrée on the menu was Atlantic Monkfish with butternut squash and brussel sprouts.  I thought it had a bit too much green onion mixed in, but otherwise the silky fish and the sauce were delicious.  It would have been better to have the green onion on top as garnish.  It is amazing how these talented chefs magically transform things that normally are not very appealing to me (onions, mushroom, brussel sprout) into culinary delicacies.

Even though I was more than full, a meal is never complete without dessert!  Mom and I tried two desserts on the regular menu: Warm Apple Crumble Mascarpone Ice Cream with English Cream, and Poached Pear in Lemon Grass Syrup, Stuffed with Hazelnut Chocolate Ginger Ice Cream.  Both were great because they had artsy presentation and were mostly light: fruit and light cream, refreshing after a big meal.  Ludovic let us get a quick peek to the bustling kitchen just before we left.  The restaurant was almost full when we left.  I had quite a bit of food, so the next day I did vigorous exercise to get back in shape!

Chef Diot shops at Vons, Ranch 99 (where we shop every week) or Henry’s when he cooks for his family, but his favorite place is Whole Foods. “I look at what’s is good, fresh and mostly inspiring for a one dish dinner,” he said.  Most of the time, the day after, his children get some leftovers in their lunch boxes and friends and teachers always look at the lunch box with a “yum-yum” look in their eyes, and his daughters enjoy sharing their goodies.

Besides French food, he likes sushi and Italian food that is “flavorful and well-prepared.”  For dining out, he likes to visit Toshi San (sushi next door to Tapenade) and Via Italia Trattoria in Encinitas with owner Paulo who is “an excellent chef and host and a very fun person, very Italian.”  Soon Chef Diot is going to have a Korean week at Tapenade, with two Korean Chefs working in his kitchen…something to look forward to.

For children who aspire to become chefs in the future, Chef Diot has some sage advice.  “Food is a quick pleasure, it lasts for a small time in your mouth and flavors go away. It is an art that does not last. You must be meticulous at keeping recipes and first follow the classic recipes before you want to twist it your own way,” he said, “It is a wonderful profession, you can travel in the world and cook. You meet a lot of people and you want to make them happy and remember a moment.”  He works long hours daily, but thinks it is worth it because “it is a passion. It is not only my own desire to eat right but to content others. When you want to be a chef, you must be generous.”

Dining at Tapenade was a blast!  I give it 4.5 starfish.  The food tastes and looks “Perrific!”  The contrast in flavors, texture, colors and artistic presentation is most impressive.  The staff is courteous, knowledgeable, and goes out of the way to accommodate you.  If you only want to visit one restaurant this week, make it to the Tapenade, you’ll be delighted as I am.  I can’t wait for the next San Diego Restaurant Week!

I have reviewed three other excellent restaurants for the San Diego Entertainer, Amaya at The Grand Del Mar, The French Gourmet, and Croce’s, all of them participate in the San Diego Restaurant Week.

Copyright 2010 by Perry S. Chen

At 10, Perry Chen is the youngest award-winning entertainment critic, TV personality, Annie Awards presenter, filmmaker/animator, and radio host, reviewing movies and entertainment with his trademark kids-friendly starfish from a child’s perspective. Perry became a national sensation on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and National Public Radio (NPR) with Liane Hansen, and a frequent star on the red carpet at film festivals and premiers. He is the youngest columnist for the San Diego Entertainer Magazine and recently won the San Diego Press Club 2010 Excellence in Journalism Awards. “The Young Icons,” a nationally syndicated TV show featured Perry on Nov 20, 2010. He recently joined Amazing Kids online magazine over 800,000 readers as its first resident film critic, and was also featured on Variety for being one of the leading young film critics.

Read all of Perry’s reviews and upcoming events on his website http://www.perryspreviews.com
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