By: Sheen Fischer
With average life expectancies approaching immortality and 90 year old ex-presidents jumping out of airplanes these days, it’s almost un-remarkable when an 89 year old decides to not only re-invent herself, but take the lead in an industry and a region that is replete, if not saturated, with masters of their craft and dedicated professionals all striving to be considered the best and brightest at what they do.
The Grand Dame of La Jolla’s hotel scene, La Valencia Hotel, fondly known as the Pink Lady, was built in 1926. Considering her almost 90 year history, it would be a bit difficult to consider her the newest, shiniest thing in any sense. She is entrenched, long established, impeccably maintained and has remained relevant over the many years of her existence. Yet, for even those on the outer fringes of the San Diego food scene, it seems that over the last 9 months every morning news show food spot, every community event worthy of mention and every great new food collaboration you hear of is happening here.
I had a chance to chat with Executive Chef James Montejano, the man tasked with keeping this juggernaut pointed in the right direction for the last year and a week. With two restaurants, the Med and Café La Rue, a tapas serving lounge, banquet facilities, 80 weddings a year and events such as Fashion Week San Diego to keep on course, grabbing a half hour out of Chef’s busy schedule was no mean feat.
Between his multiple local television appearances (promoting La V and local community events), collaborative food events (Berry Good Night, Poke Fest, Chef Celebration and North County Chef’s Dinner in just the last couple of months), hotel duties, community involvement and having me chase, pester and annoy him for over a month, I’m thinking that on the priority list, meeting with me fell somewhere between draining the used oil from the fryers and ordering more dish washing soap.
Understanding a chef’s schedule, it was even more surprising to be invited in on a Monday morning to meet with Chef since Mondays and Tuesdays are the usual days off in the restaurant industry. Chef cleared that up for me quickly, though, explaining how he is training two new sous chefs, developing his soon to be released new seasonal menus for both Café La Rue and the Med and looking forward to his 5th day off in the last ten weeks or so…but who’s counting?
Bottom Line: If you’re going to go for a new image (like the recently refurbished Cafe La Rue), you might as well come out of the gate hard and fast and swing for the fences (Yes, I know I’m mixing my metaphors, but I’m riffing here – just go with it). That is exactly what La V has done in enticing Chef James back to San Diego.
Chef is no stranger to the San Diego food scene. In fact, he has helped shape part of it. Previously best known for his days as Executive Chef at La Jolla’s longtime sushi mainstay Japengo, where, during his tenure, they won multiple awards as best Asian and Sushi cuisine in San Diego, he has also worked in and run kitchens at other San Diego establishments such as Pampelmousse, the Brigantine group, Le Papagayo in Leucadia and Town and Country among others. It’s probably also safe to say that it is the following he cultivated in his early days here in San Diego that are also helping to contribute to his and La V’s newly re-discovered vitality.
A graduate of the California Culinary Academy, six years ago Chef James took a pay cut and a position working with the crew at Michael Mina’s Aqua in San Francisco, where they were awarded two Michelin stars. Subsequently, he also revamped the long established Trident in Sausalito.
He credits his 5 years spent in what many consider the Culinary Mecca in this country with honing his cooking skills and taking them to another level while re-invigorating his passion for cooking.
Listening to Chef it became apparent that, despite his love and passion for all that is art – food, clothing, fashion, music, there are other contributors to his success than his ability to create a beautiful and tasty plate of food – namely management and organizational ability, social skills, loyalty and the other intangibles that we notice in people which are difficult to express, but even harder to ignore.
My takeaway from the interview is that first and foremost among Chef’s greatest qualities would seem to be loyalty. When he speaks of his past employers, co-workers and establishments, Chef conveys a sense of appreciation and duty. When discussing the many events he participates in he always talks about the people. Honestly, at a couple of points during the interview, Chef mentioned so many names that, even though I recorded our conversation and re-played the recording multiple times while transcribing, it was almost impossible to keep track. We’d need a complete article just to list the people that Chef considers instrumental, impactful and important in the food scene and his career, both past and present.
Let’s take a little side track here. It would be completely off the rails to believe that someone who attains any position equivalent to an Executive Chef of a world class establishment does not have drive, passion, energy, enthusiasm and maybe even a streak of competitiveness.
What I found interesting, though, is that Chef seems to consider his main competitor…himself. Is he aware of the bevy of talent surrounding him not only in the immediate coastal region of La Jolla, but San Diego in general? Absolutely. But, his goal is not to surpass them as though it is a race with only one winner. In fact, he speaks with deference about the abilities and reputations of the Chefs and establishments that surround him and is appreciative of the fact that they help to draw more potential patrons into the area.
Chef was also forthright when discussing some of the career decisions he made for purposes of passion, experience, loyalty, necessity and (Gasp!) even money. All of those decisions have resulted in a path that has led him to the Captaincy of La V’s Gourmet Revolution.
Chef James’ goal, right here, right now is simple – put out the best plate of food with the best service in the best atmosphere. The message: This is not Mom and Dad’s place anymore. La V, with Chef James at the helm, is making a culinary statement with fresh, organic, farm to table fare designed to delight all of the senses from the moment of conception through the enjoyment of digestion.
The Miso Chilean Sea Bass is a menu staple that will survive the upcoming seasonal menu change. I first had this at the Chef Celebration dinner a month or so ago and it was remarkable for its complexity of flavor while remaining light on the palate. Incidentally, cooking at that same dinner was one name I will drop – North County’s Chef Davin Waite of The Wrench and the Rodent Seabasstropub in Oceanside, who Chef James considers one of the best seafood/sushi chefs he’s ever worked with. In fact, if you are stargazer, pick a random Saturday night at WnR and you may get to enjoy watching Chef James hold court while Chef Davin wields his magic blade.
Since it was roughly Brunch time, we decided to work our way through some of the offerings on the European inspired Café La Rue’s breakfast and lunch menu. If you’ve ever had Chilaquiles, then you know they are comfort food. We ordered these with two poached eggs on top to make them even a little more comfortable. 15 minutes into this dish, the house made tortilla chips still retained their crispy snap even though drenched with a sauce you could drink out of a cup instead of your morning coffee.
It is such a rewarding time to be a food lover from South Louisiana (somewhat redundant, I know) these days. It seems as though almost every restaurant of note has something on the menu that is quintessential New Orleans/Cajun. In the past, that was somewhat true, but today it seems as though it is being done so much better. This muffaletta served on Ciabatta bread with the house signature Kalamata olive spread was gorgeous. I normally do not take home leftovers and I certainly don’t finish everything I order (not even close or I’d look like the Michelin Tire Guy), but the second half of this one went home with me for dinner.
Mussels or Moules – they are always about the sauce. Always. I mean, yes, there are different variations of mussels with varying flavors, but I consider mussels to be like bread – they are there to absorb whatever flavors you dunk them in. I don’t know what was in this sauce – the menu said butter, parsley and sherry. I could have sworn I tasted some saffron and maybe a pinch of curry as well. But, then again, that’s the thing about great food – the flavors often marry together to create something new and wonderful.
Provencal style cuisine is known for bold, well mingled flavors with strong Spanish, Italian and Mediterranean influences. The Prawns here fit that bill perfectly. The first surprise is that the Prawns are fried with a lightly seasoned flour dusting, giving them a nice crunchy snap and great flavor. They sit on a bed of brussel sprouts and crostini that are soaked in what I would describe as a Basque influenced spicy tomato sauce. All of this equals a flavor explosion in every bite. The accompanying arugula salad, though, was the difference maker. Lightly salted and coated in a vinaigrette style dressing, it provided the brief respite between rich bites of the main dish so that we could soldier on to completion. The three bite rule went out the window with this one.
Sneak peek time. Over the next couple of weeks, the menus will be changing in both Café La Rue and the Med. This is the Lobster Smoked Salmon Roll with Osetra caviar. That’s kind of like rolling your gold bullion up, waving platinum over it and then sprinkling diamonds on top.
Dungeness crab is like Blue crab on steroids. Same basic flavor and texture, just four times as big (take it from a Louisiana boy who grew up eating dozens of blue crab at a sitting and can get down maybe one whole Dungeness on a good day). So, wrap it in a cucumber salad and add some hearts of palm and Meyer lemon puree for good measure and, well, Wow.
Appetizer, entrée, dessert…? Yes, please. The upcoming Honeydew Gazpacho soup with poached lobster, assorted melon, tangerine oil and pepper dew jam will soon be contributing to the worldwide summer melon shortage.
The La V that your parents vacationed at is not quite riding off into the sunset (that can be seen, like this one, from the covered patio of the Med each evening). It is still there – elegant, comfortable and welcoming. But, on the food side of things, there is a new Sheriff in town and he’s here to shake things up a bit. Move over Mom and Dad, let me get in on some of that. Cheers, my friends!
1132 Prospect St.
La Jolla, CA 92037