A World-Class Chef for All Seasons: Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar
A visit to La Jolla’s Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar will take you on an Epicurean adventure you’ll long remember. Masterfully-prepared culinary delights utilizing fresh, local products are presented in a casually elegant setting. One reason for Nine-Ten’s success is due to Jamaican-born Executive Chef Jason Knibb, the California Restaurant Association 2014 Chef of the Year, an award presented by San Diego’s Mayor in front of 1,200 industry guests and nominees. Rather than learn his craft from culinary school, Chef Knibb has enjoyed a lifetime of mentoring under world-class chefs and gastronomic experts who have helped shape and influence his own inspired inventiveness. Chef Knibb has trained under the tutelage of such mega-stars as Wolfgang Puck in L.A., Roy Yamaguchi in Maui, and other notable chefs in restaurants throughout the West. Now, for over a decade in the same location, Nine-Ten’s chef has garnered numerous awards and national attention for himself as one of Southern California’s most acclaimed executive chefs.
Fronting the historic Grande Colonial Hotel on posh La Jolla’s Prospect Avenue (see our accompanying article on this hotel), the Nine-Ten offers sidewalk table dining, an elegant outdoor terrace for al fresco dining, or a warm, mahogany wood ambiance inside one of the seaside village’s most recognized neighborhood landmarks.
One thing we discovered early was that the cozy, casual setting of this Southern California coastal backdrop tends to disarm one from the gastronomic showcase that is forthcoming. From the first moment your selections begin to arrive, your senses are overcome by a bevy of superlative culinary creations.
One of the best ways to sample the finest of Chef Knibb’s creations is to take advantage of the “Mercy of the Chef” tasting menu, consisting of a five-course tasting menu prepared exclusively for your whole table at the whim and inspiration of the chef. The prix fixe selection is $80 per person or $120 with wine pairings. One hazard for me, the reviewer of this highly recommended option, was that the food selections were often unique creations the chef made in the kitchen and were promptly presented at the table—leaving me little time to take note of all the ingredients usually found listed on the menu. In addition, the wine pairings were chosen and presented in a very thorough and highly professional manner by our server, Chris, who provided a comprehensive verbal description of each wine that, once again, left me, without the benefit of a tape recorder or a wine list, barely able to scratch a few notes. The upshot, of course, is that even without the benefit of copious notes to use here, the overall experience was a heightened appreciation of a truly inspirational gastronomic event
A total of four appetizers were brought to our table, two at a time, each appetizer paired with its own wine. Although Chef Knibb’s menu is constantly changing, depending upon the seasonal availability of certain items and following his own creative muse, there are two “mainstays,” as our server Chris, pointed out. One is the Hamachi Sashimi. Served on a very long rectangular plate, thinly-sliced and delicate raw fish was served with marinated baby shiitake mushrooms, and scallion vinaigrette. This was served with a chilled South African white wine that offered soft herbaceous notes, complementing the sashimi quite favorably. Sashimi served like this is second to none, establishing the reason for this choice to be consistently offered at Nine-Ten. (Incidentally, Chef Knibb flew to New York to compete with Food Network’s Bobby Flay in a seafood “Throwdown” in 2011, further proof of the Nine-Ten Chef’s extraordinary world-class expertise.) The second appetizer was a unique seafood salad creation of Jonah crab and Maine lobster, accompanied by sliced avocado, blood orange, and sweet habanero in a buttermilk vinaigrette. Also served with a chilled white wine, this sometimes sweet and salty salad definitely awakens one’s senses, preparing the palate for more sensational dishes to come.
The next round of appetizers brought to our table was led by the second of Chef Knibb’s “mainstays,” his signature Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly. Recalling that our chef originally hails from Montego Bay in Jamaica, it made perfect sense that a Jamaican specialty of this sort should be a prominent item on the menu. The thick chunk of seasoned pork was served with baby carrots, Swiss chard, plantains, black-eyed peas, spicy jellies and sweet potato puree. The wine pairing was “Alma Rosa” a Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, California (2012), offering a bold richness that perfectly matched the tangy pork. A fabulous surprise to me came in the form of the Squid Ink Spaghettini, a delicious pasta cooked in squid ink. The first time I was introduced to something cooked in squid ink was in Venice, Italy, several years ago. I was unaware that this technique was being used in the U.S., and so I was pleasantly surprised to see it before me. The pasta was served with bay scallops, uni, chili flakes, lemon, cilantro flowers, and uni emulsion. Overall, it had a very rich, buttery taste. This menu selection was a definite highlight of the evening. The wine pairing for this dish was an exquisite “Ferdinand” white wine from California (2012).
Entrees listed on the menu for the evening included local black cod, wild king salmon, prime New York steak, Hay-smoked duck, braised prime beef short rib, and Chino Farms butternut squash rice grits. However, keep in mind that the menu changes frequently and that what you read about in this review or online may change on the day you visit Nine-Ten.
Our server arrived at our table next with two entrees, only one of which was listed on the menu. The Hay-smoked duck was served with roasted Asian pears, Anson Mills farro, huckleberries, duck egg sabayon, puffed wild rice and duck jus. There was a distinct sweet and smoky flavor in the very generous portion of succulent meat set in the midst of an artistic presentation. Chef Knibb is using 100% organic hay this Fall in his menu line-up to introduce foodies to a European tradition of cooking with dried grass (dans la foin), a practice in use for centuries. Now farm-to-table has become stable-to-table! The wine paired with this entrée was a Grenache-Syrah blend from the Côte du Rhône in France (2011). Our second entrée was a specially-prepared loin of lamb, encrusted with pumpkin seed, served with roasted kale, butternut squash and squash puree. It was accompanied by another French wine, this time a Merlot-dominant Carbonneau from Bordeaux (2010).
Two desserts with appropriate pairings brought a grand finish to our celebration-worthy experience. Nine-Ten is honored to have pastry chef Rachel King at the helm of the restaurant’s pastry kitchen. Chef King has been featured in several magazine articles and appeared on Forbes.com, People.com, and nominated for one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Pastry Chefs of 2013.” Our first dessert was a very lovely mousse, joined with a sesame-seed covered cookie and paired with an apricot cognac. Our second item was the truly formidable Half-Baked Chocolate Cake, a Nine-Ten signature creation since Day One. Since then, according to Chef Knibb, the restaurant has served up more than 50,000 portions of this quintessential lava cake to its guests. It is estimated that the ingredients used would amount to 2,375 pounds of dark chocolate, 20,000 eggs and yolks, 1,250 pounds of sugar and 172 pounds of flour. Assuming that every order was accompanied by Nine-Ten’s homemade ice cream, there would have been another 500 gallons of heavy cream, 1,750 cups of sugar, 2,500 pounds of butter and another 20,000 egg yolks! One bite and you’ll discover why this dessert is requested so often. A tawny port, often coupled with chocolate desserts, was a fitting complement to this outstanding conclusion.
Nine-Ten is open seven days a week to the public and is also available for special events, including a restaurant “buy-out” for hosting up to 70 guests for any occasion.
Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar
910 Prospect Street,
La Jolla, CA 92037