There are plenty of restaurants that serve great food but it’s a rare few that provide a dining experience that is so complete and enjoyable that you never want it to end. A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines is one of those places and I recently had the pleasure of immersing myself in that experience. I’ll start by defining the elements that make for a complete dining experience, in my mind at least. The physical environment starts my list, followed by the initial greeting and attitude of the host or hostess, the attentiveness, warmth, knowledge, and passion of the server is key, followed by the preparation, presentation, textures and finally flavors of the meal.
The physical environment at A.R. Valentien exudes warmth and elegance. The restaurant itself is a tribute to Southern California heritage and Craftsman architecture, with a metal-strap post-and-beam structure, handcrafted wood-framed windows, stained-glass lanterns and a frieze painted with pine boughs. Another highlight is the display of works by artist A.R. Valentien and memorabilia from his estate. Albert R. Valentien was the chief decorator of the renowned Rookwood Pottery in Ohio for more than 20 years before moving to San Diego in 1908. Shortly after, Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned Valentien to paint 1,000 native wildflowers for her private library in La Jolla. Following his wildflower studies, Valentien began painting landscapes in the California Impressionist style. His botanical watercolors, renowned for their realism, are perhaps the finest representations of California flora. So let’s put a big check mark next to the physical environment.
Next up was our initial greeting, and in this case it started with the very welcoming kilt-clad valet guys who were very friendly, even as we pulled up in our non-luxury truck. Just a side note here, this place hosts some very big money patrons, celebrities and golfers, so it’s nice that they exude that same friendliness to us regular folks. That went for the hostesses that evening as well. They could have easily been full of attitude but welcomed us with a smile and led us to our table.
One would expect world-class service at a place like A.R. Valentien, but this is San Diego and that is not always the case, even at high end restaurants. I had a feeling that would not happen here and was not disappointed. Eddie Grader was our server and I’ll just say it up front, he was as good as I’ve experienced in San Diego. His knowledge of the menu and suggested wine pairings was as thorough as I’ve encountered anywhere. This is a key element to the complete restaurant experience. I want a bit of romance when describing dishes and an honest enthusiasm, not one brought on from a corporate entity demanding a certain amount of flair. On the topic of flair, name the movie where Jennifer Anniston was not displaying enough of it on her uniform. Back to the subject at hand, more specifically a wine pairing that Eddie made that was unexpected but blew us away. His pairing of a Navarro Gewürztraminer with a Hamachi and Fanny Bay Oyster was spot on and very original.
Now on to the element that ties all of the above mentioned together, the preparation, presentation and taste of the food. Executive Chef Jeff Jackson runs the show, overseeing the culinary concept and menu development. He brings more than 30 years of culinary experience to The Lodge, having cooked at some of the finest tables in the country. His Chef de Cuisine is Kelli Crosson who was in the kitchen the night of our dinner and nailed it on all levels. It should be a given that a restaurant of this caliber is sourcing as much locally as they can, and rest assured, they do and have been since they opened. We sampled a plethora of wonderful food that night, but there was one dish, the Santa Barbara Sablefish (black cod) with fresh shrimp and chorizo that really stood out. I’m a huge fan of innovative surf and turf and this was right up there in that category. The textures, flavors, and the smoked paprika and sherry broth made this a very memorable meal.
I found myself going back and reading the menu several times just to relive the complete dining experience I had at A.R. Valentien. It’s a special place and should find a place on your dining must-try list. Check out the full menu along with the address at www.arvalentien.com