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Maine sea scallops with carrots, cauliflower, puffed wild rice and verjus raisin purée

Grande Master

by Kersten Wehde | Photo: Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | April 23, 2013

It’s been exactly 10 years since I first fell a little bit in love with Jason Knibb, then the just-imported leader of the Grande Colonial Hotel’s breezy-chic Nine-Ten, as well as the very game subject of a profile for this magazine. The idea was to capture the city’s best chefs indulging in favorite off-hours activities—playing tennis, reading cookbooks and so forth—which is how Knibb ended up ankle-deep in freezing La Jolla Shores surf on a blustery and dreary day, a shortboard under his arm and an unfailingly game grin across his face. You couldn’t find a better sport at the Olympics.

That good nature was enough to make anyone swoon a little, but it was his Jamaican jerk pork belly that really made me consider taking up surfing. A decade after its debut in La Jolla, the succulent stalwart is still one of the best dishes in San Diego and my ideal rendition of the “it” meat, served with baby carrots, plantains, black-eyed peas and those peppery jellies that the Montego Bay-born chef adores.

Much has changed since we first met—Nine-Ten has racked up accolades from every body fit to award them, Knibb has gotten robbed by Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, and the Grande Colonial has enjoyed several million dollars’ worth of renovations and attention (La Jolla’s oldest original hotel in La Jolla sure doesn’t look it). As Nine-Ten has risen to be one of the superior fine dining experiences in the western U.S., one thing has remained the same, even improving with time: Knibb. “Where else am I gonna go?” Knibb says with that signature smile. “For me, it’s all about the people I work with. I love it here. They let me do what I want to do.”

That’s exactly the attitude that makes for the most memorable dinners here, because the five-course Mercy of the Chef tasting menu is really the only way to dine at Nine-Ten. There’s no sense in muzzling the raw culinary talent of a gale-force chef like Knibb, who knocks it out of the park when he’s unbridled, as confident with classics as he is concocting an anarchic potato salad with Dungeness crab, blood orange and smoked trout roe. Maybe you get full and firm Hood Canal oysters, maybe you get a meltingly tender lamb loin, maybe you stop analyzing what’s what and just luxuriate in the intricacies of each dish set before you.

Aside from that dreamy pork belly, few starters have gotten as much praise over the years as the thick and luscious hamachi sashimi. With marinated baby shiitake mushrooms and scallion vinaigrette, each bite is a revelation of flavor and texture. Standout entrées include the plump scallops, which come with a sweet-tart raisin purée and slightly spicy carrot emulsion infused with vadouvan—sort of a curry powder by way of the Left Bank. Though Knibb has his way with braised beef short ribs and puts a clever SoCal twist on duck breast (with chayote squash and curious cylinders of duck confit “flauta”), the must-have entrées are Pacific-borne and anchored by the freshest local produce. One night, a special crispy-skinned black cod with white asparagus and black truffle oil is so silky, it’s a trial (the best kind) to get a proper forkful.

This year marks the charmingly Euro-style hotel’s admission into the S.D. Hotel Centennial Club, an elite clique that includes the Del, the Horton Grand and the US Grant. In honor of the milestone, Nine-Ten is offering a menu of throwback cocktails honoring past decades. I chalked up a packed Wednesday to half-price wine night. Asked to validate this theory, our server smiled, “We’ve been busy for years.”

That’s my favorite thing about Nine-Ten: It is almost disconcertingly comfortable with itself. Knibb neither courts nor shies away from the local celeb status that’s been conferred upon him by fellow chefs, critics and acolytes. Without being told, everyone knows they’re sharing something special.

Nine-Ten
910 Prospect St., La Jolla, 858.964.5400, nine-ten.com

Hours
Breakfast, Mon.-Sat., 6:30-11am; lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner, Tue.-Sat., 6-10pm; Sun.-Mon., 6-9:30pm; Sun. brunch, 10:30am-2:30pm

Who’s There
UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, MCASD board members, European tourists and their well-behaved enfants

What to Wear
Smart-casual would cut it, but sartorial slouches will feel very sore-thumb among this clientele.

Beet It
Pastry Chef Esteban Acosta can do very little wrong. On talent, the medal goes to the moist and raspberry jammy beet cake; the sculptural orange cream wins the beauty competition.

Where to Park
Validated valet is just $5, and secret street spots are usually available around the corner on Coast Boulevard South.

What it Costs
Starters, $13-$18; entrées, $20-$39; dessert, $9; three-course menu, $55 ($75 with wine pairings); Mercy of the Chef tasting menu, $80 ($120 with wine pairings)