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Carolina gumbo

The Gilded Age

by Kersten Wehde | Photo: Tim Melideo and Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | May 28, 2013

Venture through the gilt- and marble-laden double doors of Amaya La Jolla and find yourself magically and immediately transported to… the Grand Del Mar? Judging only by the interiors and that entrance, which calls to mind that of a lavish Beverly Hills mausoleum, one might think the La Jolla version of the original is less Amaya 2.0 than Amaya cloned for denizens of the 92037. A few major differences prevail: an extremely affable, Charleston-bred chef with a heaven-sent talent for spicy shrimp and frying birds in buttermilk; a wunderkind sommelier whose knowledge belies his youth; and a claim to the first potentially great wine bar in La Jolla.

If the lack of tablecloths is meant to signal a casual atmosphere at the 2-month-old Amaya, the rows of crystal chandeliers, coffered ceilings and burgundy-mahogany-aubergine palette didn’t get the memo. It’s a place where the Corleones might discuss business when it’s going well. Nothing about the luxury-yacht design of Amaya tells you that the menu might offer veal sweetbreads, cornbread purée or, on Tuesdays, a Carolina gumbo with ruddy mudbugs. 

This is what happens when owner and S.D. developer Doug Manchester (I respectfully decline the opportunity to call another adult “Papa”) opens his dream restaurant in his hometown, smack-dab in the middle of Prospect Street: an opulent, over-the-top den of Old World-gone-nouveau grandeur, with a contemporary American menu that features several very good dishes.

After putting in half a decade 12 miles north, Executive Chef Camron Woods brought several of his signatures over from the sister spot, including the pleasingly kicky chile-lime shrimp and the slow-roasted pork chop, surprisingly juicy and joined by a decadent sweet potato bread pudding. This is not exactly fare for La Jolla ladies who lunch lightly: Portions are sizable, sides are heavenly and heavy (think dense cheddar-herb biscuits, jalapeño cornbread and deviled eggs), and more than one dish is best eaten without cutlery. If you miss the lip-smacking buttermilk fried chicken on Monday, its wee quail cousin is available any day of the week as an appetizer, with a smoky mac and cheese and dollops of tangy barbecue sauce. Aside from California’s delicious and adorable state bird, standout starters include a meaty Dayboat scallop and a luscious lobster and crab bisque that mandates a gym visit just by seeing it. And the crispy branzini entree is extraordinary with tomatoes, nicoise olives, fennel and a bright tangerine sauce.

Specials change nightly, as Manchester sought to create a hub where locals would eat several times a week. Woods thrives with these seven Southern wonders that highlight his Carolina upbringing and time in Atlanta, doling out shrimp and grits, baby back ribs and smoked pulled pork. These specials showcase Woods at his best, even if the food he is creating doesn’t always seem comfortable in its own surroundings.

Sommelier Andrew Adelson, a 29-year-old wunderkind who comes to Amaya with five years of experience at the Del Mar original, has curated an unexpected and risk-taking wine program of 300 labels, all under $100, that fits right in with Amaya’s “dressed-up American without the dress code” M.O. Adelson’s enthusiasm for unusual wines—a full-flavored brachetto, a gigantic Napa cabernet when you least expect it—is infectious, and will certainly help to correct La Jolla’s infamous lack of wine bars. Come summer, the backroom Club M lounge will be a hopping spot for Padre-watching on massive TVs, neon-lit jazz and pulled pork sandwiches.

Though the food—gorgeous and sumptuous in its own way—is somewhat at odds with the beauty and luxury of the dining room, the overall experience is as it was intended: familiar and rich.

Amaya
1205 Prospect St., La Jolla,
858.750.3695,
amayalajolla.com

Hours
Nightly, 5-10pm

What to Wear
Beware the promise of “dressed-up American without the dress code.” Everyone inside Amaya is turned out like they’re entertaining a business client or a prospective father-in-law; no one has come here for casual anything.

When to Go
Friday, when the lightly breaded fish and hush puppies draw as devoted a crowd as the backroom jazz crooners.

What It Costs
Appetizers, $10-$22; entrees, $26-$39