RESTAURANT REVIEW: Mediterranean Room
New chef tandem takes La Valencia's oldie to goodie
I didn’t come to the Pink Lady for a room overlooking La Jolla’s piece of the Pacific. My destination was the Mediterranean Room, a long-standing restaurant on the base floor of the iconic La Valencia Hotel. I’d heard good things about their newly appointed and rather young executive chef, Lance Repp, but that wasn’t the only draw. What I found most interesting was that a toque I’d heard even better things about was in the house.
Realizing that bringing the Mediterranean Room into this century was a daunting task, especially for a relatively green chef, the powers that be at La Valencia sought out veteran Jason McLeod to do a bit of mentoring as the restaurant’s Director of Food and Beverage and make Repp’s transition to headman a bit easier. McLeod has a great résumé. His last San Diego gig was opening up the Grand Del Mar. After that, he headed out to Chicago where he sated a yearning to work in a top tier food city, manning the stoves at the Elysian Hotel’s Ria Restaurant. Yet, in the end, he and his wife found they missed the pace and atmosphere of America’s Finest City.
They packed their bags and headed back with intentions of opening their own restaurant. From finding the right place to negotiating a lease to hiring employees, nailing down a menu and getting things off the ground, such a venture takes time. That’s what makes McLeod’s current post such a win-win. He’s able to tackle all of that while simultaneously lending his experience and advice to Repp.
The result of this mentor-protégé relationship is a cohesive melding of generations in the back of the house that leads to a succinctly focused bill of fare and solid offerings for folks in the dining room. Aiming to create something very now, the duo is moving the menu in a tapas direction. So much so, that over half of the offerings on it are small plates and salads. Upon entry, I was a bit skeptic and still have to say that the room in its current state—way too formal and drenched in décor that’s way too ancient and blah—doesn’t match the primarily Spanish fare, but in the end, I’m way more Food Network than HGTV. I go to restaurants to eat, not look around and can attest that the food here outshines any design faux pas.
Many eateries of varying types and sizes made the move to tapas when the economy was down. Often times, it’s clear that was more a strategic financial decision than a heartfelt embracing of this style of dining. Price points aren’t as big of a deal on Prospect Street or at hotels, which typically have a greater breadth of resources and, as a result, can afford the good stuff and staff that can prepare it well. This is the case with the Mediterranean Room.
Chef Repp’s starters are tasty across the board. They’re simple and well done. Robust flavors take the place of pomp in a starter plate of grilled pita bread that’s served with a quartet of house-made Mediterranean spreads—tzatziki, hummus, melitzanosalata and muhammara. Not familiar with those last two? They don’t get much play in San Diego (I’ve never seen them here before), so it’s nice to see them not only on this menu, but doing these traditional condiments justice. Melitzanosalata is a simple eggplant spread made with olive oil and lemon juice (think baba ghanoush with acid) and muhammara is a pepper-based condiment that, here at least, comes across tasting much like a zesty Romesco sauce, which is highly in keeping with the flavor palette. All of the spreads sing. The hummus is a great restrained version diners who prefer straight non-muddied chickpea earthiness free of adjuncts will enjoy and the tzatziki delivers zing without blowing out your palate on course one.
Another starter that delivered big flavors were olives that were fried to a beautiful golden brown. Warm and not overly-salted, they were so good that they didn’t even need the Romesco that accompanied them, though it did add a nice splash of color for visual appeal (sorry, HGTV moment there). Grilled Spanish-style chorizo was also a delight and proof that, with tapas, some things just don’t need to be complicated to be good…or in this case great. Still, you can find house creations that include a myriad of different ingredients that come together to form a dish that hits on multiple taste sensations. Case in point is a salad of pickled baby beats and baby arugula that includes candied pecans and a duo of dairy with crumbled gorgonzola cheese and citrus-infused crème fraîche. It’s for sure the type of ensalata you want to toss before you get into it. Each item is tasty on its own, but when you get a bite incorporating all of them, you’ll be treated to a mouth-coating mélange of sour, salt and sweet in all the right proportions.
Of course, not everything shines quite as bright. A holdover from the old guard that’s been on the menu for decades, Paella Valencia, was a disappointment. Saffron-yellowed rice with a mix shrimp, scallops, fish and that same chorizo I was so wowed by on the tapas side, came across flat and bland in this entrée. The scallops tasted nice, but the shrimp were a bit overcooked and the rice was almost funky (too much saffron, perhaps). Fortunately, new dishes like the perfectly grilled lamb chops with couscous and the aforementioned tzatziki balance things out on the main dish front.
The dessert menu has also received some updating. There’s a caramel mousse dessert that includes a trio of caramelized pâte à choux fritters that look a bit odd, but keeping on the theme of this review, who cares. They taste sinfully scrumptious, as does a strawberry shortcake dessert that, despite a delicious chocolate-peanut butter torte, was easily the best last course in the house.
Prior to my recent pilgrimage, I’d been to this restaurant several times and had always been underwhelmed, but Repp and McLeod have done a good job. There is a newness that transcends the outdated carpet and fixtures. If you want old time nostalgia, hit the Whaling Bar across the hall, but if you’re looking for folks who are really working to breathe new life into an establishment deserving of such doting, turn left and enter the Mediterranean Room.