Epicurious Eating: Nine-Ten
Nine-Ten’s dynamic duo
Published Thursday, 11-Jun-2009 in issue 1120
Jason Knibb and Jack Fisher are the kind of guys who can separately breathe culinary superiority into any kitchen. Put them together under one roof and feats of magic ensue.
As Nine-Ten’s executive chef, Knibb has earned the La Jolla restaurant a river of honors with inventive cuisine that glides across trendy boundaries. Having worked previously under the tutelage of Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yahmagucci, his rookie days were long behind him by the time he arrived in San Diego five years ago.
Fisher, an accomplished, self-taught pastry chef from Imperial Beach, treated San Diegans to his confectionary competence at the former Region in Hillcrest. Afterwards he floated around like a sugar angel to Montage in Laguna Beach, Addison at the Grand Del Mar, Jack’s La Jolla, and in between, two stints at Nine-Ten.
Now for the third time, Fisher’s back at Nine-Ten while Knibb continues belting out dishes that are more intricate and cutting-edge than ever.
In their renewed alliance, creativity rules the day. Knibb, for instance, constructs beautiful salads of house-cured prosciutto with Tuscan olive oil and roasted cherry tomatoes. Fisher contributes to it with homemade burrata (baby-soft mozzarella encasing younger mozzarella). To my knowledge, nobody’s making burrata on San Diego turf, as it normally gets shipped down by a Los Angeles distributor.
Or in Fisher’s semifreddo dessert (semi-chilled custardy cake) accompanied by intense Meyer lemon sorbet, Knibb fairy dusts the plate with olive oil powder that arose from Manhattan’s dining circuit. Knibb engineers the talcum-like dust from tapioca flour, which absorbs the fat before it dries. The flavor is superbly rich and compact, and pays respect to Fisher’s history of incorporating olive oils into his desserts.
The symmetry between these two chefs is as fluid as tangerine jelly over Maine lobster and Dungeness crab, as we experienced in a stunning first course from the menu’s “salad & sashimi” section. Ditto for the melt-in-your-mouth raw hamachi dressed in vinaigrette that exploded with the goodness of chives, baby shiitakes and sea salt.
From the “hot appetizers” category, Knibb reveals his Caribbean roots with Jamaican jerk pork belly, an unctuous reward to those who can successfully keep their cholesterol levels below 15. Here, the belly pieces exude a torrent of spices – thyme, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon, though minus the hot peppers used in traditional jerk rubs. Knibb instead intersperses the meat with spicy jellies in a polite gesture that allows the homey essence of the pork to stand. The result is eye-fluttering.
Lemon-ricotta pasta tubes (angelotti) mixed with fava beans, peas and morel mushrooms set the stage for a braised lamb appetizer. I personally liked the supporting cast members of this dish better than the lamb itself, which lost its grassy pith in the extended cooking. In a blind taste test, one might easily guess it was beef.
Proceeding to entrées, my companion chose American Kobe New York steak served with spring onions, artichokes and tomato-red pepper purée. Clearly, Japanese Kobe is more tender, though inflicts more damage to the wallet. The American counterpart sports the same buttery flavor, but offers a tad more resistance to the knife. Waygu crossbreeds with less micro marbling? I’ve long suspected “yes.” Needless to say, the dish was finely executed, with the sliced meat sporting peppery exteriors, kept ruby red in their middles.
An airline cut of roasted Shelton Farms chicken (a bone-in, skin-on breast with the first joint left on) was juicier and more succulent than any chunk of poultry I’ve consumed all year. Sitting in a puddle of reduced chicken stock to restore lost moisture, the jus also meshed sumptuously with the accompaniments – wild mushrooms with nary a lame button cap in the mix, plus fabulous Yukon potato gnocci. English pea purée on the plate adds a lick of glamour to what is otherwise a simple, countrified dish.
Nine-Ten’s wine director Ross Harmon was on hand throughout our visit, pairing my companion’s meal courses wisely to whites, reds and in-betweens. I remained independent, discovering along the way a heavy pinot by Martin Alfaro from the Sonoma Coast that tasted tailor-made for Knibb’s jerked pork belly.
Another libation, a “molecular cocktail” that was sent to us from the bar midway through our meal, was a martini glass filled with white cotton candy. Alongside, a spouted vessel containing a dark-rum mojito mixed with champagne. Within seconds, we playfully deflated the cotton candy with the liquid before enjoying a slight wooze from drinking it.
Nine-Ten duly represents “new La Jolla.” The atmosphere is upscale and warmly textured, yet doesn’t smack you in the face with stiff formality. Aptitude and friendliness lend to culinary surprises at every swap of your silverware, which equates to money well spent.