Fall is holiday season, and holiday is splurge season, so go ahead and treat yourself to an indulgent dining experience…

By Wendy Lemlin
Photography By Michael Wesley

Let’s face it, holiday season should just as well be called splurge season. More than any other time of the year, this is when we give ourselves permission to indulge extravagantly, and treating ourselves—and maybe a lucky loved one or two or three—to a one-of-a-kind dining experience should be high on the list of guiltless pleasures. if you need convincing, just think of it as well-deserved gift to yourself for all that time spent seeking the perfect presents for everyone on your list, for listening for the umpteenth time to Uncle Joe’s fishing story at thanksgiving dinner, or even for all the hours you yourself have spent in the kitchen preparing holiday dinners, decorating cookies, and planning parties. so, what makes a meal or a dish splurge-worthy? T is it the opportunity to sample unusual luxury ingredients, such as the house-cured salmon bacon wrapped around the fishery’s seared dayboat scallops? “to make the salmon bacon, we cure wild king salmon, and cold smoke it, like pork belly,” executive chef Paul arias explains. “it’s definitely a special touch. the smokiness showcases the plump, large-sized scallops, which are so rich, yet melt-in-the-mouth tender with their own inherent sweetness.” combined with the earthiness of a silky puree of root vegetables, a scattering of pickled wild mushrooms and black truffle vinaigrette, the result is a plateful of splurge. then, there is the truffle factor. ounce for ounce, high-quality truffles are the most expensive food in the world, and so the presence of the hard-to-find fungus in any dish can automatically give it splurge-worthy status. at nine-ten Restaurant & Bar, black truffles provide an extravagant finish to executive chef Jason Knibb’s very autumn-like creation of seared wild salmon with salt-roasted celery root, cipollini onion and roasted apples. “With their unique umami, that elusive earthy flavor,” Knibb points out, “the truffles add the perfect touch of woodsy lavishness.”

Is it the calories-be-damned pure decadence of dessert indulgence that constitutes a happy splurge? How about a whole platter of sweets to share with a very lucky companion? The Marine Room’s 5 Tastes is a quintet of diverse flavors that Executive Chef Bernard Guillas describes as a “perfectly delicious way to celebrate the holiday season, one bite at a time.” Start with the smooth-as-silk biscotti liqueur pot de crème, and then move on to the fruitiness of a slice of the Marine Room’s signature hibiscus infused lemon tart scented with cumin and almonds. Next comes a chocolate pyramid, its richness accentuated by a dusting of genuine edible gold and hiding at its center a jewel of griotte cherry macerated in armagnac and shards of crunchy hazelnut feuilletine. Refreshing passionfruit halva gelato is served in a spoon and topped with a crispy sesame pistachio tuile, and the final taste is one perfect absinthe chocolate truffle, because, as the saying goes, absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

Dessert assortment

Chocolate Zin at La Valencia Hotel’s The Med is all chocolate, all the time, a platter of five light-hearted mini desserts to be shared by two people. The Pink Lady S’More will bring out the kid in you, fashioned from house-made graham crackers dipped in Valrhona chocolate and a homemade strawberry marshmallow. Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake combines both dark and milk chocolates with the pb and caramel glaze. Flourless Decadence Cake is a gluten-free fantasy, while fudgy Triple Chocolate Layer Cake is accented with nectarine coulis and topped with peach gelato and a chocolate cookie tuile. Lastly, the playful Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich features espresso gelato between the chocolate cookies. For an ultimate splurge, the dessert platter can be served with a $150 half bottle of 2009 Opus One, which Executive Chef James Montejano calls “an explosion of indulgence! It’s a big chocolate experience, a chocoholic’s dream.” Chocolate Zin’ is a tongue-in-cheek play on “Chocolate Sin” and for wine and chocolate aficionados, it would seem a sin to pass this by.

Shrimp dish

Splurge-worthy can also be defined by a dish that combines several opulent ingredients, any one of which could be considered an extravagance in and of itself. The Butter Poached Lobster at Table 926 defi- nitely falls into this category—the succulent Maine lobster claw meat is rich enough to qualify on its own, splurge-wise, but then there’s also the uni butter and the spoonfuls of black caviar that Chef/Owner Matt Richman liberally adds to the plate. Salsify puree, mache leaves and the tang of citrus bring delectable down-to-earth balance to the exalted tastes of the sea. “This is a celebration of a meal!” Richman enthuses.


At The Patio On Goldfinch, the 30 Buck Chuck is Executive Chef John Medall’s version of a totally over-the-top burger, created from the finest meats—truly a carnivore’s delight. Filet mignon, Kobe and prime rib are blended into a whopping 10-ounce patty, topped with slices of Iberico ham, Huntsman cheese, sunnyside-up duck’s egg, frisee, and heirloom tomato, all served on a brioche bun slathered with black truffle butter. Says Medall, “The meat combination is incredible, each could be a star on its own. The Iberico ham really kicks it up, at $45 per pound—$1300 for one leg!!—it is definitely not something you usually find on a burger. I’d call this dish ‘splurge on a bun’!”

high cuisine

Sometimes the splurge factor comes from a bountiful plateful of hand-crafted items that all work in perfect harmony to pay homage to the season. Roy Hendrickson, executive chef of the newly remodeled Vessel at Shelter Island’s Kona Kai Resort features a beautiful piece of local white seabass dusted with powdered porcini mushrooms to give the fish increased umami and depth of flavor. The seabass perches on a mound of Chef Roy’s own butternut squash tagliatelle, with every bite of the extremely flavorful pasta encapsulating a burst of pure butternut goodness, enhanced by daubs of creamy house-made ricotta cheese. Chanterelle mush- rooms scattered about the plate, crisped sage leaves and a drizzle of brown butter all work to exemplify the bold tastes of autumn in this golden-hued dish. “This food is a gift from my heart to yours,” Hendrickson offers. Splurge-worthy are also dishes we relish, but only treat ourselves to occasionally. “For a lot of people, lamb is a ‘special occasion’ meat,” Bella Vista Social Club and Caffe’s executive chef Michael Garner says of his Costolette di Agnello. The superstars of the dish are three herb-crusted lamb chops drizzled with a delicate balsamic reduction, which adds a velvety acid/sweet complement to the meatiness of the chops. Sharing the plate are maple-glazed carrots and fluffy-as-a-pillow mashed potatoes made extra-rich with garlic and Parmesan. “For me,” Garner says, “the combinations of flavors and textures all add up to a meal for a fabulous night out.” (By the way, stay tuned for news of a second location of the very popular Torrey Pines casual dining spot.)

high cuisine

Fabio Speziali, chef/owner of Osteria Romantica says that when growing up in the Lake Como region of Italy, Osso Buco was always “a rich winter dish, enjoyed especially for the holidays,” and therefore this traditional specialty strikes a splurge-worthy chord for him. For this dish, he pan fries veal shanks and then braises them in the oven, long and slow, for several hours with vegetables, fresh herbs, red wine and a touch of tomato sauce. The exceptionally tender shanks are then served with fettuccine topped with a house made tomato sauce, redolent of garlic and herbs. “It’s a lot of food,” Speziali says of the generous portions, “and taking home the leftovers prolongs the pleasure of the splurge!” Finally, what could be more splurge-worthy than experiencing a one-of-a kind, 12-14-course tasting menu created exclusively for you and your tablemates by one of San Diego’s most noteworthy chefs? This is TBL3, the epicurean adventure at George’s California Modern in La Jolla, held on select nights, for the appreciative few who willingly give up total control to Executive Chef Trey Foshee’s talent and creativity. Guests surrender to the kitchen’s culinary whims—there are no choices, no substi- tutions, just course after course of pure enjoyment. The menu changes with each experience and each selection is created especially for that dinner, such as the rabbit loin with uni mustard, Welsh onion, potato and lima beans, that was featured at a recent TBL3 experience. Notes Chef Trey, “this is not a meal for everyone. It requires us to use all of our skills and creativity to bring you an experience that could not happen anywhere else. TBL3 is an ongoing conversation about the lifestyle, ingredients and sense of place that is San Diego.” So go ahead and indulge. Enjoy! It’s the holiday season and you totally deserve the splurge. No guilt, no recrimi- nations—that’s what January is for!