Friday, September 23, 2005 | This week, after a quick trip to Sacramento, I think there is room for a friendly restaurant comparison. I ate at two recently opened restaurants – one in each city – both worth multiple visits.

Jack’s Grille, one of three venues under one roof in La Jolla, opened about a month ago. Named for his father Jack, Owner Bill Berkley, along with Chef Tony DiSalvo, create a restaurant that is casual, inviting and serves down-to-earth food without the pomp of some La Jolla places. The Grille is the first to open as part of Jack’s La Jolla. In the next few months look for a fine dining restaurant (to showcase DiSalvo’s food) on the second floor and a full raw seafood bar along with a drinking bar on the top floor. And within a week or so, a coffee bar opens on the Girard Avenue side of the building.

You enter the dramatic, yet not overdone, Grille downstairs from either Wall Street or Girard Avenue. The focal point of the three-story tall, open atrium is a long fountain with a glass top that seats up to 12. A discrete lava rock fire pit anchors the end of the fountain. There is seating in two half-circle banquettes around the fountain table. A large open kitchen with seating close by, as well as a large bar area with sofa seating and tables large enough for dining, round out the space. Flat-screen televisions in the low ceiling bar are without sound but do have continuous loops with 30-second to one-minute clips – everything from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to hockey and VHI fashion shows. A great idea for wine lovers: a $15 tasting of three wines of your choice, three ounces each. A specialty drink menu features drinks that would make a good dessert after the kitchen closes at 10 p.m.

DiSalvo’s dishes are deceivingly simple and well-balanced with uncomplicated presentations that allow the ingredients to be front and center. The Grille’s food runs from two Dungeness crab spring rolls with a papaya mustard dipping sauce (lots of crab in those rolls, and they’re not greasy) to spiral pasta with shrimp and shellfish in a simple satisfying light broth of basil and garlic. A roasted eggplant, sweet sausage and asiago cheese pizza has a flavorful, thin-style dough and would make a perfect light meal. Other pizzas include, among others, wild mushroom and fontina, potato and sweet onion and goat cheese. Five steamed wild mushroom dumplings look more like small triangular ravioli filled with finely chopped mushrooms, each topped with a small piece of fresh tarragon for a subtle flavor. It is not my favorite dish … twice they arrive on the cooler side of hot, and even with the roasted garlic dipping sauce they border on boring. The fresh mozzarella, black mission fig, proscuitto and basil is terrific: small chunks of cheese share the plate with pieces of fig and basil sprouts and a light drizzle of olive oil. For dessert I love the light delicately flavored ricotta cheesecake and a friend swoons for the warm brownie (the real deal like your mom made, not too sweet) sundae with caramelized peanuts, bananas and ice cream, which is not overly rich. Prices range from $8 to $12. Jack’s Grille, corner of Wall Street and Girard Avenue, (858) 456-8111. Dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., lounge open until 2 a.m.

The menu is relatively small with an Italian twist. From eggplant parmigiana and carpaccio to wood roasted lamb and sauteed petrale sole and pizza and pasta, everything is very good, including the reasonable prices from $2.50 to $18 (except for the Tuscan rib steak for two, 32 ounces of USDA prime and two side dishes for $48.). A local friend and I enjoyed a number of Spataro’s dishes. The fritto misto with lamb sweetbreads, mushroom, and artichoke hearts isn’t greasy and the aioli dip is addictively pure. Pizza pomodoro is enough for two (though I like Jack’s better), and the soppresata plate is a generous and tasty portion. Pasta carbonara is not too rich, with perfectly al dente spaghetti and the Niman Ranch beef liver is a hefty portion with pancetta, onions and creamy Anson Mills polenta. Though we didn’t order the caprese salad, I saw a colorful presentation with small hunks of housemade mozzarella, heirloom tomato quarters, basil and olive oil – how could that not be good? Three cannoli can’t be beat for dessert or there is granita, semifreddo and, of course, a tiramisu. Wines are reasonable with a nice collection of Italian and California varieties and by the glass prices are a quarter of bottle price; unfortunately, the wine glasses are not the best quality. I thought the food, service and experience were so good I went back the next night alone. Spataro Restaurant and Bar, 1415 L St., downtown Sacramento, (916) 440-8888. www.paragarys.com

Tidbits

Is fondue making a comeback? La Jolla has a restaurant named Forever Fondue and Rancho Bernardo Inn‘s Executive Chef Lewis Butler begins Fondue Fridays in mid-October.

In Escondido, chef owner Riko Bartolome of Asia-Vous now features Jidori chickens (Japanese for “earth chicken”) that are raised on all natural feed and without cages in the San Joaquin Valley. Many Los Angeles restaurants such as Patina, Valentino and Spago use the chickens whereas Asia-Vous is the only San Diego restaurant to serve it.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www.5dollarchef.com.

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