Jai turns in a memorable performance

Famous chef’s new Asian spot provides common ground for foodies and thespians alike

Attention dining enthusiasts: Wolfgang Puck has landed in La Jolla.

No, we’re not talking about a new line of gourmet pizzas in the freezer section of your local grocery store. We’re talking about Jai (pronounced Jay), a brand new restaurant smack dab in the heart of UCSD’s campus.

At first, a college campus may seem like an odd locale for a world-class chef and restaurateur to pound down stakes. The mind conjures visions of upscale cafeteria fare and hand-held haute cuisine perfect for pick-up by on-the-go collegiates running late for bio class. Any misconceptions are dispelled at first bite when it becomes clear how ideally suited Jai is for its surroundings.

Located in the Mandell Weiss Forum next to the La Jolla Playhouse, this upscale venue offers the perfect opportunity for diners to experience the best of both the culinary and theatrical arts in the same evening. Such is to be expected from a chef who thrives off the buzz and energy of cities like Hollywood and Las Vegas. But can we, the citizens of a humbler (albeit glamorous in its own right) community lacking the glitz and over-the-top mentality of the aforementioned cities expect to get the same high-caliber dining experience?

A recent visit during the restaurant’s soft opening (Jai celebrated its grand opening on Aug. 20) confirmed that Puck’s vision, flavors and philosophies have been transported south and delivered completely intact. It’s clear that a great deal of thought and consideration went into the planning and execution of the brilliant menu that showcases a myriad of Asian flavors via recipes maximizing the freshest and finest of our region’s harvest.

Produce is procured from nearby Chino Farms and, though it turns in a stellar performance, the undisputed star of this show is the delectable fish and shellfish adorning the bill of fare. It may very well be the most pristine of any seafood in any eatery in all of San Diego. This comes through best in raw offerings such as the whimsical spicy big-eye tuna tartar appetizer, which is spooned into petite savory ice cream cones flavored with sesame and miso.

Another au natural delight is a three-part entree including ruby red tuna, hamachi (Japanese yellowtail tuna) and glistening strips of salmon served in both sashimi and nigiri sushi styles with a spicy tuna California roll complimented by the sweetness and creaminess of a scrumptious aioli. Thankfully, this condiment finds its way into other menu items such as a tempura-style tuna roll coated in a light rice flour batter and fried to a brilliant crisp.

For those who prefer their seafoodcooked, there is a delicious Thai style seafood curry dish featuring perfectly cooked sea bass, shrimp, scallops and hunan eggplant in a sweet broth featuring a depth of flavor seldom achieved in similar dishes at many of our city’s other restaurants.

Atlantic salmon, Maine lobster, butterfish and soft shell crab are also offered in pleasing preparations, but it’s not all aboutthe fish. Jai also offers maltose glazed Kurobuta spare ribs, grilled Mongolian lamb chops with cilantro mint vinaigrette, an exceptional Chinese chicken salad with sesame mustard dressing and Cantonese duck, which is served with sticky rolls filled with even more duck and a Bing cherry sauce.

Even if you don’t have tickets to the Playhouse’s offerings, you can still enjoy dinner and a show. The show component is delivered via a special donut dessert that features a pair of panko-crusted puck-shaped (aptly enough) pillows of fried dough stacked alongside creamy cocoa gelato.

It sounds simple enough - hardly anything that would give the local Krispy Kreme a run for its money. That is until you plunge a spoon into the donuts and watch a Vesuvius-esque lava flow of rich velveteen chocolate quickly overtake your plate. It almost overshadows this dessert’s indulgent and equally delicious accoutrement, a small cup filled to the brim with warm, decadently rich hot chocolate (that has the texture and characteristics of a ganache rather than a beverage) made earthy and slightly spicy thanks to an infusion of ginger.

But this isn’t your only death-by-chocolate option. Lava cake is on the playbill as is a caramelized banana tatin and scores of other satisfying sweets.

It’s the type of menu that will leave you wishing for an encore.

For more information, call (858) 638-7778.