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The Best Croutons in San Diego

What the tiniest, magical detail of Japanese milk bread croutons at AR Valentien says about the whole shebang
San Diego restaurant A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines featuring an outdoor patio
Courtesy of The Lodge at Torrey Pines

I’m just not sure my DNA is bespoke enough for this balcony, but I’m faking it decently OK. I’m rotating my gaze between the best damn croutons I’ve ever eaten and the view of the 18th hole of one of the world’s most famous golf courses. It’s perched on a cliff, and far below out of sight, numerous liberated and naked people congregate at Black’s beach

I’m trying to talk chef Kelli Crosson into doing TV. She’s been approached. She’s smart in a searing way, talented, and rightly hesitant. Crosson is the earned-this heir to a hell of a legacy in San Diego. For 12 years, she studied under the estimable Jeff Jackson at AR Valentien. Jackson was doing farm to table and tip-to-tail cooking and stalking local farms before it was a marketing term. He was old-school, exacting; understood the idea that, without top quality ingredients, it doesn’t matter how good a chef you are—you can only go so far. And that meant, when possible, local farms

A.R. Valentien's executive chef Kelli Crosson with her predecessor Jeff Jackson and chef Olivier Bioteau
Courtesy of Jaime Fritsch
(From left to right) Kelli Crosson, Jeff Jackson, and Olivier Bioteau

Crosson took the reins as exec chef of the entire resort two years ago, and she—along with chef de cuisine Tiffany Tran and Cecilia Leung—were unsurprisingly very good at running the show. Raised on a citrus farm, the kind of kid whose parents were pros at getting dirt and soil and berry stains out of garments. And so you taste what she’s done with AR Valentien now and it’s no surprise she lets nature stuff shine.

Cherry Salad from San Diego restaurant A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines
Photo Credit: Troy Johnson

Try These Dishes from A.R. Valentien’s Menu

Cherry Salad

This salad shows a chef who knows how to identify the ripest things in her farmer’s box, choose the best flavor couplings, and tweak them without burying them. It’s made with cherries so fresh and deeply juicy that they almost seem like a different fruit, plus hazelnuts, Vault No. 5 cheddar, date and vanilla vinaigrette—a light, sweet offset by the bitterness of the frisee. Rarely do I moan over a salad. We both lose it a little.

Baja Shrimp from San Diego restaurant A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines
Photo Credit: Troy Johnson

Baja Shrimp with Magic Croutons

Look, the Baja shrimp in Espelette pepper are very good, but the twin stars of this plate are vegetarian. First, the best croutons in San Diego—made of shokupan, Japanese milk bread. Shokupan is, like Parker House Rolls, one of the most enlightened bread forms—mostly achieved through subbing the light fat and natural sugars of milk for water (the traditional liquid component in bread). I realize it might seem silly to focus so intensely on croutons while at dinner at one of the top restaurants in the city, but these croutons deserve it. They are, without a doubt, the best croutons I’ve tasted, magical little tufts of carbs that are both soft and crunchy (despite years of American mistreatment, croutons shouldn’t be pumice stones). 

I focus on them for this reason—it’s the tiniest details that make restaurants stick out. Any reasonable chef can lather attention on the duck and the sauce and the main stars, but when the details steal the show, you know you’re somewhere special. That’s what makes a meal with Crosson and Tran and Leung rise above. The second star of this dish is the Tehachapi polenta (a heritage grain project, with worlds better flavor than average polenta) with marinated artichoke hearts. Tomatoes from Girl + Dug farms in San Diego. They serve this as a vegetarian dish as well. Oh, my.

Anyway, this is a friend I’ve watched train and train and ascend. Doing very well at an iconic place that paved the road for better food in San Diego. Go pay her a visit. They’re also doing their Playing With Fire dinner series, where she invites some of the area’s top chefs to cook over live fire.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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