The latest debut in the La Jolla Cove is Hawaiian-inspired restaurant, Duke’s La Jolla. Taking over the space of the long-departed Top of the Cove, its added a fresh, welcoming face to the formal scene of Prospect Street. Executive Chef Anthony Sinsay helms the kitchen, blending California and Hawaiian flavors while adding his own personal touches to the menu. Owned and operated by TS Restaurants, Duke’s is one of 14 establishments located in Hawaii and California, and so far, its making a splash.
To enter Duke’s you’ll have to take a few steps down into their entrance, where you’ll be greeted with a room filled with and smelling of fresh cut wood. The restaurant honors Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian, Olympian, and father of modern day surfing, hence the surfboards and memorabilia-adorned walls. The ambiance is welcoming, an outdoor patio provides stunning views of the Pacific, and an upstairs space provides an extra bar area for special events and possible happy hours.
Let’s start with the cocktails; the Mai Tai ($10) is stellar. You might be used to incredibly strong (see Bali Hai) or sugary Mai Tais, but the ones here are made with fresh squeezed juice, with just the right balance of rum and sugar. It’s served in a kitschy Tiki glass, with a tropical flower garnish. The Lavender Colada ($9) is everything you love in a piña colada, but with a fresh touch of lavender, not too perfume-y, it makes you feel like you’re on a beach vacation. All beers are on tap, and use a 29 degree Blizzard Draft System, so that each pour is as cold and fresh as it can be.
As for food, there are many bites to choose from, as the menu is separated by a “To Start” and an “In the Raw” section. If you indulge in any appetizer, the Fresh Fish Crudo ($13) is the way to go. Beautifully plated, with tiny chunks of caramelized pineapple, drenched in a pool of white soy ponzu, and adorned with slices of serrano chili; it feels like you’re enjoying a sashimi dish at your favorite sushi spot, with a sweet Hawaiian flair. The Coconut Shrimp Croquettes ($12) are crispy, tasty, some might find a bit dry, but overall satisfying, and accompanied by complex-tasting pieces of pickled mango and a tiny jar of lilikoi chili water.
For main dishes, the Banana Leaf Steamed Fish and Shrimp ($29) is satisfying, with bursts of surprising flavor. This dish is a heap of white fish and large pieces of shrimp on a banana leaf, served alongside a dollop of coconut bamboo rice and green beans. Yuzu ponzu and sizzling sesame oil contribute to the sweetness and light flavor of the dish. This is a plate you could devour and afterwards, not feel guilty or weighed down; you could run down to that beach without a second thought.
The Roasted Duke’s Fish ($28) is a seasonal fish dish, served with roasted carrots, bamboo rice, a basil lemon glaze, and as of this writing, pomegranate seeds. A colorful plate, the rice again is well seasoned, moist, and a perfect accompaniment to the large piece of fish. While the basil lemon glaze helps the seasoning of the fish, it could use some additional flavoring in the way of spice, but depending on the kind and size of fish, this feeling of mine could vary.
As for dessert, the chef pulls from his Portuguese heritage and has introduced Malasadas ($9) to the menu. These pastries are pillow-y round donuts dusted in cinnamon sugar, served warm, with a side of guava jam. They’re delicious and comforting on a cool winter night. The Kimo’s Original Hula Pie ($10) is served at all Duke’s locations and for good reason; it tastes really, really good. I like to think of it as the mud pie’s Hawaiian cousin. It’s a heaping slice of macadamia nut ice cream on top of a chocolate cookie crust, covered with hot fudge, whipped cream and toasted macadamia nuts. It’s large, simple, and satisfies the sweet tooth.
Duke’s has a great thing going for them; an ideal location. The patio and upstairs bar will make for a great happy hour destination (daily from 4-5pm) in the warm summer months. The service is friendly, and it is equally tourist and local-friendly. The prices however, are still pretty steep, indicative of its surrounding area, but also of the extraordinary quality that goes into every dish, drink, and dessert.
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