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Truluck's -- A winner in place

Restaurateurs often cite "location, location, location" to be their most important success factor. "Put it in the right place," they say, "and you can't miss." Personally, I believe that success is built along the lines of 3M's -- menu, marketing, management.

As a case in point, take the example of the Aventine restaurant setting. Located off La Jolla Village Drive, it has close proximity to the freeway. It benefits from the traffic draw of both University Town Center and Costa Verde shopping centers. It is literally next door to the Hyatt Regency, with upscale transient visitors. How could any restaurant miss?

In fact, Café Japengo and Fleming's Steakhouse have been there successfully for years. But two adjacent restaurant settings have struggled. In one of them, there have been about seven different operations in the last seven years. Recently, despite good financial support, Blue Coral failed.

But, there's a new kid on the block -- Truluck's. From the way it looks now, the winner has arrived.

Truluck's (pronounced "troo-luck's) combines great ambiance, great food and great service, with a great timely message. The restaurant features "seafood, steaks and crab" but the seafood served is from sustainable species. You won't find Chilean Sea Bass, shark or swordfish on the menu. On the other hand, you will find seafood that is in abundance, from stocks that replenish themselves. The restaurant respects the seasonal cycles of marine life.

Similarly, all beef, pork and lamb products are from Niman Ranch. Animals are vegetable-fed when raised humanely and are antibiotic and hormone free.

Diners who care for the environment and for their own bodies could certainly keep Truluck's favorable policies in mind.

Aside from such global considerations, the La Jolla restaurant is beautiful. One enters through large, perfectly balanced doors, into a wide vestibule where a hostess waits to seat guests. A tank brimming with live lobster and Dungeness Crab sits in a corner, giving guests an opportunity to meet their dinners before ordering, should they do so.

Booths are exceptionally comfortable and roomy. Lighting is subdued. Beams cleverly illuminate tabletops only, creating islands of light in a sea of intimacy. A live piano player performs soothing music in the background.

Truluck's is a small, independent chain, with 10 locations. Except for La Jolla, the others are in Texas and Florida. Riley Hutton, the local general manager, projected that his location will prosper, despite the flagging economy. As I looked out at the crowded tables, I would never have known the economy appears to be in trouble. People still eat out if the place and the price are right.

Stone crab is a signature dish. To maintain a continuing supply of the product and to meet its internal of quality, Truluck's set up its own fisheries. A fleet of 16 vessels goes out every morning; catches the crab; and brings it back to cook, pack in ice and ship. Product reaches diners' tables often in less than 24 hours from sea to plate.

To introduce the products, our excellent server brought over a cart to offer stone crab in three sizes, a large Dungeness crab, and two king crab legs that could double as baseball bats for the Padres. They are all served cracked or scored to facilitate eating and to make all the juicy meat accessible. It is so easy to do I didn't even need a bib.

Wine is coordinated with the meal to make it even more superb. The wine list offers over 100 selections by the glass and many more by the bottle. The list is so choice that the restaurant has wine the Wine Spectator Award every year it has been in business. Guests also have the opportunity to create their own wine flights, allowing them to sample a range of choices at moderate cost.

The appetizers were sensational. I enjoyed for the first time "pacu fish," a relative of the piranha. The ribs of the fish, which can grow to 60 lbs., are barbequed and served with sauce. They taste just like pork spare ribs, with the same flavor and texture but without the fat. They were unique and delicious.

Crab cakes, served with a white cheese sauce, were prepared with large chunks of crab, not finely ground in patty cakes. Again, simply delicious.

Goat cheese was served with cheesy and crusty toast, together with candied walnuts, olives and sundried tomatoes. Unbelievable.

Stone crab was served cold, with a tangy mustard sauce and a little fork to dig out the meat. The challenge of doing so was well rewarded.

Salmon, as an entrée, was served simply grilled, along with veggies. Excellent. Rib eye arrived on a bed of mashed potato, perfectly prepared. How can you go wrong with Niman Ranch products?

Then desserts arrived as the tour de force. A cart arrives, creaking from the weight of sugary temptations. Berries with Grand Marnier and whipped cream can be a light way to end a satisfying meal. For taste sensations, the mammoth carrot cake is an award-winning way to savor layer upon layer of the good stuff. My favorite was the unique Chocolate Bag, an actual bag made of the chocoholic's delight that is stuffed with chocolate chips, nuts and other goodies. It is carved and served with warm chocolate sauce.

Service was exceptional. Riley Hutton was everywhere in the restaurant, making sure that guests' experiences were excellent. The "concept statement" of the restaurant, the road map to service and dining experience, speaks at length about the need for staff to ensure the quality of the dining event. Their goal is to build customer loyalty.

If the test of the 3M's is applied -- menu, marketing, management -- Truluck's is a definite winner. Prices are moderate to expensive but fair, given the quality. Truluck's is located at 8990 University Center Lane, at the Aventine. Call 858-453-2583 for reservations and information.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a member of the California Restaurant Writers Association and the restaurant critic for sdgodowntown.com.

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