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San Diego is an ocean of pleasures, a paradise to live in or see. Only lately, though, has it started to be a great place to eat.

My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was to come down from San Francisco (where I’ve been a restaurant critic since the Bronze Age) and eat out anonymously until I’d identified and interviewed San Diego’s ten hottest chefs. All too casually, I accepted the challenge, expecting that n six or seven weeks I’d be able to find 30-odd solid candidates and winnow down from there. Little did I realize what a desert I’d be trekking.

The qualities I hoped to find transcend the ability to just put something pleasant on a plate. The secret spices of hot chefs are the imagination to create dazzling new combinations of ingredients and the palate to balance these flavors so the innovations will delight somebody besides the cooks and their dogs. Then, too, with such superb bounty available in California, the ingredients must be fresh and fine, or all the rest is in vain. Great chefs start their days as great shoppers — and then become great managers, so that all the sous-chefs in their kitchens neither spoil the broth nor overcook the fish but accurately consummate the bosses’ concepts with every order.

Even five or six years ago, finding ten such paragons in San Diego would have been near-impossible. San Diego’s most popular local eateries reputedly could all have been named Fill’er Up Regular by the Sea; diners expected soaring scenery and plodding fodder. The last few years, though, have brought an influx of fine chefs drawn by the benign climate and laid-back lifestyle, the ample spare money, the year-round local produce, and the sparsity of serious competition. That sparsity, though, is still a problem.

I began the quest by scouring the Zagat Survey, where restaurant scores are based on reader responses. My “test dinners” at too many of the readers’ top choices fell short (who are those people?). The half-dozen guidebooks and several dining websites I consulted touted near-identical lists, and local magazines wandered only slightly further afield.

Many of the recommended restaurants offered thrilling wine lists but discouraging menus. A frighteningly large proportion of the rave-reviewees proved to be faithful copyists of the French food of yesteryear, serving traditional dishes (whether of the haute cuisine or the bistro genre) that a conscientious home cook could replicate with a few hours to kill, some stocks in the freezer, and a well-worn copy of Julia Child Volume I. In my food-crazy hometown, a handful of similar restaurants still survive in one of the remoter neighborhoods, charging $25 for prix fixe dinners, not San Diego’s $60 to $70 à la carte versions of the same food. In both cities, they typically offer very tasty dishes in a charming ambiance — but “hot”? Not!

Significantly missing from local food-maven mantras was “the other great cuisine.” Vibrant and ingenious, genuine Cantonese/Hong Kong cooking bears only a passing resemblance to cornstarch-goopy “Cantonese American” (or cornstarch-goopy Mandarin, Szechuanese, etc.). Surely somewhere in San Diego there must be at least one chef-owned restaurant serving a credible rendition of the fare of the South China coast, and in a year or two I hope to find it. On the other hand, San Diegans think they love Italian food — but unlike the homeland, where even tiny trattorias do wonders with seasonal produce, most local candidates dish up stodgy red-and-white comfort food. (One famously “creative” Italian-with-a-view blew itself out of the water by wrecking their “signature” lobster with refrigerator-scented reheated spuds, while two other contenders shot themselves in the foot with cottony tomatoes in July.) At the opposite extreme were the Cal-French foie gras–abusers, flinging luxury ingredients together in such manic, self-canceling profusion that the warring flavors finally subsided into high-priced sludge. A slight variation of this disaster, the lethally exotic sauce, sank a few candidates from the Fusion realm, that far country where mango-bearing Chilean sea bass drown in dreary ponds of chili-spiked soy. (Little wonder they’re an endangered species!)

Weeks passed, months passed, and still I ate, by now running on intuition, good steers from local food-lovers and chefs who’d passed muster, and, in one case, a rave in the Reader. It took 13 weeks of tasting the creations of more than 50 local chefs to find the 10 hot ones.

Three of them cook modern, creative French cuisine; three others serve innovative Cal-French-Mediterranean (with Asian influences); one specializes in Franco-Mexican cuisine, another in a Franco-Sino-Japanese blend; one ventures into “world cuisine,” and one features super sushi. Unfortunately, sublime ingredients aren’t cheap, so neither are dinner prices. Sushi aside, dinner prices for two (for three courses, including tip, tax, and a lower-priced bottle of wine) ran from $130 to $228.

There were some distinguished runners-up: High on the list is Drew McPartlin of Savor Catering (if only he had a restaurant!). I also enjoyed the vivacious Italian cooking at Osteria del Pescatore in Del Mar, the fanciful sushi at Kazumi, the classic sauces and sexy desserts that Rene Herbeck turns out at Twins, and Fabrice Poigin’s honest regional French bistro cuisine at Vignola. Ed Moore of Thee Bungalow also deserves a special mention for his generosity in helping (and spreading the word about) fine chefs who are just getting started in this area; he’s played a strong, quiet role in the recent upturn in San Diego restaurant food.

The chefs who made the final cut were born in five nations and three continents and cook in divergent styles. Some of them actually slave over a hot stove; others are the final stop on the line before the food leaves the kitchen; yet others design the dishes and the menus but rely strongly on a chef de cuisine (“head of the kitchen,” answering to the executive chef) to actually execute the food and oversee the kitchen brigade. Nonetheless, they turn out to have a lot in common: Every one of them learned “on the job,” going straight from high school into restaurant kitchens, where as apprentices they peeled, chopped, and scrubbed for many months before they could get near a stove. (The few who attended cooking schools did so to enrich their skills once their careers were well underway.) None of them resembles the snobbish, effete stereotype of a chef we’ve seen in so many Hollywood movies — instead, they’re hard and joyous workers in a down-to-earth business that merges aesthetics and appetite. Exactly half own their restaurants, but six out of ten have been at their current restaurants for less than three years. This is partly because like all entities under the sun, restaurants have distinct life cycles, and “young” ones often have greater energy and daring than older ones — but it’s also a clear indication of the current change in San Diego’s restaurant scene. If this keeps up, like it or not, you’re on the way to joining the ranks of the “foodie” cities.

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