I eat in at least 50 restaurants a year -- more often, 65 and up. Some you read about; others prove too short-lived or too awful to merit ink.
The "Bests" list here reflects only meals that I've eaten during the last 12 months. Most of these restaurants opened within the last 16 months, but unlike (say) movies, which are preserved on DVD in their original versions, restaurants change over time, so I periodically recheck old favorites to see whether they still deserve the laurels earned long ago. Some classic restaurants that have maintained their standards are included below. But don't look here for a single "Best Restaurant" or "Best Chef." Great cooking comes in such a multitude of forms and genres, I can't squeeze it into absolutes.
Best New Restaurant: China Max (4698 Convoy Street at Engineer Road, Kearny Mesa, 858-650-3333). The "Best New Restaurant" is also the best Chinese restaurant I've found in San Diego. Close your eyes and open your mouth -- you could be eating in Hong Kong, arguably the culinary capital of the East. Addictive Peking duck, lacquered "crispy fried" squab, and live-tank seafood are among the attractions -- equally impressive is the wide array of homey south Chinese "peasant" dishes rarely found on local bills of fare. In an area where most Chinese restaurants offer cookie-cutter menus of goopy, guai lo-adapted favorites, China Max stands out for its clear regional identity, lucid cooking, and a menu all its own.
Most Creative New Restaurant: Asia-Vous (417 W. Grand Avenue, Escondido, 760-747-5000). This is fusion master Riko Bartolome's triumphant North County homecoming, in (at last!) a restaurant of his own. Freed from corporate bondage, Riko has unleashed his creativity, resulting in a number of extraordinary dishes, such as sweetbread morsels matched with sweet Chinese sausage, and airy potato gnocchi sauced with lobster and vanilla. His larder of rare ingredients includes pampered Kurobata pork, and moi, a Hawaiian fish formerly reserved for royalty. To eat royally here, you won't need ermine robes -- the atmosphere and prices are more bistro than big-bucks bash. A terrific and affordable wine list complements the high-adventure cooking.
Best Berkeley Restaurant in San Diego: Region (3671 Fifth Avenue at Pennsylvania, Hillcrest, 619-299-6499). Chef Michael Stebner and co-chef/owners Allyson Cowell and Jack Fisher at Region have created San Diego's closest culinary approximation to Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. This is a deceptively simple style of cooking that showcases the flavors of natural ingredients. The wine choices -- eccentric, adventurous, and not necessarily expensive -- are a fine match for the cuisine. Packed houses almost every night prove that San Diego is more than ready for this culinary rigor. (Now that Region is so successful, my New Year's wish for it is carpeting, drapes, and a soundproof ceiling, so that patrons can concentrate on the exquisite food, not the next table's business.)
Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Pomegranate (2302 El Cajon Boulevard, northeast corner at Louisiana, University Heights, 619-297-4007). Our one and only Georgian restaurant is a more-than-welcome addition, serving the zesty, spicy cooking of the Slavic deep south. Co-owner/chef Jon Skorepa is a food scholar, with a distinctive culinary heritage that counts among its joys a spectacular, meaty borscht (no resemblance to the bottled stuff), rich stews, and juicy house-smoked trout. The menu gives merely a hint of the final dish, cooked daily according to his mood. What's more, the decor is a comedy show, with odd objects dangling from the ceiling and multilingual graffiti on the walls and beams.
Best Remake: Chive (558 Fourth Avenue near Island, Gaslamp district, 619-232-4483). The old Chive was wonderful, but now, with chef Fabrice Poigin (most recently of Bertrand at Mr. A's) taking charge of the kitchen, it features a new cuisine for the upscale residential neighborhood rising around it. Diners can choose an adventure meal or enjoy an evening of sophisticated comfort food. Urbane multicultural fusions dance cheek to cheek with remade American classics and the occasional sleek French luxury dish. A new "grazing menu" offers small bites for folks on a diet or on the run.
Best Restaurant to Take Visitors from Dubuque: Coronado Boathouse 1887 (1701 Strand Way, Coronado, 619-435-0155). If you're entertaining food-fearing in-laws and want a good meal without spending a fortune, put on your aloha shirt and head over the Coronado Bridge (itself an eyeful for visitors). The old Coronado Boathouse boasts a handsome Victorian structure that mirrors the nearby Hotel Del, plus enthusiastic servers, water views, and satisfying mainstream American cooking. The herbed artichoke appetizer was among my favorite appetizers this year, and I loved the macadamia-crusted halibut, the Prime-grade roast beef, and a molten chocolate cake made with dark Belgian chocolate.
Best Service: Grant Grill (U.S. Grant Hotel, 326 Broadway from Third to Fourth, downtown, 619-232-3121). Like well-aged Bordeaux wines, the waiters are mature, mellow, food-friendly, and serve with finesse. They don't want to be actors when they grow up, and they don't want to be surfing instead of serving. They're skilled professionals and do everything within reason to increase your comfort and pleasure.
Best Dim Sum: Jasmine Bistro (Parkway Plaza, 315 Parkway Plaza, at Fletcher Parkway and the 67 Freeway, El Cajon, 619-588-8228). Dim sum is always fun -- but Jasmine Bistro pushes this art form one step beyond. Unlike the mass-feedings at huge and crowded dim-sum pagodas, the kitchen here makes small, fresh batches, which you can order using point-and-shoot from a laminated picture menu, as well as from rolling steel carts that change their assortments at every round. Delicious either way.
Best Beef Entrée: Wine-Braised Short Rib with Smoked Mashed Potatoes at George's at the Cove Fine Dining Room (1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-4244). My dinner at George's proved among this year's most pleasurable experiences, and a highlight of chef Trey Foshee's menu is the short rib of USDA Prime beef -- rarely used in braised dishes because of its cost; the difference in grade is palpable in the richness of this often-tough cut. It's a finer meaty treat than the whole year's worth of Gaslamp steaks combined. And the smoked mashed potatoes under the rib are startling, reminding your palate to pay attention.