Another year, another hundred-plus restaurant meals under my belt -- some great, some mediocre, and some so unspeakable they couldn't be reviewed while the libel laws stand.
This year I tackled a bunch of well-reputed "Gold Coast" restaurants that were last reviewed here before the turn of our century, to see if they could still cut the mustard (mainly, yes), along with some interesting new ones in that shining land beyond the Merge of Death. Some of the oldies (there and elsewhere) were true goodies. Roving chefs also kept me busy with revisits, and some of their "remade" restaurants reached new heights of performance. At the same time, many of the year's debuts have centered in and near the new downtown hotels and cater to conventioneers with pricey steaks, seafood, and cookie-cutter Cal-French-Mediterranean-Pacific Rim-influenced hotel menus. I never want to see another crab cake, Caesar salad, whatever-crusted seared ahi or molten chocolate cake again -- unless, of course, they're fabulous crab cakes, etc.
Here, then, are the highlights of my year in dining. Just as last year, I can't and won't choose a single "Best Restaurant" or "Best Chef." There are too many varieties of restaurants and cuisines to make direct comparisons.
Best New Restaurant: Magnolias (Market Creek Square, 342 Euclid Avenue, near Market Street, Lincoln Park, 619-262-6005). Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? The Bushman went to Jackson Square and made big promises, but he and his buddies in Congress are still lollygagging about sending real money, while they throw $5.6 billion a month at Iraq. (Latest promise is about two weeks' worth of the war budget to fix the levees. Five weeks' worth would actually do it.) What's endangered, among other cultural treasures, is America's most distinctive and exuberant cuisine, as so many line cooks and sous chefs were washed out of the Ninth Ward and can't come home again. So I'm glad that we have Bessie Johnson from Lake Charles, Louisiana, keeping it real here at Magnolias. In addition to great gumbos, scrumptious etouffée, and a perfect jambalaya -- not to mention a fabulous crab cake -- she turns out the most delicious Southern-fried chicken I've tasted anywhere.
; Best Remake: Nine Ten Restaurant (Grande Colonial Hotel, 910 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-964-5400). This was the site of the most exciting, exquisite dinner I ate this year. Two major changes transformed the restaurant: Competent new people, from the house manager on down, were hired for the front of the house, replacing the former crew of headless chickens. Even more important, ingenious pastry chef Jack Fisher rejoined the kitchen, and his collaboration with executive chef Jason Knibb has been the catalyst for extraordinary inventiveness. For example, last summer, Fisher's house-made mozzarella cheese and experimental balsamic "gelée" (cut in cubes that resemble melting garnets) sparked Knibb's reinvention of insalata caprese as a fresh, thrilling dish. Ingredients are tops, and the chefs know the latest avant-garde techniques and aren't afraid to use them.
; Best-Kept Secret: Molly's (Marriott Hotel Marina, 333 West Harbor Drive at Front Street, North Tower, sub-lobby level 1, downtown, 619-230-8909). This is another outstanding remake, where a new hotel manager brought in a San Francisco chef (a veteran of luxury-grade Italian restaurants up north) worthy of heading the resort's "fine dining" restaurant. The menu descriptions look like ordinary Cal-Mediterranean dishes, but the superb produce and deep-flavored combinations on every plate tattle that Brian Sinnott's cooking is done with intelligence and care. Unexpected ingredients present culinary crosswords to enjoy, taste-teasing mysteries to solve. And Sinnott is one of very few local chefs who rolls house-made pastas as thin as they ought to be. Local food-lovers, arise, and liberate this treasure from the conventioneer occupation forces!
; Best Fusion Cuisine: Asia Vous (417 West Grand Avenue, Escondido, 760-747-5000). This restaurant straddles two years -- because the second dinner for review had to wait past the hectic holidays -- "best new restaurant" last year, and one of the best meals of this year. What elevates Riko Bartolomei's version of "fusion" is his thorough understanding of Pacific flavors and grasp of the tastes and textures that work best together. His combinations are bold, unexpected, and sometimes revelatory. (I'm still happily agape over the pairing of sweetbreads with Chinese sausage.) Riko's also one of the few chefs whose desserts are as expert as the earlier courses, a one-man band whose appetizers and entrées are equally delicious and whose ethereal sweets fit perfectly into his exotic flavor-rainbow.
; Best "Gourmet Gulch" Berkeley Restaurant in San Diego: A.R. Valentien (the Lodge at Torrey Pines, 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, 858-777-6635). Chef Jeff Jackson uses gorgeous ingredients, including local produce, matches them up intelligently, cooks them expertly, and serves them with no heavy sauces to disguise them (and no unnecessary calorie-loading). The food speaks for itself, eloquently. You could be eating at Berkeley's legendary Chez Panisse -- but Torrey Pines' scenery is prettier.
; Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Puerto La Boca (2060 India Street at Hawthorn, Little Italy, 619-234-4900). This lively, cosmopolitan restaurant serves the purest Argentine cooking in the San Diego area. The menu includes terrific beef empanadas, flavorful seafoods, and an honest mixed grill (parillada) with grass-fed steak, short ribs, zesty South American sausages, and organ meats cooked to your specification, served with a vibrant chimichurri salsa. Several of the appetizers (e.g., matambre and a shrimp-avocado salad) are rare this side of the equator. The staff are determined not to compromise their cuisine to gringo tastes -- and they don't have to. The local South American expat community has adopted this restaurant as a taste of home.
; Best Mexicans of the Year: Casa Reveles (Harvest Farms Village, 29000 Lilac Road, Valley Center, 760-749-8041). Chef-owner Sergio Reveles comes from Zacatecas, in the Valley of Mexico between Mazatlán and the capital, and his fare is what his grandmother cooked -- especially his 16 house specialties from the Mexican heartland. These include world-beating carnitas, moist and tender, and a deluxe machaca con huevo (shredded beef-and-egg scramble). Even tortilla-wrap dishes like enchiladas suizas are cooked with care that you can taste, making them Mexican haute cuisine. Metro-area runner up: Chilango's (142 University Avenue near Second Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-8646). Here the style is Mexico City proper, meaning a sophisticated compendium of the regional cuisines of the nation. There are no tortilla-wrap "combos" at dinner (they're available at lunch, the meal where they belong), just plates laden with zesty flavors, including a fruit-riot version of the rarely found specialty chiles en nogada (stuffed poblano chiles with walnut-cream sauce). A common element to both restaurants: guacamole mashed by hand, not by an infernal machine.