; Sushis of the Year: Samurai Sushi (Loma Santa Fe Plaza, Garden Section, 979 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, one block east of I-5, Solana Beach, 858-481-0032). When sushi first came to the U.S., its most striking feature was its aesthetic component -- exquisite or amusing miniature landscape-sculptures vanishing down the gullet. (How Zen!) It's easy to forget this, now that every supermarket carries packaged sushi and kids gobble it for schoolday lunches. Samurai still cleaves to the aesthetic. Let the chefs loose there (even the younger guys), and their sushi compositions look as beautiful as they taste. Nearby Nobu (315 South Highway 101 near Dahlia Drive, Solana Beach, 858-755-7787) is a close runner-up. Both restaurants perform consistently even when the head chef's away. (And it's easier to get a bar-chair than at jam-packed Ota in P.B.)
; Best Southeast Asian: Le Bambou (Del Mar Village, 2634 Del Mar Heights Road at Mango, Del Mar Heights, 858-259-8138). The winner of so many reader polls now wins the critic's "best" list. The fare is the charming, sophisticated cuisine of the former Saigon -- elegant, rather than hearty. Appetizers are outstanding -- an inventive series of brilliant tidbits, each with distinctive flavors, to wrap in lettuce with fresh herbs and joyfully eat with your hands -- including sugar-cane shrimp, a royal delicacy that's rarely managed with such a light touch in these parts.
; Best Budget Seafood: Blue Waters (3667 India Street at Chalmers, Middletown, 619-497-0914). Plastic plates, low prices, order at the counter -- but fresh, fresh, fresh! Instead of formality, you get pristine fish prepared to maximize its natural flavors -- mainly grilled just right, with a choice of simple garnishes and (along with entrées) a huge salad with your choice of superb house-made dressings. The raw oysters are luscious, and the clean-flavored grilled swordfish taco with perfect garnishes converted me from its battered cousins. What's more, the retail fish counter sells the same superior stuff, raw and ready for your own inventions. My sainted mother (who always loved "a nice piece of fish") must be rolling in her grave, yelling, "Let me out and let me at it!"
; Best Healthy Fast Food: Chipotle (many locations). It's not a spin-off of McDonald's, it's an acquisition -- and it sticks to the original chef-entrepreneur's concept of a taqueria serving wholesome ingredients and tender, naturally raised meats (wherever possible), all prepped and cooked fresh on-premises. (Most local taquerias use cheap meat pre-marinated by the meat jobber.) The carne asada burrito is fabuloso. (But if you don't want rice in it, you've got to tell them at the very start of your order.) They do have a liquor license (to correct a review error), so the margaritas are full-strength tequila versions -- proceed con cuidado, compañeros!
;Best Italian Pasta: Spaghetti al Cartoccio at Osteria Del Pescatore (1201 Camino Del Mar at 12th Street, Del Mar, 858-509-9293). This frequent special sings a song of the south of Italy, mingling spaghetti, clams, rock shrimp, and artichoke hearts baked in a tomato sauce with garlic and a rich undertone of anchovies. (Only anchovy lovers will perceive their presence.) As they bake together in a sealed packet of parchment paper, the clams open and spill their juices into the sauce, and the maritime flavors permeate the pasta. Peeled open before serving, the parchment package resembles a big white flower with a red center that exudes a perfume that can drive you mad with seafood lust.
; Best Trend: The Rise of the Neighborhood Bistro. We have more and more wonderful wine bars serving tasty snacks, but a true bistro goes a few steps further, turning out full meals of delicious and affordable food from Europe's "wine countries" to complement the sips or gulps. Among their numbers are the Italian-slanted Apertivo (North Park), Parisian-chic Chloe (East Village), and francophile the Third Corner (Ocean Beach). They're all delightful places to hang out, sip, and nosh. Special plaudits go to Apertivo, for proving that even with a bare-bones budget, a restaurant can serve tasty, creative produce rather than the dreaded "Sysco medley" -- if the chef does his own shopping and thinking. Come to think of it, I ran into the Sysco combo (you know, the inevitable carrots-broc-zuke) about half as often in 2005 as in previous years. If that's a trend, too, can it mean that San Diego is really becoming a food city?
; Mama, Look, a Boo-Boo: I got food poisoning from the salsa bar at a highly touted new taqueria, from a neighborhood pizzeria-cum-cheesesteak joint, and from a cheap buffet lunch near the town of "Pizza" (Phitsanuloke), Thailand -- but the culinary disaster of 2005 wasn't at some low-down dive. Quite the opposite: It was at a restaurant I hoped would merit my first five-star rating. But the kitchen was evidently having the mother of all off-nights, with the appetizers arriving 40 minutes after we ordered, the temp waitress playing John Wayne ("Never apologize, never explain, never refill the wine glasses"). Every dish was either badly undercooked (foie gras) or overcooked (steak). No, I won't name the perp. This chef is usually terrific, so I'm sure it was temporary insanity under holiday stress. My other gripe is perpetual: At so many new restaurants, the owners think that a painfully loud sound level equals a "lively atmosphere." That's fine for clubs, not restaurants.
; Other Culinary Signs and Omens: The U.S. government, busily removing native species from the endangered list, did recognize that a species actually can go extinct and embargoed beluga caviar from the Caspian anarchies formerly part of the USSR. Well-farmed sturgeon roes from Europe and the U.S. are filling in the gap, at the same old high prices. Just proves that Cheney, G.W., and their good ol' boys don't eat caviar, since its only oil is fish oil.
Then too, five years ago, the 30th Street corridor was "from hunger." This year alone, Apertivo, Lefty's Pizza, the Linkery, Spread, Tazablanca, the upcoming Vagabond, and Zensei all moved in, plus there's a gourmet deli/wine shop, Grant's Marketplace (2953 Beech, west of 30th Street, 619-231-0524) with Bread & Cie bread (if you get there early enough), Aidells sausages, Asento pastas, Thai Kitchen curry pastes, etc., albeit at "gentry" prices. On the other hand: The Albertsons originally announced to open in the East Village is this month still a hole in the ground, while the Gala supermarket on Fern is rumored to be doomed to be replaced by condos. Trader Joe's, Henry's -- Brother, where art thou?
Oh, and Happy New Year, all. The sun will rise again!