We are a frazzled, worried country after seven years of every important decision being decided wrong by that "deciderator" and the awful gray eminences whispering in his ears. So do I dare to interpret the change in San Diego restaurant food as a rainbow sign, a new attitude that locates our city in a specific place on the globe, no longer just some otherworldly surfer paradise?
When I arrived here seven and a half years ago, the restaurant-going attitude in these parts was mainly "fill 'er up regular." Now, just as we don't want toys full of lead, we don't want traces of 18-syllable petroleum derivatives in our veggies -- we've finally caught up with Moose, Wyoming, and Oxford, Mississippi, where the same values have apparently taken hold. Most of us are stuck with regular supermarket meats at home, but when we go out, we'll happily pay a little extra for steers who've at least tasted grass, fat pigs raised with clean ankles, birds who got to strut and eat some bugs. What a fabulous development! Even the Zagat Guides have recognized San Diego's existence again, noting these changes and issuing a San Diego guide after several years' lapse. (Well, it's shared with Orange County and Palm Springs, but it's mainly about here.) More than half the local Zagat respondents said they actively sought out organic and/or sustainably raised vegetables and natural meats at local restaurants. Seems we're not in Kansas anymore -- or in the San Diego of old.
I think Zagat's editors got it wrong when they ascribed the change to the presence of Bay Area celeb-chef Brad Ogden (consulting at Arterra and Anthology). Long before Ogden's arrival, Michael Stebner (at Azzura Point, then Nine-Ten, then Region, now gone to Arizona) was the first I know of to carry the Alice Waters/Slow Food ethos here, until it finally took hold and spread.
The greatest change, though, seemed to arise after chefs Ed Moore and Deborah Schneider coordinated a series of Chef's Celebration dinners three years ago that specifically matched top chefs with individual local farms. What came out of that, I think, has been the much-enhanced availability of local, sustainably raised, and organic produce. (Not every chef has time to trek up to Chino Farms, which doesn't deliver or take credit cards except for Alice Waters herself.) Farmers here used to sell everything to produce wholesalers who'd truck the stuff up to L.A. and resell it, from whence it traveled south again, several days the worse for wear. Now, Specialty Produce, a major supplier to local restaurants, is carrying a "Farmers Market" line, buying from local farms and delivering to local chefs, while Moceri Produce reached that point even earlier. Crow's Pass Farms in the North County also gathers the harvest from nearby farms to deliver to restaurants several times a week. These companies (along with Ed and Deb themselves) deserve special recognition for changing the way we eat. (I haven't faced a "Sysco veggie medley" all year!)
Another wholesaler who has helped make the changes possible -- Hans-Trevor Gossman, chef of the late, lamented Royale Brasserie -- is now working for Hamilton Meats. Several chefs praised him as an outstanding "meat guy," because "as a chef himself, he knows what chefs need." He's at least partly responsible for the increased availability of naturally raised meats, heritage-breed pigs, and pampered poultry.
So now that local and sustainable foods are all over the place -- the challenge to the chef has become: You've got the right stuff, so what are you going to make of it? These lovely ingredients absolutely taste better than factory-farm products, but it's still up to chefs to do something fresh and imaginative with them. Cookie-cutter local menus get wearying, with the same old Caesar salads and crème brûlées, the same 30-year-old Chez Panisse combos (beets and goat cheese, pears and Roquefort), bolstered by 15-year-old sushi "sensations." (How many seared ahis must one critic eat before you can call her fed up? It's as though we're all still wearing bow-necked blouses and red power suits with padded shoulders.)
We had some losses, too. Three of our best, least-boring chefs departed: Riko Bartolomei for Hawaii, Gavin Kaysen for New York, Brian Pekarcik for Pittsburgh. Zen Sushi in Del Mar was an open-and-shut case, but chef James Holder has opened a new sushi place in the Flower Hill Promenade that I look forward to visiting. On the mom 'n' pop side, our best German restaurant, Chef Axel, went over to a catering-only operation, and D'Mood simply evaporated. Bud's, offering authentic flavors of N'awlins, is reputedly gone too, and Big Jim (of Big Jim's in Encinitas) sold out and retired, leaving the SD area almost destitute of genuine, low 'n' slow, Deep South--style BBQ. (There are several Texas-style Qs around, but they don't offer the soulful side dishes.) Let's cherish Barnes BBQ in Lemon Grove -- it seems to be the last of its kind here (unless you like looking at dirty old smoked brassieres at KC BBQ downtown).
As for ethnic restaurants, none of the openings was as thoroughly arresting as Kous-Kous' debut last year. Rather than choose a single "best" in the ethnic category, an honor roll of fine newcomers includes Romesco in Bonita and El Comal in North Park, for serious Mexican cuisine; Latin Chef in Pacific Beach for authentic Peruvian; Portugalia in Ocean Beach for Portuguese and Brazilian (it's not a brand-new restaurant, but it was new to me this year); Buga for Korean; and Izakaya Masa for fun Japanese tapas. I was also delighted by a belated discovery of Piatti, a most unchainlike chain with truly Italian flavors.
In the "bests," I've kept an eye out for restaurants that use fine ingredients interestingly, freshly, and most of all, deliciously. When I first moved here -- the Frisco Food Snob hitting Surferville -- I was so appalled at the general state of restaurant fare that I simply didn't think to include "delicious" among my top critical criteria. Fine ingredients, fine craftsmanship, and some hint of creative originality were rare enough, I'd forget to ask myself whether what I'd eaten also tasted good! Well, that little factor is back in play again, with a vengeance.