So here is a crazy quilt of the best tastes of the year. There will, of course, be no single "Best Restaurant," a ridiculous idea given the range of restaurant styles. These are mainly just outstanding tastes encountered over the course of the year.
Best New Upscale Restaurant: Clay's Hotel La Jolla, 11th-floor penthouse, 7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla, 858-551-3620, clayslajolla.com. This restaurant fills the bill precisely: the cooking is original, natural, and totally delicious. No boredom here, and almost every dish exceeds expectations. On top of the fab food, the view from the windows -- a panorama of La Jolla from inland to the sea -- is gorgeous. And it's comfortable! (Unlike so many top destinations, you can dress cute instead of wearing a boring beige upscale schmatte. ) A delight in all regards.
Best New Moderately Priced Restaurant: Currant, Hotel Sofia, 140 West Broadway (next to Greyhound terminal), downtown, 619-702-6309, currant-restaurant.com. A well-seasoned, big-time chef, Jonathan Pflueger, has chops to spare, and he brings wit and playfulness to his ever-changing seasonal menus. The affordable food and wine prices are a huge plus: you can eat like a first-class passenger (well, much better than that) on a coach budget.
Best Upscale Rebirth: Mistral, Loews Coronado Bay Resort, 4000 Coronado Bay Road (Silver Strand Boulevard), Coronado, 619-424-4000 or 619-424-4477. The former Azzura Point has tastefully redecorated and renamed itself. It just won a major travel-magazine award for "resorts that give back," largely on the strength of Mistral's all-organic menu. But on the right night, with the right server (and the right company), what it gives you is a taste of heaven, a blissful tropical mini-vacation -- with a panoramic view of the bay thrown in. A romantic and relaxing destination, with clean and lovely cooking and a sommelier you can trust.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant Rebirth: Kensington Grill, 4055 Adams Avenue (at Kensington Street), Kensington, 619-251-4014, kensingtongrill.com. Chef Hannes Cavin is cooking up a storm at Kensington Grill. It's not revolutionary, but just about every dish tastes terrific. That's what you want in a neighborhood place -- flavorful, consistent food that makes you feel happy, makes you feel fine.
Best New Bistro: Cavaillon, 14701 Via Bettona, Suite 200, Santaluz, 858-433-0483, cavaillonrestaurant.com. Former Tapenade sous-chef Philippe Verpiand presides at this far-off suburban outpost of top-notch French cooking. As the Michelin Guide would say, "It's worth a detour." Whether you choose the least expensive weeknight early-bird menu (quite affordable) or a fancier seasonal one (say, the truffle menu of winter), you'll be moved by the beauty, soul, and depth of the food. If nothing else, try the z panisse, the perfect version of Provençale fried chick-pea rectangles. Whoa, this guy can cook!
Best Reborn Bistro: Bernard'O, Albertson's Shopping Center, 12457 Rancho Bernardo Road, Rancho Bernardo, 858-4870-7171, bernardorestaurant.com. Chef Patrick Ponsaty, formerly of El Bizcocho, remains an awesome chef -- as far as I'm concerned, one of the best in San Diego. Now he's cooking for an upscale bistro (albeit a very pretty one), and when he cooks, he cooks. It was his food that reminded me that deliciousness really does count. Consistently wonderful, it's full of happy surprises.
Entrée of the Year: Jack's La Jolla, 7863 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, 858-456-8111, jackslajolla.com. Muscovy duck breast with cocoa nibs was so brilliant it struck my posse as funny. The breast slices were "rosy" as ordered, tender and rich, rubbed with a bit of star anise, and accompanied by parsnips and a sweet kumquat confit in which each dainty slice of fruit was individually visible. But the Zen-foodie joke lay in an irresistible little pile of toasted ground cocoa nibs, flour, butter, and sugar, baked and then seasoned with toasted ground cloves and run through a Cuisinart-equivalent. It's as though chef Tony DiSalvo thought about the classic Mex-haute combo of mole poblano with turkey and pared it down to essentials -- cocoa and game bird, just the basics, a logical but original combination that turns out to taste stunning.
Best Grazing: Two winners here, not so much tied as separately equal: At Bite, 1417 University Ave (at 14th Street), Hillcrest, 619- 299-2483, bitesd.com, chef-owner Chris Walsh draws from Mediterranean flavors to produce some of the most sensuous grazing dishes in the city. His foie gras crème brûlée is a satiny dream, while warm poached oysters with truffled cream will remind you why these creatures are rumored to be aphrodisiac. (Here, they are. ) And his rose-scented prosecco cocktail is the perfect exotic drink out of an Arabian Nights fantasy. Meanwhile, at Seasons, 142 University Avenue (at Third Avenue), 619-692-1919, chef Comer Smith takes a different approach: His "global tapas" are miniature highlights drawn from his savory, venturesome entrées. Among them: a spectacular gingered Jidori chicken pot sticker in a rich hot-sour broth that tastes something like an Eastern-European stuffed cabbage gravy -- redefined by a Southeast-Asian master chef.
Best Affordable Steak: Brandt Natural Beef Prime grade flat-iron at Starlite Lounge, 3175 India Street (between Redwood and Spruce), Midtown, 619-358-9766, starlitesandiego.com. Both tender and savory, this was anything but boring cow -- its flavor was nearly as full-bodied as bison. It was lightly sauced with horseradish crème fraîche, just right for highlighting the meat without disguising it.
Best-Used Foams: The Guild, 1805 Newton Avenue (at Beardsley), Barrio Logan, 619-564-7584, theguildrestaurant.com. Most chefs use foam as a special effect, a gilding of the goodies. Guild chef Melissa Mayer uses foams seriously, to vary and intensify tastes. Her complex fizzes open up the flavors, making them clearer, more distinct, and they take on the roles that heavier sauces and reductions play in more conventional "fine cuisine." There's nothing frivolous or arbitrary. They belong to Mayer's food the way paint belongs on canvas. And the restaurant itself is delightful, an oasis of community and artistry in the least-chic neighborhood of the city -- 'til now.
Sensational Soups: The velvety cream of porcini and chestnut soup at Seasons (see "Best Grazing" above) is intensely mushroomy and astonishingly fulfilling. On a cold night, it warms you to the marrow; better yet, like a lover's caress or a mother's lullaby, it leaves you feeling cared for. And at Jack's La Jolla (see "Best Entrée" above), chef Tony DiSalvo's creamy celery-root soup last winter was smashing, topped with a "butterscotch froth" (made with a touch of maple syrup, with balsamic vinegar to cut the sweetness). The soup concealed crunchy diced fresh celery and earthy house-made mini-ravioli with a filling of shaved fresh black truffles and truffle juice, baked potato pulp, crème fraîche, and a little agar-agar binding. This is just the kind of food San Diego needs more of, sensual and approachable but unexpected.