Where has all the foie gras gone, long time passing? These are bad times! Don’t it just make you wanna throw your shoes at someone? A year ago, the glitzy openings of Quarter Kitchen at the Ivy and Nobu drew Hollywood celebs. Now Nobu draws grazing suburbanites dressed for a big night at Marie Callender’s, while Quarter Kitchen just lost its prestigious British chef — often a sign that hotel management wants to downscale the cuisine and prices. (Our own skilled but unpretentious Nathan Coulon of the Belgian Lion family has been promoted to executive chef there, and the restaurant’s modest “Restaurant Week” menu is priced at just $30. I’ll bet that soon it’ll be Change for a Quarter Kitchen.) Hotel restaurants are usually “safer” in terms of lasting power than stand-alones, but even so, the Marriott recently murdered handsome Molly’s, to replace it with a branch of the splashy Roy’s chain — which will presumably be self-supporting, drawing a crowd that doesn’t have to sweat the mortgage.
Anyone following the food biz could smell the rot in the economy months before it became a media event. Very few new high-end restaurants opened here this year, and those that did suffered significant neonatal mortality (e.g., Jade and Dish). Meanwhile, existing temples of haute cuisine have been lowering prices or offering bargain specials to survive. (On the other hand, this fall, we the people finally broke the color bar and the intelligence bar simultaneously, electing someone capable of speaking English and thinking logically.
Frankly, high-end food tends to be better than budget food (with finer ingredients, more labor-intensive preparation, etc.), which means that this year, I’ve eaten fewer spectacular, creative, deluxe dishes than in any of the previous 20-odd years of on-and-off reviewing. The good news is: I must have spinach between my teeth by now from the local burgeoning of “green” and “slow” and artisanal restaurants. We’re finally catching up with Frisco and Portland and Moose, Wyoming, and eating more sustainably raised, “house-made from scratch” food from JSix, Crescent Heights, Market, and Whisknladle on down the price scale to the Linkery, Sea Rocket, and Tender Greens.
This “bests” list is always eccentric, with as many spontaneous categories as I can think up, and never a single “best” overall restaurant, given the variations between apples, oranges, mangosteens, and soursops. So these are simply the best tastes of this year, followed by a recessionary honor roll of good local cheap eateries I’ve eaten at during the last eight years in San Diego, to remind everybody that you can eat great dishes on a little dosh if you’re willing to adventure.
Best New Moderate Restaurant:
There’s no single mind-blowing signature dish at the Better Half because the menu changes constantly, driven by the perpetual creativity and intelligence of chef (and now owner) John Robert Kennedy, who’s worked under some of the top names in the food biz. His cooking sometimes dazzles, nearly always satisfies, and never gets trite. At a bistro’s price range, the chef (and diners) can’t afford the exorbitant ingredients of, say, a Blanca or Marine Room or A.R. Valentien, so imagination substitutes for expense. The prolific cornucopia of flavors coming from the kitchen reminds me of candies in the Harry Potter novels, ranging from occasionally somewhat challenging to bliss-inducing — but always fun. My posse had already adopted the restaurant before I’d even tried it — it’s a comfortable space for foodies, with food to please foodies… a friendly little haven where you can wear what you like (within civilized limits) and where the service is warm and smart because the staffers (both front and back of the house) love their gentle boss. Plus there’s that brilliant wine list of all half-bottles and the expertise of sommelier/maitre d’/former owner Zubin Desai, who just a few weeks ago sold the restaurant to John. When I first came in to review the place, I was hopeful but wary and skeptical despite my friends’ raves. Since then, the Better Half has become the restaurant I go to on my own dime (and under my real name) whenever I get enough ahead on my work to take an evening off for my own pleasure. I want food that astonishes me. Here, I often get it.
Best New High-End Restaurant:
430 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
Among the few high-end restaurants that opened and survived this year, while I was compiling the list of the “year’s best dishes,” I noticed that Roseville had the most entries: I started to purr at memories of chef Amy DiBiase’s lush asparagus and poached-egg salad, her fabulous herb-crusted albacore with shiitake cream, the crackly-skinned classic duck-leg confit (like a French version of Peking duck), the swoony lemon chiffon parfait. And then there’s the irresistible charm of owner/maitre d’ George Riffle, the smooth service, the beautiful, romantic room that turns Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” into a visible reverie. This is a lovely, soul-soothing place to go for a little indulgence. And since it’s in Point Loma, rather than Del Mar or La Jolla, you don’t need to dress in designer-label drag or drag out the family jewels. Nothing snooty here — just fine, fine food, service, ambience. Runner Up: Crescent Heights Kitchen and Lounge (655 West Broadway, downtown), where the vegetables are so thrilling they can outshine the meats — it’s upscale comfort food good enough to furnish genuine comfort in these times.
Most Promising New Restaurant:
1044 Wall Street, La Jolla
I predict that in a couple of years, this is likely to become not only one of the county’s most famous restaurants, but one of the whole country’s food meccas. Last spring, there were still a few little rough spots in some dishes, as you’d expect, given the vaulting culinary ambitions of chef Ryan Johnston. Those will pass. What will remain and strengthen is the purely artisanal “slow food” kitchen where Johnston and crew are using superior ingredients to make everything they can from scratch — even the butter! They’re doing salumi like Paul Bertolli, they bake their own breads, make cheeses, churn ice creams! Is this awesome, or is it awesome? By reviving traditional farmwife skills, they’re going back to the future. More and more, I think, we’re going to seek out restaurants that let us taste the pristine ingredients that chain supermarkets won’t even sell us, prepared with the laborious craftsmanship that most of us don’t have nearly enough time to try, much less perfect. Whisknladle is all about real food (as in Michael Pollan’s now-classic exhortation, “Eat food. Real food”) at the end of a 60-year stint of increasing, near-inescapable food fakery.