Best French Bistro South of Interstate 8 and Best Weekend Brunch:
2121 Adams Avenue, University Heights
In French cuisine, “rustic” and “sophisticated” aren’t contradictory terms. Both qualities are embodied at Farmhouse, overwhelmingly the finest French bistro south of Interstate 8 — not just the best new bistro, the all-out best! Farmhouse joins Tapenade, Cavaillon, and Bernard’O in offering French food that soars above the standard old menu clichés, and here the prices are remarkably merciful, including those on the wine list. Chef Olivier Bioteau’s menu changes with the seasons (as it should), but eight months after my dinner, I still cherish the memory of his exquisite chicken-liver mousse; his corvina (local sea bass) with fennel; his soulful, rustic braised pork shoulder; his delicate, sly pear clafouti with rosemary; and his spectacular array of avant-garde chocolates (he’s a “certified chocolatier,” whatever that means). His weekend brunch dishes were no less vivid. I hate brunches — please don’t get me up before noon, don’t make me eat before 6:00 p.m.! But almost levitating above the plate were ricotta pancakes — perfect, airy, breakfast for angels. And, just a bit closer to earth, Bioteau’s radical revision of the Southern classic of biscuits and gravy. The biscuits are remarkably light and crisp-edged, the delicate gravy is made from reduced cream and puréed mushrooms (not the South’s heavy roux-thickened milk), and for meat, you find Bruce Aidells’s juicy, fresh (uncured) chicken-apple sausage, America’s best breakfast link, to my tastes. Don’t look for les oeufs McMuffinées, Benedicts, maple syrup, or other brunch clichés — all the choices are Gallic and amusing. This place is so good, I wish I could set all of this to rhyme and sing it to the tune of “La Seine.”
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
Notice I don’t say best “new” Italian. It’s been around for a while, but I didn’t eat there until this year and discovered that, at long last, this is the Italian restaurant I’ve been longing for ever since I left New York so many years ago. It’s friendly, neighborly, informal — but most important, chef Francesco Basile’s food could make a corpse stand up to find a fork for a final postmortem pasta. My dinner here was, I think, the most sheerly enjoyable single meal of the year — indulgent, exuberant, sensuous to the point of sin! The crab-stuffed portobello mushroom ranks among the most alluring dishes I’ve ever tasted, gently elbowing its way right in with 30 years of foie gras torchons, dry-aged Prime ribs, and caviar tacos at the fancy joints. Then there was the baked fresh mozzarella with San Daniele prosciutto, and house-made lobster ravioli so sensual it was hard to describe without sliding into outright porn. Yeah, the best dishes here are as good as sex, unless the sex you’re having rates better than four stars.
Best New Steakhouse, “Theme Restaurant,” and Soundtrack:
640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
This is a steakhouse of the people, even if not exactly at “people’s prices.” That is, it’s remarkably lively and comfortable, with no upscale, uptight suit–vibes. Plus, unlike most, they even give you good veggies with your proteins, so they’re not trying to strip your pockets till your last cold dollar is gone. The visual theme is old-time Western movies, and just like John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you can get yourself a big, all-natural grass-fed steak, pilgrim — or go for regular Prime and Choice choices (including a few dry-aged cuts), or a whole array of wild game meats, which are leaner, healthier, and full of deep flavor. Chef Victor Jimenez knows how to cook ’em all, and you can also pick up the raw flesh at the attached little retail butcher shop. The place is decorated kitschy with cowboy stuff, and the delicious country-western music track is just what I want to hear in this context: Patsy Kline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and of course the immortal Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (“Yee-haw!”) — that’s music to my ears!
Best New “View” Restaurant:
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, 1441 Quivira Road, Mission Beach
Under chef Danny Bannister, this new restaurant at the Hyatt Mission Bay is the place to take your visiting relatives, or yourself when you need a little luxury “staycation.” The waterfront vistas are just splendid, and the food is, if not terribly adventurous (the Hyatt suits at the Chicago HQ censor the menu), remarkably well executed and consistently delicious. Among the highlights: the crabbiest, freshest crab cakes; sexy curried mussels; and perfectly cooked rosy Kurobuta pork. I hope that by now the Hyatt has sprung for a few signs to direct people to the restaurant, which was hard to find at my visit last spring.
Best New Desserts:
Finally, a patisserie for the rest of us. Mille Feuilles offers great delights without attitude or airs. It’s pretty, clean and bright, like a perfect Parisian café for reading Le Figaro over your café au lait and croissant, and the servers are friendly and relaxed. Thomas Gérard, the owner and chef, is a wunderkind from Lyon who’s worked at destination restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. His pastries are very French, imaginative, delicious, and not exorbitant. (I want one of his fruit-filled mini-croissants for breakfast every day of my life from now on.) With Mille Feuilles, we finally have a worthy challenger to Karen Krasne. These pastries aren’t quite as decadent or exotic as hers, but they’re at least equal in quality and verve. Runners Up: Eclipse Chocolat, and the “remake” of Heaven Sent, with professional patissier Tina Luu upgrading the goodies.
Best New Chain Restaurant:
207 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
If we must have chain restaurants, then Nobu sets the bar: exquisite sushi, sashimi, and fusion dishes. If Nobu himself were presiding behind the sushi bar or in the kitchen, it would be a mind-blowing restaurant. Knowing that he’s off jet-setting to Ouagadougou or some such place to open a new location dims the starlight, subtly down-classing the brilliant creativity of the chef’s original conceptions into recreated formulae. But the food is truly good.
Great Leaps Forward: