Famous Chinese curse: “May you have an interesting life.” It’s been an interesting year, the financial weather a perpetual windstorm batting restaurants around along with the rest of the economy. Newspapers are flapping in that gale, too: my expense budget was cut (a bearable 20 percent) — but given the general mood, I’d have downscaled anyway. This year’s game has been to find the best food for gentler prices. And the lesson it’s brought: it’s easier to find delicious food at either the top of the heap, or else at the bare-bones mom ’n’ pop bottom, than in the middle.
Several of the finest restaurants pushed themselves toward greater accessibility — for their own survival’s sake, since the only people living large lately, besides bailed-out bankers, seem to be footballers, Nick Cage, and the Kardashian clan (who?), plus those perpetual un-reality stars, the Gaslamp club-kids whose money falls from the sky. Even in million-dollar neighborhoods, folks who lost lots on stocks now hide their money in their socks.
Several top-end restaurants (including Bertrand at Mr. A’s, Marine Room, Mille Fleurs, and Quarter Kitchen) introduced generous prix-fixe budget menus and/or extended their Restaurant Week discount dinners for months. These offered wonderful opportunities to sample superb cooking — if not quite a free-range pass to the most venturesome outlands of their menus, still highly rewarding meals. Not coincidentally, the restaurants lowered their formality levels as well. Jackets? Nah — clean jeans go almost everywhere now, leastways on weeknights.
The year’s biggest food fad is…booze. Makes emotional sense, right? (Little ol’ wine-drinker me, I got onto this one late but resolve to do better this year!) Bartenders, renamed “mixologists,” are becoming liquid chefs, magnetic crowd-pullers as they create new libations often more fascinating than some of the solids served at their restaurants. The classic course succession is playing musical chairs: the cocktail is now the appetizer course, and often, the appetizer (or a couple of them) is the main dish. (Hey, they’re usually more exciting than entrées, anyway.) Which brings us to closely related fad number two: Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy! An explosion of deeply discounted happy hours has spearheaded this new way to eat out: drink a little drink, graze a little graze [repeat several times], get down tonight.
Even with these boosts, finding good food at lower prices is too often an oxymoronic quest. Ethnic mom ’n’ pops are the champs at providing quality and excitement for minimal bucks, but more than ever, eaters crave creature comforts, familiar flavors in a neighborhood ambiance rather than exotic adventures at naked tables. Problem is, food costs soared (along with rents, supplies, laundry) even as the economy tanked, and it takes a rare chef to spin the straw of third-rate ingredients into gold — especially with low-paid, minimally trained kitchen crews executing the dishes. Trying to cover more low-moderate restaurants, old and new, bought me a membership in the Frustration of the Month Food Club. It was a year of swallowing disappointments, mediocre, retrogressive, often ill-cooked grub untouched by the “farm to fork” movement.
Relief came from unexpected sources, higher on the food chain: new or newly revamped hotel restaurants with surprisingly lower prices than in days of yore. Stand-alone restaurants often live on their receipts month by month and go down hard when income can’t cover costs (see “Obits” below). Hotels live larger: a prestigious restaurant on-premises may be a magnet to high-end guests even if it doesn’t necessarily pay its own way. Exorbitant room rates subsidize fine ingredients and well-staffed kitchens. Several of this year’s “bests” are hotel dining rooms with creative chefs stretching their wings — and at all of them, the food-only price ($35–$42 for three courses with shared desserts) was no higher than the lousy dinners at some trendy neighborhood joints. (Just watch out for wine prices! Them goblins’ll getcha if you don’t watch out!)
This year, “molecular gastronomy” finally crept into San Diego on little cat feet. Pet that kitty! It played a major part in my best meal of the year, at El Bizcocho — where it was so unwelcomed by the Rancho Bernardo Inn duffers (not to mention the UT’s reviewer) that the chef who introduced it fled back to London in a London minute (according to folklore, that’s 12 chimes of Big Ben). But the cat’s out of the bag and is sneaking into the best kitchens — Paul McCabe at Kitchen 1540 and Fabrice Hardel at Westgate, for instance, are making fun foods like airy foams, intense gelées, ultra-pure flavor essences. Fear not, it’s still real food, beautiful food!
The envelope, please.
Meal of the Year: El Bizcocho. A five-course tasting meal combined “farm to table” with futuristic techniques to showcase fresh ingredients in dazzling new ways. The delicate experiments in molecular gastronomy created garnishes to provide startling little surprises — sudden bursts of intense flavor, unexpected textures, flashes of color — a mini magic show on the plate and in the mouth. The brilliance of a scallop sashimi, with its bejeweled garnishes, for instance, put even our best sushi bars to shame. Until the chef ran away with the spoon.
Best “New” Upscale Restaurant: Kitchen 1540 (L’Auberge Del Mar). The former J. Taylor’s was renovated and reopened with a fresher, less-formal dining room under a new name. Chef Paul McCabe remains as top toque. Always a dab hand at creating palatal pleasures, his seasonal and mainly local menu is now branching out technically into both discreet touches of molecular gastronomy and house-made salumi. On the early summer menu, the scallops with exploded popcorn purée were unforgettable — but earthy wild-nettle-and-ramp risotto with tempura-fried morels was equally revelatory.
Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Sab-E-Lee. This is the one that lovers of authentic (non-farang) Thai food have been waiting for. The crowded, no-rez, no-frills, BYOB mom ’n’ pop serves the fiery cuisine of Issan (northeast Thailand, on the Laos border), but these aren’t the mindless flames of culinary machismo. From under the heat rise symphonies of complex flavors. Even liver (of all things!) is transformed into a treat, and the rich, oniony tom yum soup is world-beating. After El Biz, my second-favorite meal of the year. (BTW, don’t all run there at once again, or you’ll wait hours and overwhelm the kitchen.)