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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.)

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Comments

millerowski Dec. 30, 2009 @ 9:32 p.m.

While I appreciate this year-end summary/analysis, I am disappointed to see Cantina Mayahuel named the "best new inexpensive Mexican" restaurant.

First, it is not inexpensive. Two tacos (4.50 each) plus a side of black beans and rice (3.50) will cost you $12.50 before tax and tip. Bowls are $11, as are salads. And that's that! Aside from chips, guac, and salsa and one daily special (Wednesday's special of grilled halibut weighs in at $20), that's the menu. (Ms. Wise mentioned the Friday special of mole, but I haven't had the chance to try it, and probably won't given my experiences there to date.)

The formula is simple: you can have steak, chicken, mahi, or shrimp in your taco, salad, or bowl. Neither the mahi nor the shrimp were flavorful on the two occasions I dined there. The beef was over-salted and dry. (I didn't try the chicken.)

There are about 60 tequilas, and the cost of a shot varies from 4.50 to 18.00. For a margarita, choose your fave tequila and add $1.50. The cheapest margarita (4.50 + $1.50) costs $6--not $5, as the article claims. (Ok, it's only a buck difference, but that's a margarita with the cheapest ingredients.)

There is a nice patio--but not-so-nice in this weather. Seating inside is at the bar and at high tables with bar stools--not exactly comfy.

The staff is friendly, and the service, fine. But, as several yelpers have written, this place is better for drinking than for dining. I would hope that there is a better "New" Mexican joint in town. I'll stick with my old favorites.

Let's see what 2010 brings!

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ncboy Dec. 31, 2009 @ 12:38 p.m.

I wouldn't quibble about one restaurant in such an expansive year end review. I agree with most of ms. wise's decisions and putting this year-end review togeather must have been huge feat! i just wish i was in San Diego at the time to try the closed restaurants she pined about, they sounded wonderful. here's to a great 2010 and more great reviews.

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millerowski Dec. 31, 2009 @ 7:03 p.m.

To: ncboy (comment #2 above):

I was not "quibbling." I was adding a different perspective regarding a restaurant. Ms. Wise's "Top Restaurants of 2009" list will be very influential, and, as I said in my preface to comment #1 above, I appreciate the overall article (and, further, I am a fan of Ms. Wise's reviews).

The point is: anyone who is going to spend X amount of hard-earned dollars benefits from knowing in advance what she/he is going to get for those dollars. Mayahuel has potential, but the menu is formulaic and the ingredients--IMHO, not prepared very well: tasteless shrimp, salty and dry "steak", etc.

This was Wise's nominee for "Best Inexpensive Mexican." My point is that it is not all that inexpensive, and it is not very good. So I just want to warn potential diners...they can check yelp.com or chowhound.com and find comments similar to mine.

However, Bravo to La Wise! And best wishes for 2010!

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Naomi Wise Jan. 1, 2010 @ 7:26 p.m.

First -- two important corrections.

  1. While Argentine tapas definitely made my "boca" very "alegre," the name of the Argentine tapas place that made a happy-happy hour is Puerto La Boca (not Puerto Alegre). It's at 2060 India St., (at Hawthorn), Little Italy, 619-234-4900; www.puertolaboca.us. And I'll repeat about it -- if you're looking for a loud bar scene with shrieking blondes, etc., this is not the place. Just great food, yummy wines, and a non-tourist South American atmosphere.

  2. Sorry to say that after coming back from the dead, Chilango's expired again. Damn, damn, damn! (By the way, the obits list was truly incomplete. Saw 5 more deaders en route to the Gaslamp two days ago. Mainly no great losses on that route.)

Okay, now -- Cantina Mayahuel. I ate there in April. Obviously, they've raised prices since then. I didn't see how they could survive on their low prices, and apparently, they realized the same. I swear to you, my Margaritas cost $5 each -- I had three of them, I should know! (And was still able to walk, talk, and then take notes perfectly well, so they may have been a bit weak, if delicioso.) All I ate were the $10 specials, as I'm not real excited about tacos (as a 10-year resident of scenic central Golden Hill, I don't need no stinkin' tacos -- they were about all you could get here before the blessed Luigi's Pizza came to the rescue.) But I am always excited about serious mole saucss, and was very impressed. But yeah, millerowski, could be everything has gone up (prices) or down (food quality) -- eight months is a long time in the life of a barebones restaurant struggling to survive.

Happy new year everyone. May this decade be better than the last one -- Peace on Earth, clean water to the third world, respect and freedom for women everywhere and good health care to everyone. NW

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millerowski Jan. 8, 2010 @ 5:18 p.m.

Regarding the year of the dead: Nicolosi's (for years on El Cajon and lately in Mission Valley near SDSU) died and came back to life! Apparently the nephews revived it! Great news for those of us who grew up on Nicolosi's pizza, torpedoes (what great house-made rolls!) and pasta. Well, it's great news for everyone who loves a down-to-earth red sauce joint.

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Jay Allen Sanford Jan. 8, 2010 @ 6:55 p.m.

Viva la Nicolosi's! Best sandwiches I ever ate in SD - glad to hear they're back. They used to custom bake a white sauce eggplant and spinach pizza for me that I still dream about some nights....maybe that's why I keep finding bite marks in the coaster on my bedstand...

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