Most Welcomed Sushi in the City: Hane. Finally, an urban branch of Sushi Ota, with skilled, friendly chefs who (unlike Ota-San himself) all speak English. Alas, it’s usually jam-packed now that word’s out. (I still haven’t tried Kaito Sushi in Encinitas, which from many reports is giving Ota a run for his money as the best local sushi. It’s on my list for 2010.)
Best Cornbread and Gumbo: Bull’s BBQ. After trying five new barbecues, sorry, good old Barnes’ BBQ is still the king. Bull’s was my favorite of the new crop (for smoky, tender meats), but its most riveting dishes were sides: a deep, dark, voodoo gumbo, best in town since Juke Joint closed and as good as any in NOLA, served with light, sweet, moist corn muffins subtly flecked with jalapeño. Runner-up BBQ side dishes: Genuine Hill Country Texas link sausages in a rich, cheesy sandwich at Brett’s BBQ; authentic bean-free Texas chili at West Coast BBQ.
Creative Cocktails: Bite. The chef’s prosecco cocktails made with fruit essences, flower syrups, and sorbets are light, cool, and enchanting. The one with aromatic rose syrup drives me mad.
Other memorable dishes: Arterra’s cauliflower soup with braised beef; Alchemy’s pork-stuffed piquillo peppers, and vegetarian lasagna; Himalayan Cuisine’s Tibetan lamb momos; Iris’s chocolate brownie cake; Milles Fleurs’ Chino tomato-and-eggplant salad and smoked-eel appetizer; Muzita’s fried okra coated in Ethiopian teff grain; Quarter Kitchen’s wine-braised short ribs and T-Day special of chestnut soup with sweetbread croutons.
Obits (partial list): Most heartbreaking, Better Half (last year’s “best new moderate”) went down to defeat. So did Apertivo (heartless rent increase), Batter Up (but owner-chef Mel Johnson’s gone over to Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q, which bodes well for Q in Coronado: he’s the very man to liven up the side dishes), Café Noir, Café One-Three, California Cuisine, Crescent Grill (another short-lived star from last year’s “bests”), Dakota Grill, Epazote (replaced by a steakhouse, same owners), Fix Me a Plate Cafe, the Guild, Illume, La Vache, Milles Feuilles (ouch! another short-lived “best”), Modus, Mukashi, Ole Madrid, Parallel 33, Rainwater’s (say goodbye to the last great Beef Wellington), Sluggers.
Stibo (“Obits” spelled backward): The delightful Chilango came back from the dead! Stay alive, we’re rooting for you!