The long recession has taken its toll, even on my “bests” list. Not only did I dine at few “destination restaurants” this year (and, sorry, you do get what you pay for, if you’re lucky), but no new ones that I can think of opened — there were merely chef changes at existing fine-dining restaurants. Some new restaurants (like Searsucker) were fairly expensive but noisy, uncomfortable, anything but luxurious. Banker’s Hill, another newbie opened by top chef Carl Schroeder, was far from a downtown version of his Market Restaurant, instead serving unexciting “neighborhood restaurant” cooking. Usually, I make up all sorts of crazy categories to be able to include more than the classic ten best restaurants, but this year, my basic “bests” list came to nine — until, that is, I created a category for new gastropubs.
This isn’t to say that local cuisine is getting worse, it’s just shifting. In many ways it’s still improving, if slowly. You can find moderately creative, inventive cooking at all prices. Even the faddish plethora of gastropubs are for the most part using locally grown produce, and many serve naturally raised meats. Still, too much food-fear remains afoot, inhibiting San Diego from becoming a great restaurant town. The tourists we attract love us best for sun and sand. Unlike, say, visitors to Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, these folks are not traveling for food. Conventioneers often look more for generous pours than fine dinners, and local military personnel, who are mostly underpaid, seem to prefer familiar flavors when they get the chance to go out. Be that as it may, there’s good eating here if you know where to look for it.
Best “New” High-End Restaurants (Tie): Blanca and Mistral
It’s a tie between two not-so-new restaurants with superb new chefs. At Blanca and Mistral, “high end” is lower than it used to be. (Both are splurges, but not break-the-bank spendy, if you’re careful about your wines.) Blanca has been a revolving door for top chefs coming from elsewhere, and I do hope they can hang on to Gavin Schmidt, who epitomizes both slow-food artisanal cooking and culinary artistry. His charcuterie and salumi include a chicken-liver mousse as rich as foie gras and a wonderfully intense, gamy guinea-hen-liver mousse. Then you move on to superb entrées, such as the roasted body of the guinea hen and the inventive “Day at the Farm” entrée of various pork cuts, each cooked differently and served with vegetables ranging from the first tender shoots to mature specimens. It’s food for the mind as well as the gullet. And the room is quiet, comfortable, adult, with pleasing service.
Mistral snapped up one of San Diego’s finest chefs, Patrick Ponsaty, highlighting just-picked produce from the resort’s organic garden and from Susie’s Farm near IB. Ponsaty’s greatness shows in the nightly specials, where he’s free from the strictures of a please-all-tastes hotel menu. One evening, these included a foie gras napoleon layered with eel, celeriac, and caramelized apples (winner of a “best appetizer” award in a European chefs’ competition). Another special was more homey: halibut cheek with lentils. Entrées come with complex, labor-intensive garnishes, and dinner concludes with elegant desserts and mignardises (“little darlings,” i.e., tiny sweets) as lagniappe. Like Blanca, Mistral is a comfortable, grown-up venue; and, it’s blessed with a stunning view of the bay. And the wine list won’t plunge you into bankruptcy. It’s my top choice for a romantic night out.
Best New (Moderate) Neighborhood Restaurant: Café 21
Café 21 began as a tiny restaurant called Café 2121 for its street address on Adams Avenue, then moved to larger premises nearby and dropped the last two digits. These days, it’s usually slamming, and a second location is in the works. The eye-candy owners-chefs, Alex and Leyla, hail from Azerbaijan, one of those deep-south states of the former USSR that owe more, culinarily, to the Middle East than to Mother Russia. But the fascinating and delicious Azeri food here (with an occasional dish from Leyla’s Ukrainian forebears) isn’t just folk food; it’s professionally executed and incorporates healthy California influences, shown in two amazing (and immense) salads: strawberry salad and grape salad, either ready to pose for a Renaissance still life. The zesty menu changes often, not only with the seasons but to keep Alex and Leyla (and their happy customers) interested.
Best Inexpensive Restaurants (Tie): Do Re Mi House (Korean) and Little Sheep (Mongolian Hot Pot)
My idea of “inexpensive” is five or ten bucks higher than what you’ll find in Ed Bedford’s reviews (say, $25 per person for a full meal) — but then, Ed often eats breakfast or lunch out, while I’m mainly up for dinners — steeper but potentially more flavorful. Eating on the cheap, I look for good ethnic restaurants. (I am so indifferent to decor, as long as the place is clean, not too loud, reasonably comfortable, and, if Asian, has a menu in English.) Kearny and Convoy Street and Linda Vista offer probably the widest and most exciting selections of such eateries in San Diego (with City Heights/Talmadge as runner-up).
Do Re Mi House is a Korean barbecue without tabletop barbecues (the meats are grilled in the kitchen). All the better, because you can ignore standard fare and zero in on the menu’s home-style treasures: rich, spicy stews and soups, like Tofu Kimchi Boku, with tender pork and fiery cabbage, and soothing sliced tofu on the side; and Galbi Tang, a spicy short-rib soup that provides a soulful new taste profile for this too-trendy cut of meat. With dinner, you get a generous dozen free banchen (small side dishes and relishes). It’s a banquet for a pittance.
Little Sheep (Xiao Fei Yang) offers Mongolian hot pot, similar to shabu-shabu but better, because the broth is already fully seasoned with a host of spices and aromatics and as much dried hot pepper as you think you can stand. (I recommend the “half and half,” i.e., medium; portions are ginormous, and you’re bound to have leftovers that will turn fiery overnight in your fridge.) Then you get to choose the ingredients to cook in your soup (over a table-burner) from a vast array, so you’re collaborating with the chefs to make your own perfect pottage. Be sure to include both lamb meat and the scrumptious lamb dumplings, and throw in your favorite noodles near the end of eating to best enjoy a final bowl of broth. Staffers do a fine job of showing you the basics of how to cook your goodies.