Best Total Turnarounds (Tie): The Shores and Suite and Tender
For long years the Shores languished in the culinary doldrums, a delightful beachside setting where plebeian food belied the official involvement of Marine Room chef Bernard Guillas. Then they hired sommelier Lisa Redwine as manager, and what a difference a dame makes! Suddenly there was a satisfying mushroom bisque, ethereal shrimp fritters, a succulent herb-roasted lamb rack (rare to our order), and fine, affordable wines to complement them. Prices are akin to those at “serious neighborhood restaurants” in prosperous neighborhoods such as Kensington and Bankers’ Hill.
Suite and Tender started with a Vegas vibe, an Excel chart of popular dishes for the menu, and a New York–based executive chef phoning it in. Now the sleazy micro-dresses are gone, and the menu has been revamped by chef Anthony Calamari, who lives here. Prices are generally lower, and choices include several budget-priced light entrées. Some not-light entrées stand out: perfectly roasted mustard-brined chicken, moist through, is pure French bistro, and a horseradish-potato-crusted hunk of tender halibut made me rethink my motto, “The only good halibut is a live halibut.”
Best New Mexican Restaurant: Maria Maria
Say it loud, and there’s music playing — pretty good music, tasty oldies and reggae, and not too loud. (Carlos Santana is a co-owner of this small chain.) The decor is vibrant and colorful, and so is the food, with an ambitious, joyous menu assembled by well-known chef-consultant Roberto Santibañez, treating the Mexican cocina as worthy of respect and attention. It’s sophisticated, a step up from folk cooking (and several steps up from cheap local taquerias) but still moderately priced. You can make a great grazing dinner from generously portioned appetizers such as braised duck tacos and seafood-topped guacamole or plunge further into delicious entrées such as tender fish Veracruzana, untraditional carnitas, and a “surf and turf” of steak (cooked rare to our order) topped with shrimp. Nice margaritas, too.
Best New Gastropub: Quality Social
The chef, Jared Van Camp, fresh from parent restaurant Old Town Social in Chicago, calls it a “next-generation dive bar.” (Sorry, I know dives, and this is no dive.) I hit this too early, on a scout, and meant to come back and didn’t get the chance (maybe next year!). My tablemate and I were impressed by the artisanship of the house-crafted charcuterie, salumi, even hotdogs. Not to mention the satisfying Portuguese fisherman’s stew. The restaurant, with a hipster vibe, occupies a huge space, home to several doomed restaurants in a row. Its life is worth supporting.
Runner-up: Proper Gastropub. The menu mixes exciting new inventions (crisped pork belly with cocoa dust) with stalwart British pub classics, but cooked better — including an ideal shepherd’s pie made properly with lamb, with a host of nourishing, wintry root veggies under the potato-parsnip-mash topping.
Most Promising New Neighborhood Restaurant: SOHO
An eclectic mixture of southern, South American, Mexican, and Southeast Asian flavors emerge from the kitchen here, including wood-fired piquillo peppers with goat cheese, Moroccan-spiced Meyer beef flat-iron steak and nonboring short-ribs. Fun eating and enjoying the young chef’s creativity.
Outstanding Dishes of the Year From Other Restaurants:
Addison’s exquisite starters of “calamari grillé” with black-olive agnolotti; baby scallops in miso foam. (Too bad most entrées are swamped with sweetness.)
Ba Ren’s Sichuan pot roast (great soup with pork, noodles, pork meatballs) and eggplant in brown sauce.
Dobson’s’ mussel bisque: one of a kind, so luscious, rich, and deep, it alone is worth the visit.
Izakaya Sakura’s monkfish-liver salad, miso-sauced black cod (as good as Nobu’s, at a much lower price), mackerel sashimi.
Sessions Public’s chicken oyster tempura, “pig in a blanket” bison sausage.
Soleil @ K’s tempura lobster with truffle juice–enriched wild-mushroom risotto; grass-fed rib-eye steak.
Dead Restaurants or Vanished Chefs:
A partial list: Arterra — change in management, all previous staff fired (however, former chef Jason Maitland is about to open a restaurant in Del Mar); ATE (delivery); Big Easy and its deliciously outrageous foie gras crêpes Suzette; Bite with its swoony foie gras custard; Chilango with its near-legendary chiles en nogada; Cosmopolitan and its world-beating churros, Ramos Rum Fizz (restaurant still open, but chef and mixologist both fired); El Bizcocho (restaurant open but chef fled); Hawthorn; Kemo Sabe and its “Skirts on Fire”; La Jolla Rancherita, serving well-treated local lobster; Magnolias, offering superb fried chicken, jambalaya; Zocalo (it’s been replaced by another branch of Miguel’s Cocina).
I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Do I dare to eat a peach?…
Well, not so old as to be scared of peaches. However, when I moved here from San Francisco, I was hoping that at just about my current age, I could go half-time (as my predecessors Eleanor Widmer and Max Nash had alternated weeks).
Starting the second week of January, these hopes will be fulfilled. There will be no Max Nash; instead, I’ll be alternating weeks with several foodbloggers I’ve recommended to the higher-ups. (I don’t know exactly who they’ll be yet, but I’m fervently wishing they’ll include mmm-yoso, a fearless gastro-explorer especially expert in Asian cuisines.)
So, see you next week — but not the week after that. ■