There is quite a bit to choose from, as the menu covers a lot of ground, with everything from grilled dishes to sashimi. I’d recommend going with a couple of the small plates from the counter, perhaps a salad; my favorite is the gobo salad, shaved, fried burdock root piled high on a bed of mizuna (mildly peppery greens). It not only tastes good, but makes a statement. While noshing, you can satiate that soju craving by picking one of 30 choices on the list. The sake list is smaller but has everything from good everyday sakes such as Kikusui and Otokoyama, to the wonderfully floral Kubota Manju. You can top off your meal with onigiri (rice balls), a soba or udon dish, or one of a number of rice dishes.
The vibe is fairly relaxed; there’s usually a bit of jazz playing in the background. The whole shop holds about 30 people max and gets crowded, so reservations are recommended.
— Kirk K.
3050 Pio Pico Drive, Carlsbad
Outside, beneath a bamboo bridge, koi meander in a rivulet that flows alongside the restaurant. Inside, on the lowest floor, a turtle pond occupies a darkly atmospheric lounge. The main dining room, a floor up, resembles a cheerful village inn.
Chef-owner Ken Lee is a graduate of Sushi Ota, and his sushi is beautiful. But he also offers a full and sometimes fusiony menu, including soups and salads (Cajun Tuna Tataki Salad), specialty tapas (e.g., Mushroom and Leek Dumplings), and Japanese-tilted entrées. Don’t miss the wonderful Ankimo (monkfish pâté — a piscean version of foie gras), the tuna poke, sashimi sampler, or huge, tender Hamachi Kama (baked yellowtail collar). Or, if you love oysters, the Kumamoto plate (five oysters for $15).
Entrée choices consist mainly of sushi and sashimi platters, including the tempting Caviar Sizzler topped with tobiko, ikura, and uni with a butter sauce resembling a maritime version of Korea’s bibimbap. Meats include sirloin sukiyaki and several teriyakis. The Taste of Nozomi platter ($28) is an excellent choice for a group, with regular sushi, “party sushi” (hula rolls), sashimi, and salad.
The wine list is smart and serviceable, the sake list divine (but potentially expensive). And even strict vegans will find enough rabbit food and tofu to fill them.
— Naomi Wise
Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino del Mar, Suite 102, Del Mar
Chef-owner Mark Sun (from a long line of chefs in China) was a founder of Dumpling Inn and several other popular Chinese restaurants. Just when he was on the verge of retiring, he realized how frustrated he felt with local second-rate Chinese food and misconceived fusion restaurants and opened Del Mar Rendezvous as an antidote.
It’s one of the prettiest, most comfortable, most hospitable Chinese restaurants in the area, with glimpses of the ocean from many tables and a chance to watch the family-run kitchen from others. The ambitious food hints lightly at fusion but from an Asian perspective, with forays into Singapore and Thailand as well as numerous culinary regions of China. It’s spicy or not spicy, depending on the cuisine. Ingredients are rigorously high quality, i.e., even the beef will be tender.
The menu is huge. Best visit the website and draft your dinner plan before you arrive. A “tapas” section goes on and on, filled with delicacies usually found only on brunchtime dim sum menus, if even there. Some choices seem like chef originals. The possibilities include the semilegendary Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao) filled with rich pork broth that bursts from the noodle coatings when you bite in. Entrées, sides, noodles, and rice dishes are equally cornucopian, including a special noodle (konnyaku) made from a relative of taro that is low-carb, low-cal, fiber-rich, and gluten-free. Of course, vegetarians and even most vegans will find plenty here. The serious wine list is mostly moderate, with half-price specials certain days (check website for particulars) and low corkage for BYO. And for dessert, the outrageous Xango banana fantasy is a must!
— Naomi Wise
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
This is the neighborhood Italian restaurant every neighborhood longs for. You don’t have to dress up (and get tomato stains on your white shirt) or pay a mint. You can relax in a sprawling series of informal, comfortable rooms where the cooking epitomizes the indulgent joie de vivre of southern Italy’s sunny cuisine. Chef-owner “Frankie” Basile is from Sicily, but he cooks dishes (from scratch and with the best ingredients he can get) that he loves from all over the boot — perhaps not so much the austere entrées of Tuscany as the exuberant flavors of the southern coastal regions.
The menu is a little shorter now that chef Basile has gone in with the Osetra people and others to open a smaller (and, alas, less stellar) place in Hillcrest. Still, there’s so much to enjoy here, such as a greaseless Frittura Mista (mixed seafood fry, still good the next day as leftovers), fresh bocconcini mozzarella with prosciutto (which is off the menu, but they’ll make it if you request it), and a frequent special of crab-stuffed portobello, Penne Mazzini (with artichokes and green olives), and veal with porcini in a cream sauce. Nobody’s worried about fat calories, much less carbs: this is a realm where if you want cream sauce, you can savor exuberantly flavored cream sauces with pastas or entrées to your heart’s content, or peril. Italian happiness.
The solid Italian-Californian wine list offers about 50 bottles at reasonable markups; 22 choices by the glass. Plenty of lacto-vegetarian pastas and risottos, including a few vegan choices. Gluten-free pastas available at a small surcharge. Reserve or you’ll have a long wait. Patio seating in good weather.
— Naomi Wise
Owner Javier Plascencia is the scion of a family that owns several successful Tijuana restaurants — some Mexican, some Italian. His Romesco combines those two culinary tendencies. It’s primarily a serious Mexican restaurant, devoted to a haute cuisine version of favorite Mexican dishes, but with pronounced Mediterranean influences and even special “pasta nights” devoted to Italian food.
The menu opens with a huge, heartbreaking array of tapas — far too many to try in a normal small dinner group. (You want to come back with your friends the next day to try more.) You can choose lush tostadas filled with ahi tuna, guacamole, cream, and greenery or rare king top shell (an abalone cousin) escabeche. Beef tongue in red pipian sauce is not an everyday dish, nor is Salt Crusted Baked Pear salad, where the “everyday” salad of pears and blue cheese is transformed by a light crust of sea salt. One house original is Grandma’s spaghetti taco plate, with cream, cheese, chorizo, and salsa verde. And quails, available several ways, are a must — they’re Baja-raised and delightful, especially the version with the tamarind glaze (Codornices Asadas Tamarind).
Among the entrées, the paella is celebrated (it’s won an award), but the unusual Spanish pasta version, fideua, is worth notice. And then there are numerous less-esoteric choices, such as duck breast with roasted fig risotto. To drink: plenty of affordable wines, especially those from Baja wineries such as Cetto.
— Naomi Wise