We are a frazzled, worried country after seven years of every important decision being decided wrong by that "deciderator" and the awful gray eminences whispering in his ears. So do I dare to interpret the change in San Diego restaurant food as a rainbow sign, a new attitude that locates our city in a specific place on the globe, no longer just some otherworldly surfer paradise?
When I arrived here seven and a half years ago, the restaurant-going attitude in these parts was mainly "fill 'er up regular." Now, just as we don't want toys full of lead, we don't want traces of 18-syllable petroleum derivatives in our veggies -- we've finally caught up with Moose, Wyoming, and Oxford, Mississippi, where the same values have apparently taken hold. Most of us are stuck with regular supermarket meats at home, but when we go out, we'll happily pay a little extra for steers who've at least tasted grass, fat pigs raised with clean ankles, birds who got to strut and eat some bugs. What a fabulous development! Even the Zagat Guides have recognized San Diego's existence again, noting these changes and issuing a San Diego guide after several years' lapse. (Well, it's shared with Orange County and Palm Springs, but it's mainly about here.) More than half the local Zagat respondents said they actively sought out organic and/or sustainably raised vegetables and natural meats at local restaurants. Seems we're not in Kansas anymore -- or in the San Diego of old.
I think Zagat's editors got it wrong when they ascribed the change to the presence of Bay Area celeb-chef Brad Ogden (consulting at Arterra and Anthology). Long before Ogden's arrival, Michael Stebner (at Azzura Point, then Nine-Ten, then Region, now gone to Arizona) was the first I know of to carry the Alice Waters/Slow Food ethos here, until it finally took hold and spread.
The greatest change, though, seemed to arise after chefs Ed Moore and Deborah Schneider coordinated a series of Chef's Celebration dinners three years ago that specifically matched top chefs with individual local farms. What came out of that, I think, has been the much-enhanced availability of local, sustainably raised, and organic produce. (Not every chef has time to trek up to Chino Farms, which doesn't deliver or take credit cards except for Alice Waters herself.) Farmers here used to sell everything to produce wholesalers who'd truck the stuff up to L.A. and resell it, from whence it traveled south again, several days the worse for wear. Now, Specialty Produce, a major supplier to local restaurants, is carrying a "Farmers Market" line, buying from local farms and delivering to local chefs, while Moceri Produce reached that point even earlier. Crow's Pass Farms in the North County also gathers the harvest from nearby farms to deliver to restaurants several times a week. These companies (along with Ed and Deb themselves) deserve special recognition for changing the way we eat. (I haven't faced a "Sysco veggie medley" all year!)
Another wholesaler who has helped make the changes possible -- Hans-Trevor Gossman, chef of the late, lamented Royale Brasserie -- is now working for Hamilton Meats. Several chefs praised him as an outstanding "meat guy," because "as a chef himself, he knows what chefs need." He's at least partly responsible for the increased availability of naturally raised meats, heritage-breed pigs, and pampered poultry.
So now that local and sustainable foods are all over the place -- the challenge to the chef has become: You've got the right stuff, so what are you going to make of it? These lovely ingredients absolutely taste better than factory-farm products, but it's still up to chefs to do something fresh and imaginative with them. Cookie-cutter local menus get wearying, with the same old Caesar salads and crème brûlées, the same 30-year-old Chez Panisse combos (beets and goat cheese, pears and Roquefort), bolstered by 15-year-old sushi "sensations." (How many seared ahis must one critic eat before you can call her fed up? It's as though we're all still wearing bow-necked blouses and red power suits with padded shoulders.)
We had some losses, too. Three of our best, least-boring chefs departed: Riko Bartolomei for Hawaii, Gavin Kaysen for New York, Brian Pekarcik for Pittsburgh. Zen Sushi in Del Mar was an open-and-shut case, but chef James Holder has opened a new sushi place in the Flower Hill Promenade that I look forward to visiting. On the mom 'n' pop side, our best German restaurant, Chef Axel, went over to a catering-only operation, and D'Mood simply evaporated. Bud's, offering authentic flavors of N'awlins, is reputedly gone too, and Big Jim (of Big Jim's in Encinitas) sold out and retired, leaving the SD area almost destitute of genuine, low 'n' slow, Deep South--style BBQ. (There are several Texas-style Qs around, but they don't offer the soulful side dishes.) Let's cherish Barnes BBQ in Lemon Grove -- it seems to be the last of its kind here (unless you like looking at dirty old smoked brassieres at KC BBQ downtown).
As for ethnic restaurants, none of the openings was as thoroughly arresting as Kous-Kous' debut last year. Rather than choose a single "best" in the ethnic category, an honor roll of fine newcomers includes Romesco in Bonita and El Comal in North Park, for serious Mexican cuisine; Latin Chef in Pacific Beach for authentic Peruvian; Portugalia in Ocean Beach for Portuguese and Brazilian (it's not a brand-new restaurant, but it was new to me this year); Buga for Korean; and Izakaya Masa for fun Japanese tapas. I was also delighted by a belated discovery of Piatti, a most unchainlike chain with truly Italian flavors.
In the "bests," I've kept an eye out for restaurants that use fine ingredients interestingly, freshly, and most of all, deliciously. When I first moved here -- the Frisco Food Snob hitting Surferville -- I was so appalled at the general state of restaurant fare that I simply didn't think to include "delicious" among my top critical criteria. Fine ingredients, fine craftsmanship, and some hint of creative originality were rare enough, I'd forget to ask myself whether what I'd eaten also tasted good! Well, that little factor is back in play again, with a vengeance.
So here is a crazy quilt of the best tastes of the year. There will, of course, be no single "Best Restaurant," a ridiculous idea given the range of restaurant styles. These are mainly just outstanding tastes encountered over the course of the year.
Best New Upscale Restaurant: Clay's Hotel La Jolla, 11th-floor penthouse, 7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla, 858-551-3620, clayslajolla.com. This restaurant fills the bill precisely: the cooking is original, natural, and totally delicious. No boredom here, and almost every dish exceeds expectations. On top of the fab food, the view from the windows -- a panorama of La Jolla from inland to the sea -- is gorgeous. And it's comfortable! (Unlike so many top destinations, you can dress cute instead of wearing a boring beige upscale schmatte. ) A delight in all regards.
Best New Moderately Priced Restaurant: Currant, Hotel Sofia, 140 West Broadway (next to Greyhound terminal), downtown, 619-702-6309, currant-restaurant.com. A well-seasoned, big-time chef, Jonathan Pflueger, has chops to spare, and he brings wit and playfulness to his ever-changing seasonal menus. The affordable food and wine prices are a huge plus: you can eat like a first-class passenger (well, much better than that) on a coach budget.
Best Upscale Rebirth: Mistral, Loews Coronado Bay Resort, 4000 Coronado Bay Road (Silver Strand Boulevard), Coronado, 619-424-4000 or 619-424-4477. The former Azzura Point has tastefully redecorated and renamed itself. It just won a major travel-magazine award for "resorts that give back," largely on the strength of Mistral's all-organic menu. But on the right night, with the right server (and the right company), what it gives you is a taste of heaven, a blissful tropical mini-vacation -- with a panoramic view of the bay thrown in. A romantic and relaxing destination, with clean and lovely cooking and a sommelier you can trust.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant Rebirth: Kensington Grill, 4055 Adams Avenue (at Kensington Street), Kensington, 619-251-4014, kensingtongrill.com. Chef Hannes Cavin is cooking up a storm at Kensington Grill. It's not revolutionary, but just about every dish tastes terrific. That's what you want in a neighborhood place -- flavorful, consistent food that makes you feel happy, makes you feel fine.
Best New Bistro: Cavaillon, 14701 Via Bettona, Suite 200, Santaluz, 858-433-0483, cavaillonrestaurant.com. Former Tapenade sous-chef Philippe Verpiand presides at this far-off suburban outpost of top-notch French cooking. As the Michelin Guide would say, "It's worth a detour." Whether you choose the least expensive weeknight early-bird menu (quite affordable) or a fancier seasonal one (say, the truffle menu of winter), you'll be moved by the beauty, soul, and depth of the food. If nothing else, try the z panisse, the perfect version of Provençale fried chick-pea rectangles. Whoa, this guy can cook!
Best Reborn Bistro: Bernard'O, Albertson's Shopping Center, 12457 Rancho Bernardo Road, Rancho Bernardo, 858-4870-7171, bernardorestaurant.com. Chef Patrick Ponsaty, formerly of El Bizcocho, remains an awesome chef -- as far as I'm concerned, one of the best in San Diego. Now he's cooking for an upscale bistro (albeit a very pretty one), and when he cooks, he cooks. It was his food that reminded me that deliciousness really does count. Consistently wonderful, it's full of happy surprises.
Entrée of the Year: Jack's La Jolla, 7863 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, 858-456-8111, jackslajolla.com. Muscovy duck breast with cocoa nibs was so brilliant it struck my posse as funny. The breast slices were "rosy" as ordered, tender and rich, rubbed with a bit of star anise, and accompanied by parsnips and a sweet kumquat confit in which each dainty slice of fruit was individually visible. But the Zen-foodie joke lay in an irresistible little pile of toasted ground cocoa nibs, flour, butter, and sugar, baked and then seasoned with toasted ground cloves and run through a Cuisinart-equivalent. It's as though chef Tony DiSalvo thought about the classic Mex-haute combo of mole poblano with turkey and pared it down to essentials -- cocoa and game bird, just the basics, a logical but original combination that turns out to taste stunning.
Best Grazing: Two winners here, not so much tied as separately equal: At Bite, 1417 University Ave (at 14th Street), Hillcrest, 619- 299-2483, bitesd.com, chef-owner Chris Walsh draws from Mediterranean flavors to produce some of the most sensuous grazing dishes in the city. His foie gras crème brûlée is a satiny dream, while warm poached oysters with truffled cream will remind you why these creatures are rumored to be aphrodisiac. (Here, they are. ) And his rose-scented prosecco cocktail is the perfect exotic drink out of an Arabian Nights fantasy. Meanwhile, at Seasons, 142 University Avenue (at Third Avenue), 619-692-1919, chef Comer Smith takes a different approach: His "global tapas" are miniature highlights drawn from his savory, venturesome entrées. Among them: a spectacular gingered Jidori chicken pot sticker in a rich hot-sour broth that tastes something like an Eastern-European stuffed cabbage gravy -- redefined by a Southeast-Asian master chef.
Best Affordable Steak: Brandt Natural Beef Prime grade flat-iron at Starlite Lounge, 3175 India Street (between Redwood and Spruce), Midtown, 619-358-9766, starlitesandiego.com. Both tender and savory, this was anything but boring cow -- its flavor was nearly as full-bodied as bison. It was lightly sauced with horseradish crème fraîche, just right for highlighting the meat without disguising it.
Best-Used Foams: The Guild, 1805 Newton Avenue (at Beardsley), Barrio Logan, 619-564-7584, theguildrestaurant.com. Most chefs use foam as a special effect, a gilding of the goodies. Guild chef Melissa Mayer uses foams seriously, to vary and intensify tastes. Her complex fizzes open up the flavors, making them clearer, more distinct, and they take on the roles that heavier sauces and reductions play in more conventional "fine cuisine." There's nothing frivolous or arbitrary. They belong to Mayer's food the way paint belongs on canvas. And the restaurant itself is delightful, an oasis of community and artistry in the least-chic neighborhood of the city -- 'til now.
Sensational Soups: The velvety cream of porcini and chestnut soup at Seasons (see "Best Grazing" above) is intensely mushroomy and astonishingly fulfilling. On a cold night, it warms you to the marrow; better yet, like a lover's caress or a mother's lullaby, it leaves you feeling cared for. And at Jack's La Jolla (see "Best Entrée" above), chef Tony DiSalvo's creamy celery-root soup last winter was smashing, topped with a "butterscotch froth" (made with a touch of maple syrup, with balsamic vinegar to cut the sweetness). The soup concealed crunchy diced fresh celery and earthy house-made mini-ravioli with a filling of shaved fresh black truffles and truffle juice, baked potato pulp, crème fraîche, and a little agar-agar binding. This is just the kind of food San Diego needs more of, sensual and approachable but unexpected.
Best Unendangered Caviar: Caviar Tacos at Quarter Kitchen, Ivy Hotel, 600 F Street at Sixth Avenue, downtown, 619-814-2000, quarterkitchen
.com. The 'Bertos don't make tacos like these: shells of supernal delicacy, made of wafer-thin slices of potato, curving around a lush filling of fine Tsar Nicoulai American paddlefish caviar, and robed in crème fraîche gently amended with horseradish, red onion, and chives. (You can opt for endangered Caspian caviar, but the lower-priced spread is as glorious as it is virtuous.) A mouth-filling combination with light, sensual textures, this is food for the sea gods, who would doubtless be tickled blue by it. This kitchen also turns out fine truffled french fries. (But be careful: When you go to Quarter Kitchen/ Keep your money in your socks./ The water price and parking fees/ Will have you on the rocks...)
"Life's a Beach" special award: JRDN, Tower 23 Hotel, 4551 Ocean Boulevard (at Feldspar Street), Pacific Beach, 858-270-5736, JRDN.com. A breezy break on the beachside back patio on a summer evening exemplifies everything that's best about San Diego living. Lively food, cocktails, and spirit -- not to mention a little sand in your sandals.