Yesterday — all those dinners seem so far away. Another hundred-odd restaurant meals have gone to my hips since the Best Bites of '05. This past year has seen more chefs who are dedicated to cooking as a creative art, or at least a devotional craft, using the best ingredients they can find -- which means our region's amazing local produce, along with well-cared-for heritage breeds of meat and poultry and non-endangered wild fish. At the same time, the dreary, once-ubiquitous steamed "Sysco veggie medley" of pre-cut blah produce is growing less common, though still served at some of the older "view" eateries and neighborhood hash-houses. Is San Diego reaching the tipping point to becoming a "foodie city"? I suspect so.
The year has also seen positive changes at the lower price end. Many new and remade ethnic restaurants are serving food with some actual resemblance to the cuisines of their homelands, rather than a mess of American-oriented compromises. And when it comes to all-American favorites, this year a couple of newbies reacquainted me with the joys of serious, non-chain burgers and pub grub.
With so much variety, it's always impossible to choose a single "Best Restaurant," but here are some where I've enjoyed exceptionally good meals this year -- plus more where a particular dish was especially memorable.
Best New "Money-No-Object" Restaurant: Blanca (Beachwalk Plaza, 437 South Highway 101, Solana Beach, 858-792-0072). Sleek and sophisticated Blanca is our first true 21st-Century restaurant. That the cuisine is driven by wholesome and delicious ingredients is just a start. Then comes the art of highlighting perfect ingredients so radiantly and originally that diners rouse to rapt attention. Chef Wade Hageman, a protégé of renowned San Francisco chef Michael Mina, has imported a similar complex, intellectual, labor-intensive style of cooking that appeals as much to the mind as to the senses. You can't quite taste all the flavors layered into each dish here, so much as sense their presence. The only flaw lies in a stony-cool ambiance with a soupçon of "in-crowd" clannishness. But if you concentrate on the cooking, you won't even notice it.
Best New Almost-Affordable Restaurant: Market (3702 Via de la Valle at El Camino Real, Del Mar, 858-523-0007). Carl Schroeder left Arterra to open his own restaurant, and it's a winner in decor, ambiance, and especially food. The restaurant's name is a hint that it specializes in "market-driven cuisine" -- the daily changing menu is inspired by whatever seasonal foodstuffs the chef finds at the local produce market (Chino Farms, in this case). Not only are the flavors fine, but this is an exceptionally comfortable restaurant, with great care taken to keep sound levels moderate and diners' bodies well-cushioned, so nothing interferes with the enjoyment. Don't skip dessert: Pastry chef James Foran's sophisticated sweets are as finely honed as Schroeder's main menu, rivaling Jack Fisher's (at Addison) as best desserts of the year.
Best New Restaurant to Gobble French Food Until the Wee Hours: Modus (2204 Fourth Avenue at Ivy, Banker's Hill, 619-236-8516). Nathan Coulon, the scion of the Belgian Lion family, makes good on his own, serving made-from-scratch Belgian-French chow at a neighborhood-style place where you can drop in for flawless pommes frites and a handmade cocktail or glass of wine, or go for dinner at midnight. The international wine list may not be a tome, but sommelier Scotty Johnson offers some of the most interesting bottles in town.
Best-Kept Secret: Galileo 101 (West Tower, Harbor Club, 201 J Street at Second Avenue, Suite 101, downtown, 619-702-7101). Like the heavenly bodies studied by its namesake astronomer, Galileo has ever been in transit, moving through various phases, from upscale Italian cuisine to its current "progressive European cuisine." Let's hope that it now becomes a fixed star. At an odd but pretty location across from the Convention Center, Joe Craig (formerly sous-chef of Chive) has taken over the kitchen, turning out dishes with superb ingredients, imaginative preparations, and consistently fine execution. The room is beautiful in a spaced-out mode, but the food is down to earth. Try scallops with osso bucco, or a wild mushroom and duck confit tart, and you'll be glad there's life on this planet.
Best Nuevo Wavo Tapas: Confidential (901 Fourth Avenue at E Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-696-8888). Chef Chris Walsh has hit his stride with a menu of inventive international "small plates" to please the taste of every grazer and a kitchen staff of sufficient size and skill to carry it off. His masterpiece revision of shrimp on sugar cane (spiced up and served over sorbet) was such a kick, it nearly set me squealing Little Richard--style. Look for a new Walsh eatery early in the new year; Walsh will continue as a consultant at Confi.
Best Turnarounds and Upgrades: Hawthorne's (Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2895 University near 29th Street, North Park, 619-544-0940). The happiest sign of changing times was when Fifth and Hawthorne reopened in North Park with an upgrade in both produce and sauces. Yes, the chef gave up on Sysco medley and started to use real veggies, while taking up made-from-scratch meat and poultry stock to serve as the base for gravies -- and yes, you can taste the difference, absolutely!
Meanwhile, Lotus Thai (3761 Sixth Avenue at Robinson, Hillcrest, 619-299-8272, and 906 Market at Ninth Street, downtown, 619-595-0115) abandoned Americanized vegetarian-flirting blandness and introduced chef-specialty sections on the menu of both its old and new locations. The chefs are from Northwest Thailand, and in their lively dishes now you can almost smell the Ping River and the fog-shrouded hills of Chiang Mai. Oh, and their Rambutan Cosmo vies with Samba's caipirinha for my "cocktail of the year."
Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Kous Kous (3940 Fourth Avenue, Suite 110, downstairs, below street level, Hilllcrest, 619-295-5560). The Moroccan food at Kous Kous is delicious, authentic, and healthful -- and a bit too exotic to readily cook at home, making this something like an ideal neighborhood restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxing and casually sensual. The staff run the restaurant as if they're entertaining friends. And you don't have to sit on the floor to partake of the unique, richly seasoned cuisine from an ever-expanding menu. You sit at tables with chairs, making the experience less "Arabian night out" and more about enjoying great cooking and charming service, bistro-style.