Where has all the foie gras gone, long time passing? These are bad times! Don’t it just make you wanna throw your shoes at someone? A year ago, the glitzy openings of Quarter Kitchen at the Ivy and Nobu drew Hollywood celebs. Now Nobu draws grazing suburbanites dressed for a big night at Marie Callender’s, while Quarter Kitchen just lost its prestigious British chef — often a sign that hotel management wants to downscale the cuisine and prices. (Our own skilled but unpretentious Nathan Coulon of the Belgian Lion family has been promoted to executive chef there, and the restaurant’s modest “Restaurant Week” menu is priced at just $30. I’ll bet that soon it’ll be Change for a Quarter Kitchen.) Hotel restaurants are usually “safer” in terms of lasting power than stand-alones, but even so, the Marriott recently murdered handsome Molly’s, to replace it with a branch of the splashy Roy’s chain — which will presumably be self-supporting, drawing a crowd that doesn’t have to sweat the mortgage.
Anyone following the food biz could smell the rot in the economy months before it became a media event. Very few new high-end restaurants opened here this year, and those that did suffered significant neonatal mortality (e.g., Jade and Dish). Meanwhile, existing temples of haute cuisine have been lowering prices or offering bargain specials to survive. (On the other hand, this fall, we the people finally broke the color bar and the intelligence bar simultaneously, electing someone capable of speaking English and thinking logically.
Frankly, high-end food tends to be better than budget food (with finer ingredients, more labor-intensive preparation, etc.), which means that this year, I’ve eaten fewer spectacular, creative, deluxe dishes than in any of the previous 20-odd years of on-and-off reviewing. The good news is: I must have spinach between my teeth by now from the local burgeoning of “green” and “slow” and artisanal restaurants. We’re finally catching up with Frisco and Portland and Moose, Wyoming, and eating more sustainably raised, “house-made from scratch” food from JSix, Crescent Heights, Market, and Whisknladle on down the price scale to the Linkery, Sea Rocket, and Tender Greens.
This “bests” list is always eccentric, with as many spontaneous categories as I can think up, and never a single “best” overall restaurant, given the variations between apples, oranges, mangosteens, and soursops. So these are simply the best tastes of this year, followed by a recessionary honor roll of good local cheap eateries I’ve eaten at during the last eight years in San Diego, to remind everybody that you can eat great dishes on a little dosh if you’re willing to adventure.
Best New Moderate Restaurant:
There’s no single mind-blowing signature dish at the Better Half because the menu changes constantly, driven by the perpetual creativity and intelligence of chef (and now owner) John Robert Kennedy, who’s worked under some of the top names in the food biz. His cooking sometimes dazzles, nearly always satisfies, and never gets trite. At a bistro’s price range, the chef (and diners) can’t afford the exorbitant ingredients of, say, a Blanca or Marine Room or A.R. Valentien, so imagination substitutes for expense. The prolific cornucopia of flavors coming from the kitchen reminds me of candies in the Harry Potter novels, ranging from occasionally somewhat challenging to bliss-inducing — but always fun. My posse had already adopted the restaurant before I’d even tried it — it’s a comfortable space for foodies, with food to please foodies… a friendly little haven where you can wear what you like (within civilized limits) and where the service is warm and smart because the staffers (both front and back of the house) love their gentle boss. Plus there’s that brilliant wine list of all half-bottles and the expertise of sommelier/maitre d’/former owner Zubin Desai, who just a few weeks ago sold the restaurant to John. When I first came in to review the place, I was hopeful but wary and skeptical despite my friends’ raves. Since then, the Better Half has become the restaurant I go to on my own dime (and under my real name) whenever I get enough ahead on my work to take an evening off for my own pleasure. I want food that astonishes me. Here, I often get it.
Best New High-End Restaurant:
430 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
Among the few high-end restaurants that opened and survived this year, while I was compiling the list of the “year’s best dishes,” I noticed that Roseville had the most entries: I started to purr at memories of chef Amy DiBiase’s lush asparagus and poached-egg salad, her fabulous herb-crusted albacore with shiitake cream, the crackly-skinned classic duck-leg confit (like a French version of Peking duck), the swoony lemon chiffon parfait. And then there’s the irresistible charm of owner/maitre d’ George Riffle, the smooth service, the beautiful, romantic room that turns Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” into a visible reverie. This is a lovely, soul-soothing place to go for a little indulgence. And since it’s in Point Loma, rather than Del Mar or La Jolla, you don’t need to dress in designer-label drag or drag out the family jewels. Nothing snooty here — just fine, fine food, service, ambience. Runner Up: Crescent Heights Kitchen and Lounge (655 West Broadway, downtown), where the vegetables are so thrilling they can outshine the meats — it’s upscale comfort food good enough to furnish genuine comfort in these times.
Most Promising New Restaurant:
1044 Wall Street, San Diego
I predict that in a couple of years, this is likely to become not only one of the county’s most famous restaurants, but one of the whole country’s food meccas. Last spring, there were still a few little rough spots in some dishes, as you’d expect, given the vaulting culinary ambitions of chef Ryan Johnston. Those will pass. What will remain and strengthen is the purely artisanal “slow food” kitchen where Johnston and crew are using superior ingredients to make everything they can from scratch — even the butter! They’re doing salumi like Paul Bertolli, they bake their own breads, make cheeses, churn ice creams! Is this awesome, or is it awesome? By reviving traditional farmwife skills, they’re going back to the future. More and more, I think, we’re going to seek out restaurants that let us taste the pristine ingredients that chain supermarkets won’t even sell us, prepared with the laborious craftsmanship that most of us don’t have nearly enough time to try, much less perfect. Whisknladle is all about real food (as in Michael Pollan’s now-classic exhortation, “Eat food. Real food”) at the end of a 60-year stint of increasing, near-inescapable food fakery.
Best French Bistro South of Interstate 8 and Best Weekend Brunch:
2121 Adams Avenue, San Diego
In French cuisine, “rustic” and “sophisticated” aren’t contradictory terms. Both qualities are embodied at Farmhouse, overwhelmingly the finest French bistro south of Interstate 8 — not just the best new bistro, the all-out best! Farmhouse joins Tapenade, Cavaillon, and Bernard’O in offering French food that soars above the standard old menu clichés, and here the prices are remarkably merciful, including those on the wine list. Chef Olivier Bioteau’s menu changes with the seasons (as it should), but eight months after my dinner, I still cherish the memory of his exquisite chicken-liver mousse; his corvina (local sea bass) with fennel; his soulful, rustic braised pork shoulder; his delicate, sly pear clafouti with rosemary; and his spectacular array of avant-garde chocolates (he’s a “certified chocolatier,” whatever that means). His weekend brunch dishes were no less vivid. I hate brunches — please don’t get me up before noon, don’t make me eat before 6:00 p.m.! But almost levitating above the plate were ricotta pancakes — perfect, airy, breakfast for angels. And, just a bit closer to earth, Bioteau’s radical revision of the Southern classic of biscuits and gravy. The biscuits are remarkably light and crisp-edged, the delicate gravy is made from reduced cream and puréed mushrooms (not the South’s heavy roux-thickened milk), and for meat, you find Bruce Aidells’s juicy, fresh (uncured) chicken-apple sausage, America’s best breakfast link, to my tastes. Don’t look for les oeufs McMuffinées, Benedicts, maple syrup, or other brunch clichés — all the choices are Gallic and amusing. This place is so good, I wish I could set all of this to rhyme and sing it to the tune of “La Seine.”
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
Notice I don’t say best “new” Italian. It’s been around for a while, but I didn’t eat there until this year and discovered that, at long last, this is the Italian restaurant I’ve been longing for ever since I left New York so many years ago. It’s friendly, neighborly, informal — but most important, chef Francesco Basile’s food could make a corpse stand up to find a fork for a final postmortem pasta. My dinner here was, I think, the most sheerly enjoyable single meal of the year — indulgent, exuberant, sensuous to the point of sin! The crab-stuffed portobello mushroom ranks among the most alluring dishes I’ve ever tasted, gently elbowing its way right in with 30 years of foie gras torchons, dry-aged Prime ribs, and caviar tacos at the fancy joints. Then there was the baked fresh mozzarella with San Daniele prosciutto, and house-made lobster ravioli so sensual it was hard to describe without sliding into outright porn. Yeah, the best dishes here are as good as sex, unless the sex you’re having rates better than four stars.
Best New Steakhouse, “Theme Restaurant,” and Soundtrack:
640 Tenth Avenue, San Diego
This is a steakhouse of the people, even if not exactly at “people’s prices.” That is, it’s remarkably lively and comfortable, with no upscale, uptight suit–vibes. Plus, unlike most, they even give you good veggies with your proteins, so they’re not trying to strip your pockets till your last cold dollar is gone. The visual theme is old-time Western movies, and just like John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you can get yourself a big, all-natural grass-fed steak, pilgrim — or go for regular Prime and Choice choices (including a few dry-aged cuts), or a whole array of wild game meats, which are leaner, healthier, and full of deep flavor. Chef Victor Jimenez knows how to cook ’em all, and you can also pick up the raw flesh at the attached little retail butcher shop. The place is decorated kitschy with cowboy stuff, and the delicious country-western music track is just what I want to hear in this context: Patsy Kline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and of course the immortal Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (“Yee-haw!”) — that’s music to my ears!
Best New “View” Restaurant:
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, 1441 Quivira Road, San Diego
Under chef Danny Bannister, this new restaurant at the Hyatt Mission Bay is the place to take your visiting relatives, or yourself when you need a little luxury “staycation.” The waterfront vistas are just splendid, and the food is, if not terribly adventurous (the Hyatt suits at the Chicago HQ censor the menu), remarkably well executed and consistently delicious. Among the highlights: the crabbiest, freshest crab cakes; sexy curried mussels; and perfectly cooked rosy Kurobuta pork. I hope that by now the Hyatt has sprung for a few signs to direct people to the restaurant, which was hard to find at my visit last spring.
Best New Desserts:
Finally, a patisserie for the rest of us. Mille Feuilles offers great delights without attitude or airs. It’s pretty, clean and bright, like a perfect Parisian café for reading Le Figaro over your café au lait and croissant, and the servers are friendly and relaxed. Thomas Gérard, the owner and chef, is a wunderkind from Lyon who’s worked at destination restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. His pastries are very French, imaginative, delicious, and not exorbitant. (I want one of his fruit-filled mini-croissants for breakfast every day of my life from now on.) With Mille Feuilles, we finally have a worthy challenger to Karen Krasne. These pastries aren’t quite as decadent or exotic as hers, but they’re at least equal in quality and verve. Runners Up: Eclipse Chocolat, and the “remake” of Heaven Sent, with professional patissier Tina Luu upgrading the goodies.
Best New Chain Restaurant:
207 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
If we must have chain restaurants, then Nobu sets the bar: exquisite sushi, sashimi, and fusion dishes. If Nobu himself were presiding behind the sushi bar or in the kitchen, it would be a mind-blowing restaurant. Knowing that he’s off jet-setting to Ouagadougou or some such place to open a new location dims the starlight, subtly down-classing the brilliant creativity of the chef’s original conceptions into recreated formulae. But the food is truly good.
Great Leaps Forward:
1132 Loma Avenue, Coronado
616 J Street, San Diego
This was the year that Christian Graves at JSix forged ahead, deep into artisanal, from-scratch creative cuisine. Four other chefs told me to check him out — “He’s just gotten awesome!” — and it proved true. The man is really cookin’. And, happily, Chez Loma’s new owners have rescued the cooking at this historic bungalow after years of deep mediocrity; it’s now a tasty, pretty little neighborhood French bistro again, with food that’s worthy of the charming setting.
The Year’s Best Dishes (not mentioned earlier):
Azuki Sushi’s Pon Hama (yellowtail sashimi with yuzu juice and chili powder); Baci’s sea urchin dinner; Currant’s haunting five-onion soup with short ribs and beef marrow, and for dessert, pumpkin profiteroles; Crescent Grill’s Muscovy duck with parsnip purée, thoroughly crispy striped bass, Kurobuta pork; DeDe’s stir-fried pork kidney with vegetables; Nozomi Sushi’s monkfish liver pâté (ankimo); Olivetto’s pear-stuffed ravioli; Sea Rocket’s sea-urchin bisque; Tender Greens’ chicken soup; Venice’s butternut squash ravioli with browned sage butter, duck breast with Gorgonzola, pistachios, and porcini, veal rack with porcini; Whisknladle’s roasted bone marrow, chorizo, and date fritters with mornay sauce (to die for!), and “cutting board” salumi assortment.
Best Buys: 50 Places for Affordable Good Food
When you’re running short between money infusions, your best buys are almost always in ethnic restaurants, unless you want to live on burgers, pizzas, and pub grub all your days. With a spirit of adventure, you can eat fabulously for very little money, changing nationalities and flavors as often as you get change for a dollar. Here are some of my favorites for quality well beyond their price points, where you can get two courses for $25 or less (food costs only):
Apertivo (Italian tapas), Bandar (Persian), Barnes BBQ, Batter Up (high-quality casual), Berta’s (South American), Bird House Grill (Turkish), Blue Water (seafood), Bubbie’s (ice cream and pannini), Bud’s (N’awlins), Casa Reveles (Michoacán Mexican), Chilango’s (Mexico City), China Max (Hong Kong/Cantonese), Chipotle (healthier Mexican fast food), Costa Brava (Spanish/tapas), Crescent City Cafe (American diner classics), DeDe’s (Szechuanese; also check out Ba Ren), Dumpling Inn (northern China), D.Z. Akin’s (Jewish deli), El Comal (Mexican regional), El Dorado (Peruvian), Fix Me a Plate (N’awlins), Gen Lai Sen (for the Hakka specialties, not regular menu), Gourmet India, the Guild (eclectic), Hacienda De Vega (Mexico’s Central Valley), Islander Grill (Guam), Izakaya Masa (Japanese tapas), Jamroc 101 (Jamaican), Kealani’s (Hawaiian), Kous-Kous (Moroccan), La Especial Norte (Mexican soups), Latin Chef (Peruvian), Lotus Thai, Luigi’s Pizza (NY), Madras Cafe (Tamil vegetarian), Magnolias (Southern/Louisiana), Pete’s Meats (Italian sausages), Phuong Trang (Vietnamese), Pomegranate (Georgian), Ranchos Cocina (Mexican/ health food), Red Sea (Ethiopian), St. Tropez (French cafe-bakery), Sandy Crab (seafood boils), Spicy City (Szechuanese), Super Cocina (multiregional Mexican home-style), Tender Greens (salads, soups, pies), Third Corner (wines with foods to match), Tin Fish (casual seafood), Tioli’s Crazy Burger (including German sausages), Turf Club (DIY Choice steak).
May the new year be better than the old one, with good eating for all and the big booboo going away soon!