Café 21 in downtown San Diego
2736 Adams Avenue, San Diego
802 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
Café 21 began as a lunch joint in University Heights, moved to a larger location there, and has now accepted the dare of downtown. It’s the zesty creation of a young couple from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic in the southernmost Caucasus (closer to Persia and Turkey than to Russia). But this is no amateur mom ’n’ pop shop: the service lives up to the cooking.
Host Alex (who came to San Diego to study hospitality) and chef Leyla both have turned thoroughly pro, offering an always-interesting culinary mixture of Azeri specialties, along with Ukrainian, Russian, Mediterranean, and California-inspired cooking. Leyla produces the fresh-baked breads and desserts.
The menu changes weekly; specials that have proved patron favorites often go into the rotation. Highlights include stuffed vegetables and huge and vivacious salads (the strawberry salad is unforgettable, the roast grape salad a Renaissance painting). Azeri ground-lamb kebabs and stews, and the national dish, an elaborately garnished saffron pilaf, are revelatory. Easy to do a grazing dinner, as appetizer and salad portions are ginormous and easy to share, but then you’d miss enjoying a unique entrée.
Breakfasts are even more popular than dinners downtown, and no less creative. Consider Tiramisu Pancakes. Judging by the apricot crêpes sometimes served as an appetizer, they’re probably less sweet than they sound.
Five different sangrias are offered. The bottled and by-the-glass wine list is cursory, but corkage is minimal. Lacto-vegetarian friendly, vegan-okay.
— Naomi Wise
3940 Fourth Avenue #110, San Diego
All the fragrant seasonings of Morocco await here, happily free of that sit-on-the-floor-pillows nonsense of most Moroccan restaurants in California. The simple room is handsomely decorated with Moroccan fabrics, but it’s the food that takes center stage, along with the warm hospitality of witty host/chef/owner Moumen Nouri and his cordial crew. Moumen has expanded the menu over the years, adding the requisite b’stilla (minced chicken with all manner of goodies in a phyllo mini-pie) to the preexisting irresistible harissa lentil soup, plus a host of intriguing new salads and vegetable appetizers. Cocktails are available; the ones to try are those featuring rose water (a champagne-based Moroccan Kiss) or hot pepper (Lalla Sharmoula, a bloody mary variant.)
Moumen was also smart enough to restrict kebabs (mere street snacks in Morocco), perhaps to encourage diners to explore the more elaborate and authentic entrées, especially the tagines, richly flavored Moroccan stews of vegetables or meats. The honeyed lamb shanks with nuts are sweet, meaty heaven on a plate. Equally heavenly is the sassier chicken with olives and preserved lemons.
Vegetarians and vegans will rejoice in not only a vegetarian tapas plate but a veggie Berber tagine (perfect over couscous) and a tagine of veggie-stuffed peppers (also available with meat). Omnivores looking for a prix fixe can dive into the moderately priced ($20 or $30 per person ) multi-course Moroccan Feasts.
— Naomi Wise
2121 Adams Avenue, San Diego
This is the sun-dappled, utterly non-snooty side of French cuisine. No scary prices, no snobby service, no heavy sauces, and the wines are priced moderately enough to dive into. This unpretentious bistro is more genuinely French (in all the best senses) than a lot of the faque-French higher-priced spreads around town. This isn’t Paris; it’s the southern-countryside, age-old source of much of the best Gallic food. Look at all those cute little wooden ducks marching around the restaurant walls. No intimidation here.
The food is blithe and sunny, too, and often surprisingly light. (This is not a heavy sauce brun place.) The ingredients are fresh, seasonal, and mainly local, in true country style. Chef-owner Olivier Bioteau obviously loves cooking: he constantly learns new techniques and skills. A few years ago, he became a chocolatier. Now he’s taken up charcuterie and is making his own creative sausages, served as entrées on select weeknights (see website) and at weekend brunch. But don’t miss his earlier creation, a supernal chicken-liver mousse.
The weekend brunch is noteworthy, especially for ethereal ricotta-citrus pancakes and true French “french toast.” Larger appetites might consider the braised oxtail with three-egg omelet and the soft polenta with corn and house-made sausage.
This might just be the perfect neighborhood French restaurant, whether here or in Provence. The restaurant is small, though. Best to reserve a day ahead.
— Naomi Wise
1653 Garnet Avenue, San Diego
Costa Brava, along with Pata Negra, its adjacent Spanish deli, is San Diego’s center of authentic full-flavored Spanish cuisine and culture. Some nights, there are musicians; on other nights, loud soccer plays on the TVs in the bar. (The website shows the soccer schedule.) All nights, the kitchen is open in true Iberian style until midnight.
Owned and hosted by the personable Javier Gonzales, the restaurant is set in a former residence, with riotous flora all over the front and tall palms shading the balcony, where you can lunch outdoors.
The menu opens with a vast selection of tapas, both hot and cold. Anchovy lovers will swoon over a dish that Javier claims comes from his hometown: Spanish anchovies and sweet, lightly smoked piquillo peppers. Among the hot tapas are irresistibly creamy croquetas, both of chicken and salt cod, dates wrapped in bacon, and moist morcilla (black sausage) sautéed with onions. Lots of easier choices there, too — cheeses, seafood, and ham plates, including, sometimes, prized Iberico ham from free-range pigs raised on acorns.
The several paella variations have real integrity, the best in San Diego. But don’t overlook other pleasures, such as braised rabbit, oxtail braised in Rioja wine, and fresh sea bass cooked in sparkling Cava with dates and figs.
The wine list is mainly Spanish and affordable, with an excellent sangria if you’re not inclined to gamble. Desserts, or a dessert wine, are worth enjoying. Even the flan here is good.
— Naomi Wise
3860 Convoy Street #110, San Diego
Tucked in the corner of the strip-mall that houses Nijiya Market is a tiny, warm little restaurant called Okan. I realize that the word “tapas” is used to describe almost every type of appetizer or small plate these days, and indeed Okan uses it to describe simmered, homey, Japanese comfort dishes served from the large plates that line a U-shaped counter.
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
4346 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA
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