In my family, the family meal was sacrosanct. No matter what was going on or how busy you were with school, work, or friends, when dinnertime rolled around, you were expected to be there or be prepared to explain yourself.
All of us participated in preparations: the table was always nicely set, utensils and napkins in their proper place. The table was Formica, and the plates were melamine, but no matter, it was set daily as if we were expecting the president of the United States to show up.
My mother, an excellent baker who learned the trade in her father’s shop, was not an especially adept cook. It didn’t matter, we knew at the end of the meal we’d be treated to dessert. Sometimes it was as simple as fresh fruit, but more often than not, she’d have one of her lighter-than-air angel food cakes or her peanut butter cookies studded with whole nuts.
It wasn’t just a means to fill your stomach; this was our family’s time to regroup, to come together and talk, to discuss current events, school, or the latest neighborhood gossip. Sometimes we fought during dinner, but more often we laughed.
Some restaurants bring the spirit of family dinnertime back to my mind — places where food is created with care, where the service is warm and welcoming, and where you can relax and reconnect with family and friends.
897 South Coast Highway 101, #F102, Encinitas
Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria
For Wade Hageman, making pizzas at his Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizza isn’t so different from his former days as executive chef at Blanca in Solana Beach. He still uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients as well as house-made fresh mozzarella, rich, garlicky tomato sauce, and fennel sausage. The dough is fermented for three days and baked a few minutes longer than traditional Neapolitan pizza, giving it a thin, crackling crisp crust and soft crumb.
Adornments are simple and high quality, from the brightly flavored Signature pizza topped with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, lemon zest, red onion, basil, and extra virgin olive oil, to the Staff Favorite (house tomato sauce, sausage, basil, Parmigiano Reggiano, and a drizzle of heavy cream).
Popular and delicious starters include local sweet-corn soup; a Caesar salad that uses heirloom Little Gem romaine, Parmigiano Reggiano, and garlicky bread crumbs; and the yellowtail tuna crudo, fresh local yellowtail, Haas avocado, ruby grapefruit, and lemon olive oil.
There’s only one dessert on the menu, but try to save room for it. It’s a sinful butterscotch pudding, smooth and creamy under its topping of salted caramel and whipped cream. Don’t feel guilty if you decide not to share.
2864 Adams Avenue, University Heights
A lot of restaurants change their menus seasonally, but Hanna’s Gourmet goes a step further by featuring a different world cuisine each week in addition to their regular menu.
Get your borscht and mushroom pierogi fix during Polish week; dig into layers of savory ground beef, ripe plantain, and tomato sauce in a traditional Puerto Rican pastelón de platano; or relish a spicy Portuguese bacalhoada, chunky-full of salt cod, potatoes, onions, and olives.
Tried and true sandwich faves include a lovely turkey, pear, and brie on sturdy bread with a good schmear of cranberry aioli and a delectable grilled-vegetable version dressed in an addictive, earthy walnut spread.
Eggs à la Africana (eggs and fava beans topped with a tangy yogurt sauce), biscuits and eggs smothered in Italian sausage gravy, and red velvet pancakes are big draws for the weekend brunch crowd.
If you’re lucky enough to get there before Hanna’s famous ginger carrot cake sells out, be sure to grab a slice. It’s worth every moist, spicy, cream-cheesy bite.
2121 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
(No longer in business.)
There are so many ways to enjoy the specialty of the house at Eclipse Chocolat. The tiny, comfy café offers dessert platters combining unexpected flavors, like the chocolate olive oil fondue, a vegan-friendly combo with 72 percent chocolate, blood orange olive oil, fresh fruit, candied mango, and a sugared torta; or the tasting platter, a collection of four petite chocolate desserts featuring seasonal ingredients that changes every six weeks.
Crème fraîche cupcakes, in dark chocolate or vanilla butter cake, feature an exotic caramel or cream filling and a rich ganache glaze in an assortment of 24 rotating flavors.
Decadent drinking chocolates and mochas mingle dark, milk, or white chocolate and infusions of rosemary/mint, chilies/burnt caramel, or vanilla/orange peel. Two pillowy-soft house-made vanilla-bean marshmallows come on the side.
On weekends, a Chocolate Brunch showcases savory small plates infused with caramel, chocolate, or vanilla bean, available à la carte or in three- or four-course combos. Crispy rosemary potatoes, roasted golden brown, sprinkled with serrano sea salt and chili-burnt caramel hollandaise, are a standout, as is the chocolate-glazed bacon waffle or the three & three scramble — three eggs plus three add-ins (sub egg whites at no extra charge). Brunch standbys, the mimosa and bloody Mary, are tweaked Eclipse style as well. My favorite is made with KARMA champagne and their deservedly popular lavender vanilla-bean lemonade.
A small selection of wines is available (by the glass or half bottle), as is bottled beer, excellent espresso drinks, and a nice variety of regular and herbal teas.
3430 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
d Bar Desserts
Dessert becomes performance art at d Bar Desserts, sort of a pastry chef’s version of a sushi bar. The long, sleek counter runs the length of the room and affords a bird’s eye view of chef Keegan Gerhard or one of his talented staff plating your picture-perfect dessert.
The Cake and Shake is three layers of moist chocolate goodness under a not-too-sweet Madagascar chocolate frosting and your choice of a thick, frosty chocolate, vanilla, or raspberry shake or malt. Milk and Cookies (chocolate chunk, peanut butter bull’s eye, snicker doodle, and oatmeal raisin) are popular. So is the Molten Chocolate Thingy that Everyone Has, pairing the aforementioned molten thingy with raspberry compote and pistachio ice cream.
As much as I love a good chocolate dessert, I usually pick one of the seasonal fruit desserts. Here, local produce shines, as in Late Summer Porn: roasted California peaches, buttermilk panna cotta, sweet-corn ice cream, and white-peach sorbet.
Savory small plates are reasonably priced and shareable. My favorite is the Southern Fried Belgian, a moist, crispy chicken breast sandwiched between cheesy, herby Belgian waffles. Pudgy, juicy grilled Kobe sliders in a brioche bun are tasty, too, under their drunken onion and white cheddar toppings.
Libations haven’t been overlooked amid the sweets — a Peppermelon (Bombay gin, black pepper, honey, and watermelon) will cool you off on the hottest day. The beer and wine lists are short and uncomplicated; nearly all wines are available by both the glass and bottle.
3827 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Using local organic produce, house-cured meats, and homemade breads, Local Habit’s seasonally changing bill of fare features Napolitano-style pizzas, small plates, salads, and sandwiches. Nearly all the pizzas can be made gluten-free, and there are a surprising variety of vegetarian and vegan options on the fuss-free menu.
I love the simplicity of the thin, crisp-crusted pizzas; most have only three or four toppings. Mushrooms with fresh herbs and Spring Hill Cheese Curd is a favorite; earthy criminis pair nicely with grassy parsley and aromatic basil. Pecan Island Rabbit Gumbo is a deeply savory nod to chef Nick Brune’s childhood days hunting and cooking with his father in Louisiana. Plump ricotta dumplings in a vivacious tomato-and-basil reduction are another standout.
Twelve taps serve San Diego beers on a rotating basis, including a weekly cask offering and a selection of bottled beers and hard ciders. Here, too, you can find gluten-free choices, such as New Planet’s Tread Lightly Ale and Off Grid Pale. The short wine list features moderately priced bottles from family-owned California wineries.
926 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
(No longer in business.)
San Diego native Matt Richman, co-owner and executive chef of Table 926, keeps his menu short and focused. A half dozen or so starters and entrées comprise the regular rotation. Several ingredient-driven daily specials round it out.
Crowd-favorite appetizers include delectable, nutty-tasting roasted brussels sprouts, lightly charred and dressed in a bright Dijon white anchovy vinaigrette and a shower of Parmesan; and Venus clams, fennel confit, and Spanish chorizo steamed in a white wine-butter sauce.
Luscious pork cheeks are given a spicy, tangy glaze of tamarind and guajillo chilies, then nestled into a bed of sautéed bitter greens and creamy polenta. Ribeyes are aged in-house and grilled, accompanied by aromatic herbes de Provence frites and a sparkling watercress and picholine olive salad.
Sweet endings are fun and unexpected — raspberry, Nutella, and vanilla ice creams, perched on roasted bananas, and little bowls of cherries, pistachios, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream on the side make for a do-it-yourself banana split. Pineapple and sweet onion are baked into the Opposite Day Cake; coconut-marshmallow sorbet and smoked-paprika syrup push it into the decidedly offbeat, but somehow it works. Sweet, savory, and spicy.
A handful of local beers are on tap, a dozen or so more are available in bottles. The wine list is fairly short and moderately priced. Several are available by the glass.
2736 Adams Ave., University Heights | 750 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp | cafe-21.com
Leyla and Alex Javado may have created the perfect little neighborhood restaurants in their American-Azeri fusion Café 21. It is one of the few restaurants that can get me excited about salad. Too often, they’re a limp, bland afterthought. Not so, here. Lightly roasted grapes, sliced almonds, and goat cheese are piled on mixed greens and napped with tangy/sweet honey balsamic vinaigrette. Also lovely is the signature strawberry salad, with pistachios and goat cheese tossed in a not-too-sweet raspberry vinaigrette.
Appetizers are huge and shareable. Chicken, mozzarella, and apricot jelly stuffed Cristo Crepes are a flavor explosion. Earthy, chewy-tender pierogies take me back to the south side of Milwaukee, where Polish grandmas turn them out by the hundreds.
Entrées include several elaborately stuffed dishes: chicken breast, pork chops, cabbage rolls, and lamb-stuffed pasta are ethereal comfort foods. Accompaniments are given thoughtful treatment as well; rice pilafs are studded with nuts and dried fruits, complemented by delectable saffron or garlic cream sauces.
For dessert, seasonal fruit cobbler is always delicious, as is the banana cake topped with apricots. ■
More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | More Than Dish or Deal | Accessible Gourmet | Lunchtime in Kearny Mesa | Fried Chicken | Restaurants to Try At Least Once