El Jardin. Yucatan-style Castacan, crispy pork bookended by two Mayan condiments.
  • El Jardin. Yucatan-style Castacan, crispy pork bookended by two Mayan condiments.
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It was an easy decision, the day my husband John and I resolved that, instead of giving each other more stuff on special occasions, we’d prefer to spend the money and time enjoying a meal of exceptional ingredients, expertly prepared by someone else. Deciding where to celebrate is almost as much fun as the meal itself. Discussions are joined, previous relished meals are dissected, whether to try a new place or visit an old favorite is hotly debated, and anticipation builds as the holiday, birthday, or anniversary approaches. Best of all, there’s no worry about whether it’s the right size or color, no need for gift wrapping or exchanges, and each meal builds more treasured memories between us. It sure beats another pair of earrings.

El Jardín

2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station

Newly opened in trendy Liberty Station, El Jardín’s beautifully appointed dining room and expansive patio/lounge invite you to sit back, sip a smoky, citrus Escabeche Guey! (mezcal, Ancho Reyes, lemon, golden beet and mole bitters) or a signature michelada. Outstanding starters include Sopa de Abue, an heirloom bean soup topped by Oaxacan quesillo, cured nopales and a plump poached egg; or spicy, saucy Riviera Nayarit Shrimp. Executive chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins excels in homey, comfort food influenced by her roots in Tijuana and Guadalajara, especially a chicken-stuffed Tamal with Mole Poblano accompanied by summer squash, purslane, and whipped Oaxacan beans; or Yucatan-style Castacan, crispy pork bookended by two Mayan condiments, pumpkin seed-based Ha’ Sikil P’ak and Xni Pec, a tongue-tingling salsa. For dessert — No Mamey’s combines moist brown butter almond cake, pixtli ice cream, and blue corn pinole crumbles under a gooey, toasted marshmallow crown.

Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop

640 Tenth Avenue, East Village

Big, brawny steaks reign here, and they are truly delightful. But my heart belongs to Cowboy Star’s Sunday Suppers, especially the second Sunday of the month, when their glorious fried chicken takes center stage, only in the bar, and only till it runs out. Mahogany brown and generously crusted, it shatters perfectly when you bite into it, shedding a few pieces of precious, crunchy bits as you go. The half bird, over creamy mashed potatoes and spears of sauteed asparagus, is plenty to share and pairs well with a bowl of yellow corn soup, poured ceremoniously over a square of huitlacoche bread and crema gelato; pops of finger lime, cotija cheese, and tajin add tang and spice. As long as you’re sharing, don’t miss out on the chocolate chip bread pudding, soft, warm and buttery, sitting in a pool of golden butterscotch under a scoop of slowly melting dark chocolate ice cream. Other Sunday Suppers feature bacon-wrapped, gruyere-stuffed, truffle-gravied meatloaf, prime rib, short ribs and bourbon-glazed pork chops.

Coasterra

880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island

The cityscape is spectacular day or night at Coasterra, perfect for a birthday lunch or romantic date night. This is the place to sit back, order something strong and take a good deep breath of fresh sea air. I’m partial to the classic pairing of mezcal, lime, and cucumber in a Gunsmoke; or the Smoked Hibiscus, a marriage of jamaica syrup, mezcal, and salted serrano bitters. I also love a cooling soup in warm weather, especially the combination of creamy sweet corn, roasted poblano, and drizzles of red chili and cilantro oil showered in frizzled leeks. Taquitos pair sweet ripe plantains, black beans, and roasted poblanos, crisply fried in tortillas, with sharp cotija cheese and an addictive roasted chile salsa for a sweet, salty, savory flavor bomb. Achiote pork shank, fragrant and fork-tender, begs to be shredded and heaped into a fresh flour tortilla, along with some of the Mexican sweet corn it’s sitting on. A sweet potato and plantain chili relleno updates the old classic with Oaxacan cheese, a walnut sauce and pops of pomegranate seeds. Butter cakes seem to be everywhere lately, not that I’m complaining, especially when they’re topped with sweet plantain ice cream and warm cajeta.

Born and Raised

1909 India Street, Little Italy

From the swanky leather booths, walnut paneling, and tableside carts featuring old school preparations such as beef tartare, Caesar salad, and steak Diane, to shaken martinis, Manhattans, and Rob Roys, Born & Raised provides a luxe experience from the moment you enter. I usually start with a bracing Corpse Reviver #2, a bowl of lobster bisque, deep brown and intensely flavored, carefully poured around a pile of cool sweet lobster chunks, and a big, flaky pull-apart bread with Normandy style butter. I’ll follow that up with an 18-ounce ribeye, one of the smaller options, but perfectly seasoned and perfectly medium rare. Don’t skip the sauces, especially the bearnaise or peppercorn. The classic prime rib is huge, gorgeously rosy red and accompanied by a small pot of Robuchon potatoes and an enormous Yorkshire pudding, plus horseradish and peppercorn sauces. Keep the classic theme going for dessert, the smooth, creamy, sky-high cheesecake has a luscious, cinnamon-spiced apple topping.

Charles + Dinorah

1410 Rosecrans Street, Point Loma

Step back into the Rat Pack era via Palm Springs at Charles + Dinorah in Point Loma’s Pearl Hotel. Built around the hotel’s swimming pool, its breezy surroundings and attitude evoke tall, cool drinks and tropical flavors, epitomized by a Beach Break cocktail, coconut fat washed tequila, spicy Ancho Reyes, lime, and firewater bitters. Kushiyaki skewers make a great starter, and if the chef’s choice is chicken hearts, trust me, it’s excellent, chewy and flavorful alongside koshihikari rice and a tangy house ponzu dipping sauce. I also love the big tangle of al dente pappardelle smothered in house-made scrapple bolognese, so homey and comforting, and the unusual pairing of skirt steak with black eyed peas, sauteed gai lan and cherries. For dessert, nothing beats freshly fried, cinnamon-sugar dipped donuts, piled on a pool of warm chocolate ganache.

Nine-Ten

910 Prospect Street, La Jolla

Sophisticated and elegant, Nine-Ten is perfect for intimate conversations and quiet celebrations. Starters such as Fava Bean and Ricotta Agnolotti, enlivened by spring onion, green garlic, ramps, mint, aleppo pepper, carrot juice, and a porcini mushroom crumb or Roasted Carrots and Carrot Falafel, combining spice roasted carrots, cipollini onions, pickled carrots, sultana raisins, harissa yogurt, and carrot hummus could easily be a light meal in themselves. Smoked Maple Leaf Duck Breast pairs rosy pink slices and balsamic glazed figs atop a refreshing corn and Yukon gold potato hash, arugula, anise hyssop and a swirl of fig gastrique, while Prime Beef Short Rib gets an upscale veggie boost of roasted turnips, chanterelle mushrooms, marinated napa cabbage, kale chips and red cabbage enhanced by a sweet/sour agrodolce puree. End your meal with a fun riff on the flavors of spumoni ice cream — Chocolate, Cherry & Pistachio combines pretty logs of soft chocolate ganache, pistachio cream. and sweet cherry ice cream.

Juniper and Ivy

2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

Perennial favorite on best-restaurant lists nationwide, Juniper & Ivy continues its tradition of whimsical takes on classic American cuisine, updating them almost daily to take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The complimentary amuse bouche, a delightful take on a classic deviled egg, pairs a crisp meringue egg white with truffled egg yolk mousse in a bite sized treat. Spicy tuna hand rolls get a refreshing update by swapping out the usual nori wrap with an herbaceous perilla leaf. I can never resist ordering the off-the-menu In-N-Haute Burger, made from a custom blend of ground short rib, brisket, chuck, and dry aged beef fat, and, like its In-N-Out namesake, the mustard is grilled right into the patties. Crowned with American cheese, grilled onions, bread, and butter pickles and a house-made sauce on a brioche bun, it captures the best elements of the Double Double. Golden brown, crisp, thrice-cooked fries come alongside. When it’s time for dessert, I always resolve to order something different, but in the end, it’s always the Yodel, a long cylinder of devil’s food cake, white chocolate and hazelnut brittle that yields invitingly under a warm pour of thick chocolate sauce.

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