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
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