Yesterday — all those dinners seem so far away. Another hundred-odd restaurant meals have gone to my hips since the Best Bites of '05. This past year has seen more chefs who are dedicated to cooking as a creative art, or at least a devotional craft, using the best ingredients they can find -- which means our region's amazing local produce, along with well-cared-for heritage breeds of meat and poultry and non-endangered wild fish. At the same time, the dreary, once-ubiquitous steamed "Sysco veggie medley" of pre-cut blah produce is growing less common, though still served at some of the older "view" eateries and neighborhood hash-houses. Is San Diego reaching the tipping point to becoming a "foodie city"? I suspect so.
The year has also seen positive changes at the lower price end. Many new and remade ethnic restaurants are serving food with some actual resemblance to the cuisines of their homelands, rather than a mess of American-oriented compromises. And when it comes to all-American favorites, this year a couple of newbies reacquainted me with the joys of serious, non-chain burgers and pub grub.
With so much variety, it's always impossible to choose a single "Best Restaurant," but here are some where I've enjoyed exceptionally good meals this year -- plus more where a particular dish was especially memorable.
Best New "Money-No-Object" Restaurant: Blanca (Beachwalk Plaza, 437 South Highway 101, Solana Beach, 858-792-0072). Sleek and sophisticated Blanca is our first true 21st-Century restaurant. That the cuisine is driven by wholesome and delicious ingredients is just a start. Then comes the art of highlighting perfect ingredients so radiantly and originally that diners rouse to rapt attention. Chef Wade Hageman, a protégé of renowned San Francisco chef Michael Mina, has imported a similar complex, intellectual, labor-intensive style of cooking that appeals as much to the mind as to the senses. You can't quite taste all the flavors layered into each dish here, so much as sense their presence. The only flaw lies in a stony-cool ambiance with a soupçon of "in-crowd" clannishness. But if you concentrate on the cooking, you won't even notice it.
Best New Almost-Affordable Restaurant: Market (3702 Via de la Valle at El Camino Real, Del Mar, 858-523-0007). Carl Schroeder left Arterra to open his own restaurant, and it's a winner in decor, ambiance, and especially food. The restaurant's name is a hint that it specializes in "market-driven cuisine" -- the daily changing menu is inspired by whatever seasonal foodstuffs the chef finds at the local produce market (Chino Farms, in this case). Not only are the flavors fine, but this is an exceptionally comfortable restaurant, with great care taken to keep sound levels moderate and diners' bodies well-cushioned, so nothing interferes with the enjoyment. Don't skip dessert: Pastry chef James Foran's sophisticated sweets are as finely honed as Schroeder's main menu, rivaling Jack Fisher's (at Addison) as best desserts of the year.
Best New Restaurant to Gobble French Food Until the Wee Hours: Modus (2204 Fourth Avenue at Ivy, Banker's Hill, 619-236-8516). Nathan Coulon, the scion of the Belgian Lion family, makes good on his own, serving made-from-scratch Belgian-French chow at a neighborhood-style place where you can drop in for flawless pommes frites and a handmade cocktail or glass of wine, or go for dinner at midnight. The international wine list may not be a tome, but sommelier Scotty Johnson offers some of the most interesting bottles in town.
Best-Kept Secret: Galileo 101 (West Tower, Harbor Club, 201 J Street at Second Avenue, Suite 101, downtown, 619-702-7101). Like the heavenly bodies studied by its namesake astronomer, Galileo has ever been in transit, moving through various phases, from upscale Italian cuisine to its current "progressive European cuisine." Let's hope that it now becomes a fixed star. At an odd but pretty location across from the Convention Center, Joe Craig (formerly sous-chef of Chive) has taken over the kitchen, turning out dishes with superb ingredients, imaginative preparations, and consistently fine execution. The room is beautiful in a spaced-out mode, but the food is down to earth. Try scallops with osso bucco, or a wild mushroom and duck confit tart, and you'll be glad there's life on this planet.
Best Nuevo Wavo Tapas: Confidential (901 Fourth Avenue at E Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-696-8888). Chef Chris Walsh has hit his stride with a menu of inventive international "small plates" to please the taste of every grazer and a kitchen staff of sufficient size and skill to carry it off. His masterpiece revision of shrimp on sugar cane (spiced up and served over sorbet) was such a kick, it nearly set me squealing Little Richard--style. Look for a new Walsh eatery early in the new year; Walsh will continue as a consultant at Confi.
Best Turnarounds and Upgrades: Hawthorne's (Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, 2895 University near 29th Street, North Park, 619-544-0940). The happiest sign of changing times was when Fifth and Hawthorne reopened in North Park with an upgrade in both produce and sauces. Yes, the chef gave up on Sysco medley and started to use real veggies, while taking up made-from-scratch meat and poultry stock to serve as the base for gravies -- and yes, you can taste the difference, absolutely!
Meanwhile, Lotus Thai (3761 Sixth Avenue at Robinson, Hillcrest, 619-299-8272, and 906 Market at Ninth Street, downtown, 619-595-0115) abandoned Americanized vegetarian-flirting blandness and introduced chef-specialty sections on the menu of both its old and new locations. The chefs are from Northwest Thailand, and in their lively dishes now you can almost smell the Ping River and the fog-shrouded hills of Chiang Mai. Oh, and their Rambutan Cosmo vies with Samba's caipirinha for my "cocktail of the year."
Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Kous Kous (3940 Fourth Avenue, Suite 110, downstairs, below street level, Hilllcrest, 619-295-5560). The Moroccan food at Kous Kous is delicious, authentic, and healthful -- and a bit too exotic to readily cook at home, making this something like an ideal neighborhood restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxing and casually sensual. The staff run the restaurant as if they're entertaining friends. And you don't have to sit on the floor to partake of the unique, richly seasoned cuisine from an ever-expanding menu. You sit at tables with chairs, making the experience less "Arabian night out" and more about enjoying great cooking and charming service, bistro-style.
Honorable Mentions, "Ethnic Gets Serious" Category: D'Mood (4628 Park Boulevard at "University Heights" overhead street sign, 619-297-6663). Persia's vastly civilized culture comes with the cooking here, which embraces traditional dishes and creative improvisations on Middle Eastern themes, including a bar menu of "small plates" available until late on weekend nights. The food is delicious (try the pomegranate-glazed roast game hen and the Persian ice creams), and the room celebrates a cosmopolitan culture with a bohemian edge. The owners, adherents of the peace-loving Bahai religion, came from a country now called Iran. They, fortunately, had the resources to emigrate; others like them did not. Keep that in mind when you hear the sabers rattling.
Rannoosh (3890 Fifth Avenue, south of University, Hillcrest, 619-325-1360). What makes Rannoosh stand out from the field of indistinguishable Middle Eastern restaurant clones is that their Lebanese-Jordanian cooking is all "from scratch." The labor pays off: I never thought I'd like falafel until I tried the cinnamon-scented stuffed falafel, filled with a moist mixture of onions and rice. Their vegetarian kebbeh and house-made sausages are terrific, too.
Samba Grill (top level, Horton Plaza, 510 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-236-1000). This Brazilian eatery offers a rodizio (grilled-meat orgy), with plenty of interesting side dishes, but even more delightful is its spirited Brazilian atmosphere -- helped along if you sip one or two of the sublimely limey caipirinhas.
Gourmet India (810 Fourth Avenue, south of F Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-702-7967). This restaurant offers a chance to try some genuine regional Indian dishes without pledging to a Tamil vegetarian diet. Many of their offerings, especially those from Bombay, are absent from the cookie-cutter menus of local Indian restaurants. Wake up your mouth with a refreshing blast of vibrant, tamarind-tinged sev poori or a delicate pizza-like uttapam. Live a little!
Casual Gets Serious: Tioli's Crazy Burger (4201 30th Street at Howard, across from Vons, North Park, 619-282-6044). What happens to a hamburger when it's cooked by a European chef? It turns into a dozen-odd varieties of burger with a choice of meats (including 'gator and bison) and distinctive sauces matched to each protein. Hence, Crazy Burger turns out the only turkey-burger I've ever found edible and the best ostrich any which way (ask for it rare) I've ever tasted. The mustard is house-made, and even the chipotle ketchup has been fiddled with. It's the ultimate burger joint. You can also get great German sausages here, not to mention a glass of good cheap Italian wine.
Batter Up (Market Creek Plaza, 342 Euclid Avenue at Market Street, Diamond District, 619-262-3333). Chef-owner Mel Johnson cooked at the dearly departed Juke Joint, and here he's turning out equally worthy casual food. Fish and shrimp are fried tender and moist, coated in a thin, flavorful cornmeal-wheat flour batter jazzed up with black pepper, cayenne, and a pinch of Cajun spices. The tartar sauce is house-made, or you can choose cocktail sauce or house-made Dijon remoulade. The chicken tender sandwiches actually are tender -- and chef Mel's thick, juicy, and incendiary "Bring on the Heat" burger left me happily breathing fire.
Eight Great Dishes: J-6 (Hotel Solamar, 616 J Street at Sixth Avenue, downtown, 619-531-0744). Chef Christian Graves' truffled white-corn ravioli with butter-sautéed whole, fresh chanterelle mushrooms in a creamy chive-and-lemon fondue sauce -- devastating!
Paradise Grill (Flower Hill Mall, 2690 Via de la Valle at I-5 off-ramp, Del Mar, 858-350-0808). The marinated grilled shrimp kebabs coated (for crunch) with Rice Krispies, impaling a hunk of grilled watermelon, is a wickedly witty dish. But even more impressive is the miracle that chef Justin Hoehn confers on quinoa, that bland "good for you" Peruvian grain -- turning it into a lively, tomato-spiked "couscous."
1500 Ocean (Hotel Del Coronado, 1500 Ocean Avenue, Coronado, 619-522-8490). There are plenty of great dishes here, but my favorite was "Bubalus Bubalis buffalo ricotta gnudi." "Bubalus" is Latin for water buffalo, the source of chef Jason Schaeffer's California cheese enclosed in the gnudi -- thin-skinned dumplings resembling ricotta-filled dim sum. The ricotta tasted fresh and sunny, and the Meyer lemon sauce that robed the spheres was so flawless a match that I wanted to lick the plate.
Stingaree (454 Sixth Avenue between J and K, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-544-9500). Chef Antonio Friscia's Torchon of Foie Gras was extraordinary, up there with Tapenade's benchmark version: gentle-tasting, with an ethereal marshmallow texture that truly melts in the mouth, plated atop a brioche crostini.
Red Pearl (440 J Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-231-1100). Strawberry Cinnamon Short Ribs is a dish that chef Jason Marcus ate in Ho Chi Minh City, albeit changed a bit in this version. The fall-off-the-bone braised spare ribs are crisped on the grill and slathered with a thick, sweet, compelling, cooked-down strawberry sauce redolent of cinnamon and star anise. It tastes like Hoisin from heaven.
Island Prime (880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island, 619-298-6802). Debra Scott's Shaved Corn with Black Truffle and Fresh Herbs has become the restaurant's signature dish. The truffle component isn't the usual splash of oil, but actual crunchy black truffle shavings, lending earthy contrast to the supersweet corn kernels and lush cream sauce. This dish alone is worth a dinner here.
House of Blues (1055 Fifth Avenue, north of Broadway, downtown, 619-299-2583). The smoked roast beef from the carving station at the Gospel Brunch is rich, tender, rare (if you want it rare) -- as good as roast beef gets.
Thee Bungalow (4996 West Point Loma Boulevard, Ocean Beach, 619-224-2884). Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Case in point: Grand Marnier soufflé. There are many great desserts in the world, but this oldie and goodie stands the test of time -- the ideal dessert to finish a dinner when you really don't want more substance, just a faint, airy touch of bitter-sweetness.
Minor Disappointments: "Chef Cuisine to Feed Multitudes." Some of the hottest new restaurants are, to my mind, just too big, seating so many customers that you don't get exactly the chef's cuisine, you get the line cooks' harried, frantic compromises to get things to the tables on time. The ideas are often swell, but the execution -- not necessarily. A lot of precious Jidori chickens are being overcooked out there. You can find excellence at such restaurants -- but not quite the same degree and consistency of excellence as at smaller, more manageable dining rooms.
Pet Peeve: Ear-splitting parties in quiet restaurants. No surprise when restaurants known for loud bars with singles' scenes host raucous parties with hot-and-cold squealing faux-blondes -- but lately, grayer groups are making rowdy ruckuses at gracious places like Thee Bungalow and Paradise Grill. To use two German shrink-words in one sentence, the American zeitgeist is clearly angst-ridden. I know you guys are really suppressing a scream -- but please, baby-boomers (and frankly, I'm one of you, rescued from gray only by Clairol Old-Hippie Herbal Hair-Helper), when you feel a vocal big BOOM coming on, take it to someplace that's already rackety.