Best Bites of the Year

Eye-candy owners/chefs of Café 21, Alex and Leyla Javadov
  • Eye-candy owners/chefs of Café 21, Alex and Leyla Javadov

The long recession has taken its toll, even on my “bests” list. Not only did I dine at few “destination restaurants” this year (and, sorry, you do get what you pay for, if you’re lucky), but no new ones that I can think of opened — there were merely chef changes at existing fine-dining restaurants. Some new restaurants (like Searsucker) were fairly expensive but noisy, uncomfortable, anything but luxurious. Banker’s Hill, another newbie opened by top chef Carl Schroeder, was far from a downtown version of his Market Restaurant, instead serving unexciting “neighborhood restaurant” cooking. Usually, I make up all sorts of crazy categories to be able to include more than the classic ten best restaurants, but this year, my basic “bests” list came to nine — until, that is, I created a category for new gastropubs.

This isn’t to say that local cuisine is getting worse, it’s just shifting. In many ways it’s still improving, if slowly. You can find moderately creative, inventive cooking at all prices. Even the faddish plethora of gastropubs are for the most part using locally grown produce, and many serve naturally raised meats. Still, too much food-fear remains afoot, inhibiting San Diego from becoming a great restaurant town. The tourists we attract love us best for sun and sand. Unlike, say, visitors to Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, these folks are not traveling for food. Conventioneers often look more for generous pours than fine dinners, and local military personnel, who are mostly underpaid, seem to prefer familiar flavors when they get the chance to go out. Be that as it may, there’s good eating here if you know where to look for it.

Best “New” High-End Restaurants (Tie): Blanca and Mistral
It’s a tie between two not-so-new restaurants with superb new chefs. At Blanca and Mistral, “high end” is lower than it used to be. (Both are splurges, but not break-the-bank spendy, if you’re careful about your wines.) Blanca has been a revolving door for top chefs coming from elsewhere, and I do hope they can hang on to Gavin Schmidt, who epitomizes both slow-food artisanal cooking and culinary artistry. His charcuterie and salumi include a chicken-liver mousse as rich as foie gras and a wonderfully intense, gamy guinea-hen-liver mousse. Then you move on to superb entrées, such as the roasted body of the guinea hen and the inventive “Day at the Farm” entrée of various pork cuts, each cooked differently and served with vegetables ranging from the first tender shoots to mature specimens. It’s food for the mind as well as the gullet. And the room is quiet, comfortable, adult, with pleasing service.

Mistral snapped up one of San Diego’s finest chefs, Patrick Ponsaty, highlighting just-picked produce from the resort’s organic garden and from Susie’s Farm near IB. Ponsaty’s greatness shows in the nightly specials, where he’s free from the strictures of a please-all-tastes hotel menu. One evening, these included a foie gras napoleon layered with eel, celeriac, and caramelized apples (winner of a “best appetizer” award in a European chefs’ competition). Another special was more homey: halibut cheek with lentils. Entrées come with complex, labor-intensive garnishes, and dinner concludes with elegant desserts and mignardises (“little darlings,” i.e., tiny sweets) as lagniappe. Like Blanca, Mistral is a comfortable, grown-up venue; and, it’s blessed with a stunning view of the bay. And the wine list won’t plunge you into bankruptcy. It’s my top choice for a romantic night out.

Best New (Moderate) Neighborhood Restaurant: Café 21
Café 21 began as a tiny restaurant called Café 2121 for its street address on Adams Avenue, then moved to larger premises nearby and dropped the last two digits. These days, it’s usually slamming, and a second location is in the works. The eye-candy owners-chefs, Alex and Leyla, hail from Azerbaijan, one of those deep-south states of the former USSR that owe more, culinarily, to the Middle East than to Mother Russia. But the fascinating and delicious Azeri food here (with an occasional dish from Leyla’s Ukrainian forebears) isn’t just folk food; it’s professionally executed and incorporates healthy California influences, shown in two amazing (and immense) salads: strawberry salad and grape salad, either ready to pose for a Renaissance still life. The zesty menu changes often, not only with the seasons but to keep Alex and Leyla (and their happy customers) interested.

Best Inexpensive Restaurants (Tie): Do Re Mi House (Korean) and Little Sheep (Mongolian Hot Pot)
My idea of “inexpensive” is five or ten bucks higher than what you’ll find in Ed Bedford’s reviews (say, $25 per person for a full meal) — but then, Ed often eats breakfast or lunch out, while I’m mainly up for dinners — steeper but potentially more flavorful. Eating on the cheap, I look for good ethnic restaurants. (I am so indifferent to decor, as long as the place is clean, not too loud, reasonably comfortable, and, if Asian, has a menu in English.) Kearny and Convoy Street and Linda Vista offer probably the widest and most exciting selections of such eateries in San Diego (with City Heights/Talmadge as runner-up).

Do Re Mi House is a Korean barbecue without tabletop barbecues (the meats are grilled in the kitchen). All the better, because you can ignore standard fare and zero in on the menu’s home-style treasures: rich, spicy stews and soups, like Tofu Kimchi Boku, with tender pork and fiery cabbage, and soothing sliced tofu on the side; and Galbi Tang, a spicy short-rib soup that provides a soulful new taste profile for this too-trendy cut of meat. With dinner, you get a generous dozen free banchen (small side dishes and relishes). It’s a banquet for a pittance.

Little Sheep (Xiao Fei Yang) offers Mongolian hot pot, similar to shabu-shabu but better, because the broth is already fully seasoned with a host of spices and aromatics and as much dried hot pepper as you think you can stand. (I recommend the “half and half,” i.e., medium; portions are ginormous, and you’re bound to have leftovers that will turn fiery overnight in your fridge.) Then you get to choose the ingredients to cook in your soup (over a table-burner) from a vast array, so you’re collaborating with the chefs to make your own perfect pottage. Be sure to include both lamb meat and the scrumptious lamb dumplings, and throw in your favorite noodles near the end of eating to best enjoy a final bowl of broth. Staffers do a fine job of showing you the basics of how to cook your goodies.

Best Total Turnarounds (Tie): The Shores and Suite and Tender
For long years the Shores languished in the culinary doldrums, a delightful beachside setting where plebeian food belied the official involvement of Marine Room chef Bernard Guillas. Then they hired sommelier Lisa Redwine as manager, and what a difference a dame makes! Suddenly there was a satisfying mushroom bisque, ethereal shrimp fritters, a succulent herb-roasted lamb rack (rare to our order), and fine, affordable wines to complement them. Prices are akin to those at “serious neighborhood restaurants” in prosperous neighborhoods such as Kensington and Bankers’ Hill.

Suite and Tender started with a Vegas vibe, an Excel chart of popular dishes for the menu, and a New York–based executive chef phoning it in. Now the sleazy micro-dresses are gone, and the menu has been revamped by chef Anthony Calamari, who lives here. Prices are generally lower, and choices include several budget-priced light entrées. Some not-light entrées stand out: perfectly roasted mustard-brined chicken, moist through, is pure French bistro, and a horseradish-potato-crusted hunk of tender halibut made me rethink my motto, “The only good halibut is a live halibut.”

Best New Mexican Restaurant: Maria Maria
Say it loud, and there’s music playing — pretty good music, tasty oldies and reggae, and not too loud. (Carlos Santana is a co-owner of this small chain.) The decor is vibrant and colorful, and so is the food, with an ambitious, joyous menu assembled by well-known chef-consultant Roberto Santibañez, treating the Mexican cocina as worthy of respect and attention. It’s sophisticated, a step up from folk cooking (and several steps up from cheap local taquerias) but still moderately priced. You can make a great grazing dinner from generously portioned appetizers such as braised duck tacos and seafood-topped guacamole or plunge further into delicious entrées such as tender fish Veracruzana, untraditional carnitas, and a “surf and turf” of steak (cooked rare to our order) topped with shrimp. Nice margaritas, too.

Best New Gastropub: Quality Social
The chef, Jared Van Camp, fresh from parent restaurant Old Town Social in Chicago, calls it a “next-generation dive bar.” (Sorry, I know dives, and this is no dive.) I hit this too early, on a scout, and meant to come back and didn’t get the chance (maybe next year!). My tablemate and I were impressed by the artisanship of the house-crafted charcuterie, salumi, even hotdogs. Not to mention the satisfying Portuguese fisherman’s stew. The restaurant, with a hipster vibe, occupies a huge space, home to several doomed restaurants in a row. Its life is worth supporting.

Runner-up: Proper Gastropub. The menu mixes exciting new inventions (crisped pork belly with cocoa dust) with stalwart British pub classics, but cooked better — including an ideal shepherd’s pie made properly with lamb, with a host of nourishing, wintry root veggies under the potato-parsnip-mash topping.

Most Promising New Neighborhood Restaurant: SOHO
An eclectic mixture of southern, South American, Mexican, and Southeast Asian flavors emerge from the kitchen here, including wood-fired piquillo peppers with goat cheese, Moroccan-spiced Meyer beef flat-iron steak and nonboring short-ribs. Fun eating and enjoying the young chef’s creativity.

Outstanding Dishes of the Year From Other Restaurants:
Addison’s exquisite starters of “calamari grillé” with black-olive agnolotti; baby scallops in miso foam. (Too bad most entrées are swamped with sweetness.)

Ba Ren’s Sichuan pot roast (great soup with pork, noodles, pork meatballs) and eggplant in brown sauce.

Dobson’s’ mussel bisque: one of a kind, so luscious, rich, and deep, it alone is worth the visit.

Izakaya Sakura’s monkfish-liver salad, miso-sauced black cod (as good as Nobu’s, at a much lower price), mackerel sashimi.

Sessions Public’s chicken oyster tempura, “pig in a blanket” bison sausage.

Soleil @ K’s tempura lobster with truffle juice–enriched wild-mushroom risotto; grass-fed rib-eye steak.

Dead Restaurants or Vanished Chefs:
A partial list: Arterra — change in management, all previous staff fired (however, former chef Jason Maitland is about to open a restaurant in Del Mar); ATE (delivery); Big Easy and its deliciously outrageous foie gras crêpes Suzette; Bite with its swoony foie gras custard; Chilango with its near-legendary chiles en nogada; Cosmopolitan and its world-beating churros, Ramos Rum Fizz (restaurant still open, but chef and mixologist both fired); El Bizcocho (restaurant open but chef fled); Hawthorn; Kemo Sabe and its “Skirts on Fire”; La Jolla Rancherita, serving well-treated local lobster; Magnolias, offering superb fried chicken, jambalaya; Zocalo (it’s been replaced by another branch of Miguel’s Cocina).

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Do I dare to eat a peach?…

Well, not so old as to be scared of peaches. However, when I moved here from San Francisco, I was hoping that at just about my current age, I could go half-time (as my predecessors Eleanor Widmer and Max Nash had alternated weeks).

Starting the second week of January, these hopes will be fulfilled. There will be no Max Nash; instead, I’ll be alternating weeks with several foodbloggers I’ve recommended to the higher-ups. (I don’t know exactly who they’ll be yet, but I’m fervently wishing they’ll include mmm-yoso, a fearless gastro-explorer especially expert in Asian cuisines.)

So, see you next week — but not the week after that. ■

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