Nowadays, I spend much of my time eating in restaurants or locked up in my office documenting those experiences. But before I wrote my first word about food, most of my time was spent in the kitchen. I spent over a decade learning about and practicing the culinary arts. On top of loving food and manipulating it into something delicious, it allowed me to taste the gourmet fare I had seen or read about but either couldn’t find or couldn’t afford.
Back then, San Diego had far fewer gourmet restaurants, and even they were fairly pedestrian. Of those that were exploring more eclectic cuisines, esoteric ingredients, and cutting-edge techniques, nearly all of them were priced far out of my range. I’m happy to say that, over the past several years, gourmet fare has become far more accessible for everyday diners, inching its way into eateries of all sizes and — praise Escoffier — price points.
White linens are great, but mid-range restaurants, gastropubs, and shops taking things to the next level for the masses are changing the local dining scene by leaps and bounds. Those businesses, and the people behind them, are who I’m celebrating this go-round.
4033 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
After 18 years running an upscale La Jolla Italian, switching gears to open an eclectic contemporary modern in the heart of Mission Hills seemed an ambitious step for restaurateurs Michael and Victoria McGeath. I wondered if they would be able to pull it off, but both they and talented chef Colin Murray exceeded my expectations with their lovingly embraced neighborhood social and supping hub. For me, globally eclectic starters, such as Vietnamese shrimp-and-pork meatballs, Spanish shrimp-and-chorizo grits, and Creole oyster sliders, taste best shared with friends or while making friends at bar-side communal tables.
721 Ninth Avenue, East Village
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Enjoying good cuisine français usually means paying prix scandaleux. I love the fact a midday meal at this East Village standout usually leaves me with enough cash to order a glass of Sancerre and still come in at under 20 bucks. Standards like a bistro salad and steak frites burst with traditional French flavor, but for me, it’s all about the fromage. Thanks to chef Katie Grebow’s cheese obsession, they have arguably the best rotating cheese plate in San Diego. And potent bleu d’Auvergne makes it into not one, but two fab dishes, including a tart and mac ’n’ cheese gratin.
267 N. El Camino Real, Suites A & B, Encinitas
Craftsman New American Tavern
In opening Blue Ribbon along the 101, chef Wade Hageman ditched the pomp of haute cuisine to make pizzas. Not a common recipe for success, yet succeed he has. Enough that he recently opened this second space from which to offer a wider variety of his simple yet flavorful dishes to his foodie following. Examples: Chicken-liver mousse with pork cracklings, fettuccine with goat cheese and corn veloute, porcini-crusted cod, root beer cake — the choices are as plentiful as they are delicious. Did I mention the craft beer?
789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
When I first met Austrian confectioner and all-around sweetheart Isabella Valencia, she was pumping out bite-sized, bitter- and semi-sweet chocolate tidbits in relative anonymity from an obscure production facility in El Cajon. That’s still her home base, but in 2011 she added a charming storefront in the Flower Hill Promenade; a dark wood and robin’s-egg-blue backdrop for displaying artful chocolates of all shapes, colors, and fillings. Salted caramel is her best seller, but I go for creative flavor combos like passionfruit with togarashi (a Japanese spice blend), strawberry-balsamic, and a creamy substance secreted by nurse bees called royal jelly.
629 Kettner Boulevard, Downtown San Diego
The Lion’s Share
They had me at game meat. When I heard chefs Lhasa Landry and Jacob Rodriguez were developing upscale for what has fast become a hotbed among the downtown dining sect, anticipation ensued. Such high hopes are rarely satisfied in real life (especially for a nitpicker like me), but bourbon-glazed wild-boar chops made for love at first bite. Even with Landry out of the equation, Rodriguez offers a unique, innovative menu that’s different from other restaurants — especially cool in the urban land of trend-followers.
7556-D Fay Avenue, La Jolla
Michele Coulon Dessertier
My introduction to this confectionary maven’s desserts was at a collaboration dinner at the Marine Room. Bernard Guillas, Jeff Jackson, Jason Knibb, and Trey Foshee all cooked that night, but her magical plate of treats remains emblazoned in my memory. I later ventured to her lovely shop and found myself surrounded by artful, decadent, classic European cakes, pastries, and delights. The secret is her technique, which she takes seriously. Unlike other devout kitchen sticklers, she’s pleasantly passionate versus grumpy and dictatorial. Her staff mirrors that, making this easily one of the sweetest places around, literally and figuratively.
2218 Cable Street, Ocean Beach
OB Noodle House
I rarely stand in line for anything, but I’ll get in the lengthy queue for this rarity — a noodle house with a phenomenal selection of beers on tap. Everything from sours to barrel-aged stouts are available (at half price from 3 to 6 p.m.). Their pho broth is simple and tasty, the perfect base for condiment customization. Someday I’ll brave their Pho 20 Challenge — two pounds of noodles, two pounds of meat, and a pint of beer — but doing so would mean missing out on tasty dishes like charred bassa fish served sizzling on cast iron. I always win with that.
1201 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar | 7556 Fay Avenue, La Jolla | 1660 India Street, Little Italy | prepkitchen.com
Done-up comfort food is everywhere. A number of eateries were already making home-style fare their bread-and-butter before Whisknladle’s Arturo Kassel and Ryan Johnston opened their kinder, simpler alternative. But they quickly jumped to the head of that class. They get my vote for best takeaway in town and serve as standard bearers for juicy chicken, steamed mussels, and hearty bowlfuls of pasta, all of which I enjoy most from the second-story Prepkitchen overlooking India Street. I’m also excited to see what they do with their recently reopened Del Mar store with new chef Mark Bolton (Pacifica, the Fleetwood).
1026 Wall Street, La Jolla
I’m instantly skeptical when I hear about restaurateurs looking to improve on Mexican street food. How do you improve on perfection? In the case of this recent addition to the Jewel, they give patrons the ability to build their own street taco or bowl using a plethora of boldly flavored proteins (chicken al pastor, grilled salmon, potato soy chorizo) and delicacies such as cactus, zucchini flowers, and, one of my personal faves, huitlacoche (fungus extracted from ears of corn). The sky’s the limit, but the best things about Puesto’s tacos are the griddled discs of cheese with which they line their tortillas.
3408 30th Street, North Park
The Smoking Goat
There’s nothing like walking into a room redolent with the scent of duck-fat-fried taters. It’s an olfactory amuse bouche that primes my stomach for a tasty meal — something I can always count on at this gem. Those odoriferous frites taste as good as they smell — so much, I order them every time before moving on to smart, succinct dishes such as escargot au gratin, grilled-watermelon-and-burrata salad, roasted bone marrow, or smoked-tomato risotto. I always bring friends so I can enjoy as many plates as possible. Getting in can be tough, but it should be for someplace this good.
7007 Friars Road #394, Mission Valley
True Food Kitchen
Like mother, like son? Not so much for chef Nathan Coulon. His mom’s known for decadent desserts, but he’s making a name for himself and his recently opened link in the True Food chain behind truly fine healthful fare. Tasty dishes like a barbecue tofu banh mi wrap, edamame dumplings, and panang curry with tofu provide superb options for a wholesome, vegan, or gluten-free night off from San Diego’s heavy upscale burgers, comfort food, and pub grub. Throw in a dining room that’s far more stylish and comfy than most mall restos, and it’s no wonder it’s mobbed most nights.
3823 30th Street, North Park
Matt Gordon’s Southern comfort cuisine embraces my palate every time. Love and calories are served up in heaping portions via rich dishes, such as blue cheese–based duck-a-roni, perfectly cooked barbecue-glazed pork belly, and bacon-bolstered lamb meatloaf with figs — gourmet flavors condensed into a down-home slice of mmm-mmm goodness. Bluegrass brunch (regularly cited as one of, if not the best in the city) is the most convincing reason to spend Sunday morning — my most optimal writing window of the week — playing hooky with a spirited eye-opener and a warm, enormous cinnamon roll on Solace’s New Orleans–style patio.
16761 Bernardo Center Drive, Rancho Bernardo
When I lived in Rancho Bernardo, I told anyone who’d listen, “If someone opens a craft-beer restaurant here, they’ll clean up.” I love being right. This North County spot bustles with an energy that’s off the charts for this quiet community. Ranchers and visitors alike are drawn by a massive selection of beers — including upper-echelon selections only places devoted to craft suds can procure — as well as reimagined homey dishes paced by mac ’n’ cheese bites, chicken and waffles, an immensely flavorful chorizo-bolstered meatloaf, and an exotic array of burgers made with veal, rabbit, and wild boar. ■
More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | Spirit of Family Dinnertime | More Than Dish or Deal | Lunchtime in Kearny Mesa | Fried Chicken | Places to Try At Least Once