An uncertain economy, in tandem with the rise of gastropubs, upscale comfort food joints, and other trends driven to tiresome status by their ubiquity, have rendered fine-dining establishments to endangered-species status in San Diego County. Flatbreads, mussels, burgers, pork belly, and the like are fantastic for everyday fare, but when it comes to dining as an event, I contend it requires a skilled chef reaching higher than the status quo to create innovative, technically perfect cuisine.
My top ten celebrates the best of the white-linen class — special places where the service is exquisite, rusticity nonexistent, and the food divine enough to justify the splurge factor.
417 W. Grand Avenue, Escondido
Since falling in love with the restaurant industry, I’ve been in search of one that follows the European model — a worldly master chef bringing up a brigade of hungry young talents while putting out stunning food worth setting dates and traveling miles for. And I’ve finally found it…in Escondido of all places...at Bellamy's.
Master French chef Patrick Ponsaty, formerly of Mistral and El Bizcocho, has taken the role of mentor at this quaint eatery and is molding young minds who are getting the hang of his classic technique and putting out the best food in North County right now. Start out with unbelievably tender calamri steak served over squid ink risotto, and then indulge in a tasting of lamb with herb-dusted loin, tomato-lacquered chops, and a flaky crusted pie filled with flavorful braised goodness. Having this stellar eatery emerge in such an unlikely place has been the best culinary surprise of the past year.
1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Despite at first struggling to fill the void left by former chef de cuisine Brian Sinnott, this upscale seaside spot has returned to the upper echelon of fine-dining options in San Diego. This has everything to do with recently added toque Robert Hohmann, who brings soulful Mediterranean recipes along with hard-earned experience as part of the empires ruled over by star chefs Thomas Keller and Mario Batali. The gems of surf and sea get careful attention and amplification via herbs and vegetables from the Del’s onsite garden. But even proteins many consider the culinary dregs shine. Case in point, melt-in-your-mouth tender tripe served in a rich, piping-hot tomato sauce with crispy breadcrumbs — easily one of the most comforting dishes in the county.
11480 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
There’s no better proof that incredible ingredients picked at the peak of freshness require little more than proper cookery to taste amazing than the straightforward offerings at A.R. Valentien. When executive chef Jeff Jackson first arrived in San Diego several years ago, he made it his mission to rally local chefs around the slow-food ethos that rules everything he does in the kitchen. For him, and chef de cuisine Kelli Nicole Crosson, that means becoming intimate with Southern California producers and doing right by their edibles. And it means minimal but poignant seasoning and cooking methods we can all tackle at home — just not with the same level of expertise. Begin with pâté or house-cured fish, move on to succulent golden-crusted halibut, and save room for elegant desserts offering multiple tastings of seasonal ingredients on one plate.
5200 Grand Del Mar Court, Del Mar
Five stars, five diamonds, an award-winning wine program, a chef with star status within his industry — there’s certainly enough by way of accolades to get diners in the door of this palatial epicurean oasis. But it’s the brilliant, artfully presented, top caliber dishes produced by chef William Bradley and his brigade that give all the incentive in the world to return to Addison. Tasting menus are built to celebrate each season’s bounty, and big-ticket items such as caviar, truffles, and edible gold leaf regularly come into play. Wine pairings are expertly selected, to the point where to dine sans vino is to miss out on experiencing this restaurant — widely considered San Diego’s best — to its fullest and finest degree. Also keeping Addison at the top of culinary consciousness is service that’s attentive and intuitive, and every bit as artful as coffee-roasted canard with koshihikari rice and candied peanuts (and that’s saying something).
2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
I still remember an even nerdier high school version of myself with a girl on my nervously shaky arm stepping out from the elevator and into this top-floor, top-notch eatery for the first time. Since then, the name has been altered and the dining room revamped, but Bertrand Hug’s French-inspired Bankers Hill perch remains at the top of my culinary consciousness. The menu has been updated to fit in with the direction San Diego’s cuisine is going — if the food weren’t so brilliantly prepared this would be a bad thing, but burrata, tartare, and pork belly taste different (and better) here. It’s not surprising. Mister A’s ability to stay true to long-tenured dishes such as lobster bisque, carpaccio, rack of lamb, and filet of beef without having them come off as tired is what helps set them apart in an age when most menus around town look nearly identical.
1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
When it comes to chefs, they don’t get much better than Trey Foshee. Proof of his prowess is communicated in no uncertain terms via the TBL3 dining experience — a multicourse cavalcade of inventive dishes illustrated by baby carrots buried in salted coffee “soil,” cured then excavated tableside, and what equates to an entire breakfast consolidated into a layered yet cogent glassful of deliciousness. The advanced nature of the offerings doled out during this format is such that it’s inspired the foodie intelligentsia to debate whether San Diego is ready for it. In my opinion, the residents of any locale are up for anything of quality (find me an entire community that demands mediocrity) and that’s what Foshee delivers. And good news for those without a penchant for being on the bleeding edge of gastronomy — the regular menu is every bit as skillfully thought out and prepared, particularly in the case of sea-fare-focused dishes.
616 J Street, Downtown San Diego
Of all the spots in my top-ten fine-dining list, Jsix is the one serving the simplest food. But make no mistake, the combinations of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients composed to create the complex flavor profiles of chef Christian Graves’s dishes are tops where gourmet sensibility is concerned. Instead of gussying up minimalist plates of food, the chef keeps things simple, presenting food that’s meant to be devoured versus analyzed. Far ahead of the charcuterie craze that’s overtaken craft-enamored San Diego, Graves’s is some of the best in town. Order a board, but save room for braised short ribs, plump diver scallops, or anything featuring house-made pasta, all of which is sure to be matched with produce procured from local farmers with whom Graves has spent years cultivating relationships. It’s approachable farm-to-table featuring big flavors and one of the most easygoing upscale experiences in America’s Finest City.
2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla
Often, I feel younger diners chase the next hip thing without taking the time to refer to spots that form San Diego’s culinary foundation. It’s easy to do amid an onslaught of new restaurant openings like we’ve seen throughout our county over the past half-decade. But foodies would do well to take a break from the rookie class long enough to appreciate a veteran of Mariano Rivera status. Executive chef Bernard Guillas and his trusty chef de cuisine Ron Oliver have been together for over a decade and continue to draw off their world travels (together, they’ve soaked up the food culture of well over 40 countries) to craft dishes that compose the most consistently worldly menu in San Diego. They’re nowhere close to slowing down, but diners should hurry to the Marine Room all the same. Plus, with the waves of the Pacific crashing right up against the dining room windows, the view can’t be beat.
3702 Via de la Valle, Del Mar
There’s a reason the James Beard folks keep knocking on chef and restaurateur Carl Schroeder’s kitchen door — the guy can cook. Another early adapter to the slow-food, farm-to-table ethos, he’s excelled at taking square meals like roasted slow-braised short ribs and creamy mashed starches to the top of the mountain where they share space with world-inspired dishes such as miso black cod and egg noodles in hot-and-sour broth, a king salmon and roasted chili “tamale,” and an entire menu devoted entirely to sushi. Schroedder’s good ideas flow in waves with each incoming season and provide ample reason for diners to keep coming back for more, which explains the long-tenured disciples who keep his Del Mar dining room packed well beyond the county fair and track-season flurry, something other venues that have tried to flourish in that locale (and failed) will attest is quite an accomplishment on its own.
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
Many locals know Nine-Ten's chef, Jason Knibb, more for his melee with Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Iron Chef America than his stunning cuisine. But if you save up for a tasty night on the town, your hard-earned bucks will be well rewarded here. Nine-Ten never ceases to provide pleasing varieties of flavors, textures, and multicultural ingredients. In a county awash with pork belly, Knibb’s signature Jamaican jerk version served with plantains and capsicum-laced jelly is a revelation. Best part, it’s a starter, leaving the opportunity to continue on to entrées such as duck breast with a duck confit “flauta” and cashew mole, or scallops with puffed wild rice and verjus raisin puree. Few chefs incorporate as many components while marrying them so nicely, and absolutely no one creates edible art like this plating master.