San Diego versus L.A.
APPROACHING THE ASSIGNMENT of pitting the finest San Diego restaurants against those of my Los Angeles turf, I wondered whether I could do so fairly. Los Angeles is my adopted hometown, where I have reviewed the dining scene for more than three decades. I have always loved visiting San Diego, but I’ve always been just another tourist. Still, armed with a list of what many San Diego experts consider some of the best of their best, I ventured forward. To my amazement, I found the cuisine to be state of the culinary art. And San Diego provides a bonus: Most of the best restaurants offer picture-postcard views. Los Angeles restaurants have few such vistas, settling for alfresco dining in charming courtyards, secluded from street noise and traffic (read smog).
L.A.’s fickle food groupies flock to all the new, hot places, which soon become lukewarm and disappear like soup bubbles when newer, hotter ones appear. San Diegans seem to cherish their favorites, and support them with faithful attendance. And they dress better, too. In Los Angeles, one is likely to encounter a long line of near-identical skinny young things in black mini-dresses. On the other hand, there is an excitement in the air with the anticipation of celebrity spotting. Angelenos may protest otherwise, but there’s lots of “Don’t look now, but isn’t that . . .” going on.
Food and wine prices in San Diego have ascended to the same astronomical heights as those in my megalopolis. Service may still be a tad less sophisticated, but one thing is certain: San Diego chefs compare favorably to any on the West Coast and, in many cases, to chefs on both coasts and all points between. The area’s restaurants deserve more attention, and accolades, from those who consider themselves arbiters of the culinary arts—namely, the national food press.
THE STUNNING DÉCOR, trilevel setting and a chance for the grand entrance via the staircase leading to the subterranean Laurel win multiple points for San Diego. There’s a threecourse, pre-theater menu, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., that’s an unabashed bargain at $35: a salad of baby greens, fresh Alaskan halibut crusted with Parmesan, set upon mashed potatoes, decorated with asparagus spears. À la carte, it would be $28, but there’s some of that precious truffle oil in there, too. Dessert is butterscotch pot de crème, wonderful—even though I am not a butterscotch fan.
From the regular menu, I can report on the Hudson Valley duck confit, a fine-looking leg bedded upon a heavenblessed mélange à trois of green lentils, spinach and cauliflower purée, absolute perfection at $22. Chef Brian O’Connor is brand new, and if I hadn’t been so anxious to get to the theater, I’d have gone to the kitchen and kissed him on both checks.
The standard of service paled by comparison, however. Not that our waiter wasn’t a pleasant fellow, but he was somewhat listless and forgetful. I won’t bore you with a litany of his shortcomings. In L.A., one would imagine he was worrying about his next audition or preoccupied with a screenplay he’s trying to pitch. But in San Diego?
THE VERDICT: Atmosphere and the photo-op edibles measure up to anything on the West Coast. But by way of comparison, überchef Joachim Splichal’s flagship, Patina, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, trains the staff to match the haute cuisine.
IN L.A., THE COMPETITION in the Italian division is hot and heavy. So it was a surprise that my “must visit” list contained only Buon Appetito on India in Little Italy. It looks like the liveliest spot on this rosemary-, garlic- and oregano-scented street. The room is small and homey, and the casually attired crowd spills out into the sidewalk terrace. They are mostly locals who either can walk or take the trolley, since scoring street parking is equivalent to winning the lottery. Good-looking waiters in black T-shirts are friendly and attentive and say “Buon appetito” every time they serve a dish. When I dropped a knife, one of the hunks rushed to pick it up—but forgot to replace it. Buon Appetito sells fairly priced wine from all over the world by the glass (bravo!), and the food is affordable as well (bravissimo!).
You’re not going to doze off reading this menu. Out-ofthe- ordinary entrées like quail and rabbit are offered, as well as my favorite summertime appetizer, vitello tonnato. The Tuscan shrimp starter ($8.95), four big daddies, nice and crunchy, rest on cannellini beans, a provocative pairing and indicative of the variations on common themes, like the lasagne made with chicken. The ossobuco ($20.95) is made with a pork shank, braised in red wine, heaped with mushrooms and served with a chickeny risotto of just the right texture. We picked the star of the evening, sea scallops ($19.95): beautifully prepared, surrounded by a whole kindergarten of little veggies and still al dente. The only dessert that’s not housemade is the torta della nona ($6.50), but you can bet it was baked by someone’s darling granny—and it’s a treat, with its toasted-almond crust.
THE VERDICT: L.A. has Thai Town, Korea Town, Little Armenia and Little Tokyo but no Little Italy. So chalk one up for San Diego. But if you didn’t provide more convenient parking, you couldn’t even open for business in Los Angeles.
NEXT ON MY ASSIGNMENT LIST was the large, airy and appealing Marine Room, which has weathered the storm in more ways than one. In the lobby are photographs that resemble the special effects of the Poseidon movies. But this disaster was real— giant waves have crashed through these windows. Now that it’s beautifully refurbished, you can check out the beach action and catch a sunset at no extra charge from the tables upstairs.
The signature Maine lobster bisque ($15) is luxury by the spoonful. For that price, don’t you think they should have let us take home the cute little tureen in which it is served? The menu has certain tropical nuances, with floral and fruity sauces and additions. But I like my sweet things only after dinner. Therefore, we carefully chose two without a trace of orange emulsion, late-harvest Viognier reduction, hibiscus essence and so on.
Instead, we zeroed in on lemonfish ($33). Executive chef Bernard Guillas explained that the fish comes from Vietnam, is farm-raised, eats only organic fish food and probably keeps a healthier regimen than most of us. It looked tall and spectacular, with a long blade of lemongrass, a spear of lavender, a slice of star fruit, honshimeji quintuplets, a soft-crab risotto and a golden saffron puddle. Love these vertical productions! Too bad they spread horizontally when they reach the hip area.
Another gem was the rack of lamb ($39)—three meaty chops leaner than a ballerina. Our knowledgeable waitress advised that cheese pudding would be substituted by mushroom pudding, which beautifully soaked up the sage-scented jus. From the dessert department came an heirloom apple-pecan tart ($10), fluffy as a cloud.
THE VERDICT: L.A. does not have cuisine of this caliber located where you can almost smell the salt water and hear the surf. Downtown L.A.’s Water Grill, a temple of high seafood gastronomy, is in the bowels of a hotel.
SET IN THE HEART of the luxurious Rancho Bernardo Inn is El Bizcocho, the ne plus ultra dining destination in San Diego County. Overlooking the golf greens, it’s elegant, formal, with a definite special-occasion feel. Service is deluxe. The tab for one dinner will be on par with your golf score—unless you’re a pro.
Rolls are so crunchy, they echo in your mouth. An amuse bouche arrives before you’re halfway through the wine list, an almost War and Peace–size volume of rare bottlings from all over the globe. Not for Two-Buck-Chuckers! There’s a prix-fixe and a tasting menu that puts you in the hands of chef Gavin Kaysen. We opted to go à la carte. To start: gold and red roasted beets with creamy Roquefort, $12 for a bird-size portion, but excellent. The sea bass ($32), crisp-skinned and moist within, came with butter-ginger emulsion, a trendy, pretty, green foam. Even after it melts, it leaves a yummy broth into which I mashed the little potato nuggets. (Miss Manners says it’s perfectly acceptable to do this. So there!)
The sensation of the night was the lamb loin, another currently fashionable innovation, cooked sous-vide: The meat is sealed in a bag from which all air is extracted, then poached to the desired doneness. Tender as a mother’s heart, in the good company of exquisite veggies and garnishes. The best 36 bucks you ever spent. Dessert was somewhat anticlimatic. A papaya Napoleon ($9.50), but I think the little emperor lost this battle. It tasted more like ice cream and cake. Finally, everyone is treated to a small biscotti, a nice touch, since the name El Bizcocho means just that.
THE VERDICT: There’s nothing like this setting in L.A. To dine in a country club, you’d have to be a member, and the food and the service generally can’t even begin to compare. San Diego wins this round.
A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW, but in yet another bucolic setting, we have A.R. Valentien among the golf courses at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. It’s easier to break a hundred here than on the greens. Service was exceedingly attentive, and there were lots of complimentary extras. The executive chef is Jeff Jackson, who defected from Shutters at the Beach in Santa Monica.
Dinner chef Tim Kolanka sent out an appetite-whetting amuse bouche. We shared an appetizer of pork belly ($12)— delightful even though that porker from Niman Ranch could have benefited from some liposuction to save trimming off quite a bit of fat. Then followed another present from the kitchen: a scallop with fava beans plus a palate-cleanser of refreshing cucumber sorbet. Veal cheeks, in a sea of fresh English peas ($32), are uncommon; they were so tender, a toothless infant could have chewed them.
Chicken is ubiquitous, but this was no ordinary birdie. Roasted to a turn and still juicy with home-cured, crisp bacon, it was the least expensive dish at $30. Several of the comestibles were rather salty. Not enough to raise your blood pressure to a danger point, but more than necessary, to my taste.
After this trip to bountiful, dessert seemed a bit over the top. But for the sake of this reportage, I forced myself (yeah, right) to order the poppy-seed lemon cake ($10). A standing ovation —if I could have risen from the chair. With the bill, yet another lagniappe arrived: cookies and maras du bois strawberries.
THE VERDICT: Loved all the garden-fresh produce, the next best thing to growing your own, but the sodium-conscious L.A. Westsiders would want to sneak into the kitchen and hide the salt shakers.
EXPECTATIONS WERE through the roof for Tapenade, chef Jean-Michel Diot and his Provençale creations. The little La Jolla cottage looks like a casual bistro. But enter the dining area and be knocked out by the interior design. The ceiling is festooned with white sailcloth, clever light strands and striking photographs on the vanilla walls. Três, três chic!
The wine list has New World offerings but speaks mostly French. But friendly French, not uppity French—just like the hospitality and service. There’s an amuse bouche, French bread and a ramekin of—what else—tapenade. The soup du soir was gazpacho ($8.50) with a sexy little love bite, just the tonic for a warm summer evening. So artistically garnished, it’s almost too pretty to spoon up. I said “almost.” The waiter offered to split the portion; we agreed, and an extra charge of $2.50 showed up on the bill but was promptly removed. Sometimes the mettle of a good restaurant can be tested by how an error is corrected.
For sentimental reasons, I thought about ordering coq au vin, a traditional French standard that went to poultry paradise along with duck à l’orange, but instead got coquilles St. Jacques, an updated version of what was once buried in white cream sauce thicker than a down comforter. Now, the Maine diver scallops ($28) are merely seared, served in a mushroom reduction with a gossamer-light green pea flan and garnished with morels. Equally wonderful are the thick veal tenderloins ($32), with the emphasis on the “tender,” milk-fed and raised in Virginia (eat your heart out, Wisconsin), with a mound of vegetables, strips of Serrano ham and a creation of Yukon Gold potatoes shaped like a gold bouillon and nearly as precious.
“Diet” is a nasty four-letter word in my dictionary, so, even though complimentary mignardises are proffered, nothing but the fabulous chocolate fondant will do ($8.50). Drumroll . . . fanfare . . . and hail to the pastry chef, Jerome Maure.
THE VERDICT: Bistros have replaced many fine French restaurants in L.A. There’s still my favorite, La Cachette, and the very, very pricey L’Orangerie. Tapenade would make a handsome addition with its sophisticated takes on the classics.
CANCEL THE TRIP TO EUROPE in favor of a foray to Rancho Santa Fe’s Mille Fleurs, the embodiment of elegant, aristocratic, Old World charm. The scent of honeysuckle perfumes the air as you wind your way into this romantic setting, which will rekindle the embers of an old love and light the flame of a new one. Barbara Cartland lives! Seriously, between the flickering candles and cozy fireplace and luxurious food, it’s nirvana.
The menu changes daily, and on my night, there was a smoked-eel appetizer ($21), flown in from Holland—first-class, one presumes—over multicolored beets, edible flowers, two cute quail eggs sunny side up, a kaleidoscope of flavors. I resisted the venison entrées in favor of a flatiron steak of Kobe beef ($34), kneaded, massaged and pummeled like Rocky to supreme tenderness, sliced and covered with smoked paprika sauce.
The handsome chef, Martin Woesle, is German, so I tested the authenticity of his Wiener schnitzel. The Viennese say the perfect schnitzel is one you can sit on without getting a grease spot. It would have passed, with honors. Thin-sliced Kurobuta pork, crisp breading and a scattering of sliced caperberries are surrounded by a painter’s palette of veggies ($32) from nearby Chino Farms. I indulged in a hazelnut cake bathed in dark chocolate sauce, a rush like no other. Well, almost.
Mille Fleurs has been owned and lovingly tended by the Hug family for two decades. Young Julien Hug greets one and all like visiting royalty, and service by our enthusiastic European waiter was “fantahhhstic,” his favorite word.
THE VERDICT: The closest thing in the L.A. area would be a trip to Calabasas’ Saddle Peak Lodge. The food there is impeccable, but it’s not nearly as romantic. More like a hunting lodge, with a definite masculine air.
NAMED AFTER a fashionable district of Tokyo, Roppongi is better than an express train ride through the Orient. The main room is gorgeous, with gleaming, fiberglass-topped tables, exotic artifacts in recessed alcoves and amber lighting that makes everyone look as if they’ve just come back from a cruise.
Asian fusion creations consist of meat, poultry, seafood dinners and sushi, but the most fun is to pick several of the amazing tapas and begin competitive nibbling. Remember, sharing is caring. The signature dish, the high-rise Polynesian crab stack ($18.95), is a tower of texture power, layered with crab meat, crispy cukes, creamy avocado, firm tomatoes, crunchy peanuts—you get the picture. Not to be missed is the ahi-crab Napoleon ($16.95), with a kicky wasabi sauce. A thousand blessings on the miso-marinated yellowtail ($8.95), speared on erect forks in custom-made holders, introduced when chef Stephen Window participated in the James Beard 100th Anniversary Dinner. A salute to the halibut carpaccio with ponzu vinaigrette ($13.95). To describe the Indonesian tiger shrimp skewers ($13.95), all you do is circle your thumb and forefinger.
Take a good look at your server. All the waiters seem to be tall, darkly dressed and handsome, which makes it tough to tell them apart. Not to worry, they are smart and very competent— they’ll find you. At the end, all our little plates looked cleaner than from the dishwasher, so there really was no room for dessert.
THE VERDICT: The creativity and genre of this food can, perhaps, be matched by Chinois on Main, where, unfortunately, the décor is strictly high-tack. But somebody at Roppongi should do something about the fish-market odor that hits you over the head the minute you walk in the door.
CELEBRATING ITS 10TH ANNIVERSARY with a packed house of well-heeled, local loyalists is Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach. Everything here is tasteful—from the contemporary décor to the smooth, professional service. In the bar area, there are more framed awards and certificates than in my gynecologist’s office. And the extravagant wine inventory is worth more than my house.
With friends in tow, I tasted so many dishes, my hat’s off to chef Jeff Strauss—and my belt, too. Three starters, on the night’s specials, were $21 each. A prawn bigger than a lobster tail was truly sensational. But the lobster ravioli with wild mushrooms and sliced scallops was something of an oil field, and the kimchee seafood martini looked impressive but lacked the promised kimchee spice.
Grapefruit (that is, pamplemousse) sorbet preceded our entrées, all from the regular menu, picturesquely presented and tops in quality. The weakest was the wild salmon, a hefty $34. The succulent veal chop is $37. Lamb stew ($28), a long-simmered, hearty dish no one has time to cook at home anymore, is wonderfully homey, with green lentils, bedecked with all manner of veggies. A voluptuous Shelton chicken breast, from what must have been the Dolly Parton of the barnyard, buttermilkdipped, pan-fried and oven-finished, was $25. The hit of the evening was the signature dish, a mixed grill of peppered New England venison, smoked duck and thyme-marinated quail ($35).
There was one slight mishap. The semi-baked, soft-center chocolate truffle cake, a chocoholic’s answered prayer, came with vanilla gelato; I yearned for whipped cream. No problem. But it was not just over the hill, it was over the mountain, tasting bitter and sour. Momentarily, a fresh, luscious batch was whipped up, all of which I will long remember, especially when glancing at the bathroom scale.
THE VERDICT: Hey, big spenders . . . if gas prices come down, you can drive to L.A. and dine on first-class chicken or salmon for less. Try the former at the Café del Rey and the latter at Jiraffe.
PROBABLY THE BEST established dining spot is George’s at the Cove. The room, in brown and beige tones, looks serene. Dinnerware of assorted geometric shapes, individual candleholders and different flower sprigs rest on each pristine table.
This was not my usual anonymous visit, therefore, we had the best seats in the house and the smartest waiter, plus we were sent a sample of the magnificent Dungeness crab salad. This was a good thing, because the appetizer special du jour, cuttlefish in cabbage and celery slaw with mussels ($15), was much too sugary. Nothing but praise for the halibut ($30), however, fresh from Alaskan waters and perched on stilts of baby squash with the best herb-crushed potatoes in the hemisphere.
In spite of the restaurant’s fame for seafood skills, half of chef Trey Foshee’s menu is devoted to meats. The labor-intensive short ribs ($30) sounded like a good bet. They spend a whole night happily marinating in red wine and more, which tends to mellow out anything and anybody, and then they simmer for hours and hours on the road to absolute perfection, served with portabellas and smoky mashed potatoes. Chino Farm vegetable sides are a good investment for $6. I loved the ragout of peas, asparagus and zucchini, redolent of fresh basil.
Desserts have a touch of the outré. I mean, fleur de sel with chocolate caramel tart, and balsamic vinegar on the cherry-topped chocolate pudding cake? Corn ice cream and corn panna cotta between layers of phyllo dough, sprinkled with young corn kernels? Nothing orgasmic there, but a reasonable $8 each. Prices don’t pierce the ozone layer, compared not only to L.A. but to local upscale restaurants. The words “split charge” are not in George’s vocabulary. Service was not without a couple of minor flaws, however, and—I hate to bring this up—the ladies’ room really needed attention.
THE VERDICT: L.A. does not have a fine-dining establishment that can compare in popularity and longevity. Legendary places like Scandia and Ma Maison are up in restaurant heaven. Recommended without reservations—but be sure to make yours well in advance.