By David Nelson
A PRETTY PRIX FIXE TO BE IN: Three courses, 30 bucks, six nights—must be San Diego Restaurant Week, right? This is the first time out for a clever promotion that has wowed New York, Boston, Washington and other well-fed cities. From January 30 through February 4, more than 50 area eateries will offer three-course meals for a fixed price of $30, exclusive of beverages, tax and gratuity. No coupons, no passes, no hassles; just sit down and order. But reservations probably are smart, especially at joints like Bertrand at Mister A’s and Rainwater’s on Kettner. Each establishment will offer a minimum choice of three appetizers, entrées and desserts, so if your sweetie dislikes bread pudding, let her (or him) eat cake. Participants are as retro as Bali Hai and as contemporary as Indigo Grill . . . The swinging kitchen door ushered in Jonathan Pflueger as chef at Rancho Valencia in early October 2004, and out by the end of the month. A release from the ritzy resort credited the departure to “mutually agreed-upon circumstances,” but Pflueger, who once reigned at Star of the Sea, followed the distinguished footsteps of Bay Area star chef Bradley Ogden (now über-chef of Del Mar’s artful Arterra).
Ogden ever-so-briefly ruled the Rancho Valencia kitchen in 1990 . . . Star of the Sea has named Jesse Paul chef de cuisine; his last role was as lead line cook at L’Auberge Del Mar, where his Star predecessor, Tom Atkins, now rules . . . San Diego’s last “jacket-required” policy has been replaced at the Rancho Bernardo Inn’s lovely El Bizcocho by a “dressy-casual” code. So guys can wear tails-out striped shirts over $170 jeans, right? I’d show up in black tie any time to enjoy chef Gavin Keyson’s perfect cuisine.
BONFIRE OF THE WANNA-BES? IS THERE A SMOLDERING DISPUTE between the glam Gaslamp Quarter and hot Hillcrest? Hardly. But flames warm both ends of the downtownuptown axis. The fire pit on the Hilton Gaslamp’s remodeled patio (local artist Chris Gay designed the pit) is a hot spot, with attractions beyond sartorial savvy that include chef Hanis Cavin’s creative snack menu. At the JBX (an upscale Jack in the Box) on University Avenue near Ninth, flames in the glass-fronted fireplace beguile strolling burger buyers. Better burgers beckon at the Hilton, where a trio of miniature Kobe beef “sliders” arrive with sliced Brie and caramelized shallots in square ciabbata buns. Please, no ketchup for these sophisticated $10 cuties.
DOES HE LIKE MELTED BUTTER? Let me tell you the story of Bubba the lobster, He was a thug, a gangster, a mobster. With two big claws and a massive tail, He put his family in his dinner pail.
Bred in Maine rather than Arkansas, this Bubba is the star of the shellfish tank at the Gaslamp’s opulent Osetra (whose owners include Jimmy Di- Matteo and Bruce Bochy). The crustacean weighed 18 pounds when he arrived in June 2004. By November, he tipped the scales at 20.25 pounds, thanks to a diet of prawns and relatives. “Bubba’s eating lots of gourmet food” is the indulgent comment of operations director Nick Tomasello, who confirmed the feisty freeloader helps himself to frequent lobster dinners (must be why the bouillabaisse costs $42). The unlikely mascot “has dodged a few bullets,” adds Tomasello.
“We’ve had a few $1,000 offers. But I’d only sell Bubba if the buyer agreed to have him bronzed so we could mount him on the wall.”
PASSING PEDESTRIANS: People sometimes leap skyward when a doorman-operated squawk box on Harbor Drive summons taxis to the Manchester Grand Hyatt. At times, it howls vainly at a vacant cab stand. Where are the taxis? Parked in front of the Fifth Avenue Grill near Cedar Street—which non-cabby fans credit with toprate Persian cuisine . . . Homegrown chef Jason Seibert finally opened Café Cerise on Tuesday and Wednesday nights (dinner had been Thursday through Saturday only), after discovering his fine Seventh Avenue eatery benefits from a location not in the Gaslamp. Now that the long-delayed House of Blues finally appears under construction across the street, this part of downtown may rumble . . . On Fourth Avenue, Seven- 17 succumbed to public indifference and was leased by Rakesh (Rick) Popat of neighboring Monsoon. The space will reopen as Blue Ginger, a Chinese restaurant . . . At nearby Oceanaire Seafood Room, the Bloody Marys are garnished Midwest-style with a big shrimp (despite the name, Oceanaire is from Minneapolis). As in the Twin Cities, a gratis beer chaser arrives on request.
THIS BUD’S FOR YOU. It’s tiny, but the new Bud’s Louisiana Food Shop on Kettner Boulevard (next door to The Waterfront; 619-729-1910) offers the big, bold flavors of New Orleans, prepared by Cajun cooking specialists from the old Bayou Bar & Grill . . . This Bud’s also for you: Oddly enough, there’s a new Bud’s in La Jolla, too, and it’s not related to Bud’s, Bud. This one, Bud’s B.B.Q., is at 834 Kline Street (858-729-1910) and specializes in Southern-style barbecued baby back ribs and chicken, as well as onion rings, cornbread and waist-expanding pies.
THE RECIPES IN JUNIOR LEAGUE cookbooks have caused foreigners to wonder why Americans don’t starve to death, but the Junior League of San Diego displays convincing culinary cleverness in California Sol Food, a handsome volume published to celebrate the group’s 75th anniversary.
The “Sol” in the title refers to the sun, but the most fun chapter, “Midnight Snack,” is for tasty appeasers served in the dark of night. Chase the “Bankers Hill Beer” (limeade, vodka and beer, good night!) with a soothing “Midnight Craving,” a stylish milkshake originally crafted by George’s at the Cove that, if necessary, can carry a pickle garnish.