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Mickey's Rat Pack



FRIENDS, ROMANS AND BARTENDERS, listen up: Doctors of mixology Ron Steen and James Byrne, legends when they poured potables for notables at Morton’s of Chicago, moved to greener barmats several years ago and recently reunited at the Gaslamp’s ever-busy Oceanaire Seafood Room. At Morton’s, the bantering duo (Steen seems to have been born to bartend; Byrne signed up after commanding USMC tanks during Gulf War I) gained a reputation for antics that Oceanaire general manager Mike Mitchell may occasionally permit. The best routine requires four bar trays, which double as ears when Steen and Byrne sing “The Mickey Mouse Club” anthem.

IN THE FILM CHOCOLAT, a French villager confesses to her priest that she ate chocolate during Lent, explaining, “It melts ever so slowly on your tongue and tortures you with pleasure.” Well, that’s what chocolate does, and the torture takes a different form if chocolate makes the bathroom scales rise like a bull market——so moderation may be the path to circumference salvation. The new ChocoPods from San Diego County’s homegrown Chuao Chocolatier are miniature bars that weigh in at 60 calories each and cost $5.75 per six-bar box. The trick, of course, is to ration them through the week (which means never on Sunday), allowing treats like the chocolate-enrobed, banana–brown sugar caramel to melt ever so slowly on your tongue and torture you with pleasure . . . Too much chocolate? Who cares! William Gustweiller places chocolate-making among the fine arts. His made-in-San Diego Eclipse brand commenced tickling tongues a couple of years ago, and the impresario of chocolate now has opened Eclipse Café, a sweet retreat in University Heights (2121 El Cajon Boulevard), where temptations include confections, desserts, exotic fondues and espressos.

IF MARRIAGES ARE MADE in heaven, business partnerships sometimes terminate elsewhere. Nathan Coulon and Scottie Johnson, the two bright guys behind Modus in Bankers Hill, parted ways in midsummer. Coulon signed on as executive sous chef at Quarter Kitchen, while Johnson remade Modus into the swinging supper club he always wanted. It’s cool: Deejays rock most nights, and former sous chef Mike Liotta cooks an affordable menu that emphasizes quality and offers an exceptional steak-frites with buttery Béarnaise for $22 . . . North County knows Roberto Vigilucci, and the talented restaurateur knows North County, especially the Encinitas-to-Oceanside stretch of Old Highway 101, along which his six restaurants are strung. Near the end of this year, Vigilucci will dab his toe in big-city waters by transforming the short-running Cendio on La Jolla’s Prospect Street into Vigilucci’s Seafood, Steak & Chop House . . . New in the Golden Triangle: Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar, whose Sicily-born chef/proprietor, Alessandro Carollo, has previous local credits at Tuscany in La Costa and the Il Fornaio chain . . . The opening of lobster season gets the creative juices flowing in the kitchen at La Jolla’s Zenbu, where owner Matt Rimel orders 200 pounds of live lobsters daily. Sushi wizards Tim Johnson and Tyler Mars commandeer some to prepare a three-course dinner of lobster tail sashimi, lobster “dynamite” and lobster miso soup.

FOUND IN TRANSLATION: “For somebody who’s cooked Italian food for 20 years, he’s never been to Italy,” says Trattoria Acqua proprietor Mike McGeath of his highly talented chef, Mexico City–born Damaso Lee. “So I want him to go over and soak it up.” McGeath and Lee planned quite an itinerary for this cook’s tour of the Big Boot, which commences in late October at Heinz Beck’s La Pergola in Rome, which McGeath calls “one of the three best dining experiences I’ve had in my life.” Lee intends to learn new techniques and recipes as he journeys; during three weeks abroad, the chef will work in top kitchens like Villa Banfi in Montalcino, Tuscany, and Il Cantinetta in Florence. “I’m going to make friends in Italy,” he vows, “and refresh my culinary skills.”

SIDE DISH: The Sky’s the Limit

DINING CLOSER TO THE STARS always has been among the delights of the Sky Room at La Valencia, a deluxe aerie that reopened recently after a complete remodeling and the construction of an adjacent kitchen. As La V general manager Michael Ullman says, the food “used to be schlepped from the seventh floor,” and the new kitchen has revolutionized the cuisine. Still tiny, the new space offers 30 seats, plus eight more at the coziest of bars. On the tables, white tapers rise from slender glass candlesticks, and glass boxes burst with buxom roses. Gold-fringed draperies frame windows that, pre-sunset, offer the most spectacular of views. Post-sunset, guests concentrate on chef Vaughan G. Mabee’s ambitious and wide-ranging menu, offered either à la carte or sequentially as a 10-course tasting menu of savory bites (lobster blini with caviar, Sonoma rabbit with langoustine) that costs $150, or $200 when paired with wines. Once again, Sky Room puts the “special” in “special occasion.”

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