The List of It
Making lists of the best restaurants in San Diego made me twitch a little
By Troy Johnson
Clockwise from top: Nine-Ten, Jason Knibb,
Think this is easy?
Last year, I channeled Malcolm Gladwell and blinked my favorites. This year, I remembered why that approach is a good idea. Naming the best restaurants in San Diego—with due diligence, as it is my job—can make you go fetal, rock back and forth, and hum children’s music. The framework—“Best Fancy,” “Best Bistro,” “Best Blah Blah”—is limiting, albeit purposely so. The city’s top 10 or 20 are bunched under “Best of the Best.” But if they don’t win, some don’t fit anywhere else. So they get categorically screwed.
This is why I love best-of lists. And loathe them. Like life.
My best of the best, again, is Addison. I’ve always admired chef William Bradley’s obsessive skills. But I struggled to get past what I saw as pretension for pretension’s sake—until I had his 10-course “Le Menu Gourmand.” Eating his Kumamoto oysters, soaking in a light Hollandaise with a prick of preserved lemon, a sniff of horseradish, a pristine wisp of watercress—I saw Jesus and lost family pets, frolicking. I got it. I’m a lucky fool. I’ve been humbled to be able to experience marathon dinners from some of the country’s best chefs. This dinner tops that list. Bradley cooks every dish to the temperature of your mouth—never too hot, too tepid. Every micron on the plate has been scrutinized, sculpted, tweezed into its prime location, art-ified.
Arguers will argue: “William Bradley only cooks for a handful of wealthy people a night! If so-and-so had that leisure and financial backing, they’d be Thomas Keller, too!” Maybe. But for now, the Grand Del Mar is allowing him—and the 20-plus certified sommeliers on staff—to take dining to ridiculous heights. Its presence in SD is terribly exciting, but doesn’t mean Carnitas’ Snack Shack is any less awesome.
My most controversial pick is best sushi. “Harney?!” haters will scream. “Where sexy music and sexier servers are as important as the meal?” I think Harney’s Rob Ruiz is a talented sushi chef. I wouldn’t put him over veterans like Master Ota or Kaito’s Kazuo Morita. Doubt Ruiz would, either. But ethics of the plate matter. Seafood is especially concerning. And no sushi joint is doing more for sustainability of our ocean’s resources than Harney.
My list’s biggest crime? Nine-Ten’s absence. It was neck-and-neck with Addison until my recent oh-Jesus feast. Then I thought, “Okay, what about making Addison the best restaurant in the land but making Jason Knibb best chef?” But that just seemed like a lame effort at inclusion. I had him listed as my “Alternate” pick, but then San Diego Magazine rightly decided alternates made the list a mere exercise in name-dropping. So Knibb, a perennial answer to “Who’re your favorite chefs in San Diego?” is not here. And where the hell is Marine Room? Bernie and Ron, the superhero duo of globalized French? And what about Urban Solace, Carnitas’ Snack Shack, Farm House, Monello, Miho, Jayne’s, Bankers Hill, Mona Lisa, Smoking Goat, La Villa, Super Cocina, Coffee & Tea Collective…
The list of omissions goes on. This is what it is—the names of where I’ve made good memories. Enjoy making your own.