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Batting Practice


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THE WRIGLEYVILLE neighborhood around the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark is a celebrated party destination San Diego restaurateurs hope to re-create in the East Village environs of Petco Park. New in time for opening day (April 12): Toast Enoteca & Cucina, an Italian wine bar and eatery operated by Martin Gonzalez, whose Acqua al 2 is a fixture on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter. Located in the Diamond View Tower at 10th and J, Toast pours more than 400 bottles, some not readily found on local lists. The menu looks good, especially antipasti like the salty-sweet pairing of prosciutto and figs, and the polenta swanked out with an earthy ragu of wild boar ... Inside Petco’s gates, in the former Kvaas Construction headquarters, Wine Steals is open­ing its fourth cut-rate tipplery, this time with a bistro attached ... Across J Street from Toast, at his first Basic Urban Kitchen, owner Jon Mangini contemplates empire. In 2008 he ventured north to Vista, and in April, he’ll open a new location much closer to home, at 31st and University, called Urbn Coal Fired Pizza. With 5,000 square feet, the North Park digs can house legions of aficionados of crisp pizza pies baked in the coal-fired oven’s volcanic heat ... Time to sing “Pizza, we’ve got pizza,” because just about everybody who has gobbled a pie at the new Bruno Pizzeria Napoletano on Park Boulevard raves about this cozy little North Park joint with interesting hours (closed Monday, no lunch Tuesday or Wednesday, meal service commences at noon Thursday, and so on). The Bufalina blends such tongue-­caressing toppings as buffalo-milk mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil, while the Diavolo works delicious deviltry with hot pepperoni and piquillo peppers.    

“THIRD TIME’S A CHARM” is evidently a saying that resonates with the entrepreneurs behind Quality Social, which occupies the vast, star-crossed venue at Sixth and F that formerly housed EXY, a place nobody noticed (LG’s Steakhouse was the first tenant). Operated by talented types who have provided management for Gerber Group nightspots, the place describes itself in a release as an “iconic dive bar,” what­ever this is supposed to be. My favorite line: “Effortlessly walking the line between glamour and grit, Quality Social will inject a shot of street-wise working-class energy into the downtown scene for those who don’t need the hassle, but still demand Quality.” So should we anticipate beer-bottle-bearing beach bums to fight over the chic charcuterie crafted by Jared Van Camp, a chef so devoted to porcine products that he wears a tattoo of a quartered pig?

STEAL THIS STEEL: At Jsix, $6 steel lunch boxes will be packed with a meal-to-go (no fair nibbling on the premises), and you just know that chef Christian Graves will toss a cookie in the can. Every sixth refill is on the house ... Even though Cowboy Star specializes in cuts of meat big enough to corral range-riding buckaroos, chef/partner Victor Jimenez is a Frenchman at heart. Every day, he bakes huge, golden loaves of brioche bread to use as canapés and to slice for des­serts like pain perdu and bread pudding ... Tasty Indian fare can be as scarce as mongooses in San Diego, but friends who visit the subcontinent periodically to explore the sultry savors swear by Punjab. This quiet little room in a Midway Drive strip center will, if cajoled, spice a vindaloo curry until it’s just about hot enough to melt teeth (speaking figuratively, of course).

[Side Dish]

In a Molecular Mood

FABRICE HARDEL, executive chef at the Westgate, never has been transfixed by the headlights of publicity. Born in Normandy, he prefers spending his time in the kitchen—which in his case long adjoined the glamorous Le Fontainebleau, a stunning room in which the hotel finally suspended meal service for lack of business (Sunday brunch continues). Temporarily faced with a bit of time on his hands, Hardel used some of it last year for a voyage of discovery to Europe, birthplace of the “molecular cooking” that has made hot spots of places like El Bulli in Spain (where chef Ferran Adria cooks so inventively the restaurant claims to receive 1 million table requests annually, from which it can accommodate 8,000). As much science as art, molecular cooking presents ingredients, and especially flavors, in ways previously unknown; devotees find the results utterly spectacular. Often geometric, molecular presentations include the cubes of reduced soy sauce that Hardel uses to garnish rosy, perfectly square slices of ahi tuna. Served in the Westgate Room, the first-floor retreat in which the hotel now showcases Hardel’s talents, this appetizer is also garnished with tiny mango “pearls” (the beads look perfect enough to be strung on a necklace) and lime foam. Not everything on the menu is molecular, but Hardel does have fun with items like the port-wine “caviar” that highlights the garnish of a handsome cut of grass-fed beef tenderloin. His menu appeals from first to last ... Another tasty tidbit from the Westgate: The gifted Eric Rimmele, who left as food and beverage director several years ago to take the role of general manager at Tower 23 hotel in Pacific Beach, has returned to lend his expertise to the Westgate’s catering department. Expect the service to shine.

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