LGBT Weekly » Restaurant Review Sun, 30 Aug 2015 01:00:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What’s better than Sunday brunch? Thu, 17 Jan 2013 22:54:16 +0000

When I decided to write this article I got very excited because the topic of brunch is one that I thoroughly enjoy.

Being able to hop from one restaurant to another examining the meal period was a treat all in itself. There is just something about waking up on Sunday morning with no plans other than to sip coffee, mimosa’s and enjoy a breakfast meal.

The history of brunch and how it has originated to what it is today is fascinating. It’s by far the most leisurely of all meals and was once only associated with the wealthy and noble.

There was a time in history where only the very rich could afford to spend extended time indulging themselves in the pleasure of food.

These days, brunch is associated largely with our community. Just look around Hillcrest on Sunday morning. The music is on, the Champagne is flowing and restaurants are filled from noon to early afternoon.

There are so many great places to try brunch in our great city that it was hard to narrow it down to just a few. Alas, I picked my favorites for you to enjoy.

Over on Fifth Avenue, Snooze is probably one of the hottest seats in town for brunch. Even after being open for more than a year, lines remain out the door all morning long. If you are lucky to grab a table, you are part of the privileged set.

What makes them so popular? It could be the endless menu of delicious nibbles; the casual fun atmosphere or the magnificent Bloody Mary menu. Whatever your reason, get there early and wait. You are bound to be hovering outside with a ton of other people just waiting for them to call your name.

If you are looking for something a bit more upscale, where crowds and lines are not a problem, try Avenue Five. A little further down on Fifth Avenue, I still think they do one of the best brunches. The price is right and you get to sit and really enjoy yourself without crowds and loud music. Sometimes an elegant brunch is just what the doctor ordered. This is the place for that. And they have bottomless mimosas.

Relatively new on the dining scene is Uptown Tavern. Although I have yet to review them for dinner, their brunch is one not to be missed. Walk up to the fabulous bar and one of the very accommodating bartenders will guide you through a menu fit for any hangover. From great scrambles to a wide variation of eggs benedict to even chicken and waffles, this is the place to come hungry.

If you don’t like TV’s and the game on, this isn’t the place for you. If that is your scene, this is a great place to gather with some friends and cheer your favorite team on. Plus a great Bloody Mary bar and loads of beer on tap really make this a fun spot.

Heading down University to North Park, you can stumble on Urban Solace for your brunch needs. They offer a Bluegrass brunch with live music. It is fun, festive and the food is outstanding. They probably have one of the best “non-breakfast” menus in town offering sandwiches and salads alongside the traditional egg dishes and breakfast-style food.

When you wake up and have a hankering for a bit of European ambiance, downtown’s Café Chloe is the place to be. Ripped right out of Paris, nobody in town is making a better croque-madame. Sit on their fantastic patio, sip white wine and piece your night together over their delicious food.

For all you adventurous folk who want to journey out of the hood, head up to Burlap in Del Mar where Brian Malarkey is dishing out interesting Asian-style variations on classic brunch dishes. There is no shortage of seafood on the menu either and Chef Malarkey has proven that even eggs can be gourmet.

There are countless more that I could continue to write about up and down the coast. Some notable mentions are however are, Union Kitchen & Tap in Encinitas, the ever-so-popular Café 222 in downtown and, of course, San Diego’s own Hash House a Go Go.

Whatever your style, whatever your flavor and whatever shape you’re in on Sunday morning, brunch doesn’t judge. It just embraces you and allows the day to creep on in.

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Brooklyn Girl is the new kid on the block Thu, 03 Jan 2013 21:20:24 +0000

Brined Duroc Pork Chop

Mission Hills is a San Diego neighborhood that has lacked a certain amount of good quality restaurants. Quite surprising as it may be, there really is just a handful to choose from and I know from my many friends that live there that there is definitely a demand.

This past year has seen a couple pop up but one specifically has exploded onto the dining scene. Housed in the ultra-lux condominium building of Mission One at 4033 Goldfinch Street, Brooklyn Girl is a great and much needed addition to the neighborhood.

Part of their explosive success is due to owners Michael and Victoria McGeath being no strangers to the business. Operating restaurants here in San Diego for more than 22 years, the McGeath’s have been in downtown and La Jolla and achieved equal successes in both areas.

Brooklyn Girl is a bit different than their other concepts however, as they wanted to create a neighborhood restaurant and pantry that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With the help of sexy Chef Tyler Thrasher, they created a great place to enjoy any time of day.

Chef Tyler’s menu is classic organic farm to table cuisine. Using only seasonal and locally-sourced organic products, chef created a menu that reads like you are in his home kitchen. Offering some street food to start, a must-try is the Bacon Wrapped Vietnamese Meatballs ($11). Plump and juicy, the crisp bacon is doused in a sweet ginger glaze. The quick tiger slaw is a great accompaniment.

I’m a big fan of hummus at home and here the B.G. Famous Hummus ($7) is just that. Served with flat bread, house crackers and delicious plantain crisps, I could eat three of these. Rich and creamy, the hummus is a perfect consistency.

Another favorite is the Grilled Kasekriner Sausage ($11). Perfect with the grain mustard, the beer-braised savoy cabbage with apples brings a sweetness to the tang of the mustard and completes this classic dish.

All Kale Caesar

I don’t usually write about salads, but the All Kale Caesar ($9) is one of my favorites. Really crisp and fresh kale is oh so lightly dressed with a delicate dressing. And the bits of bacon and egg mix well with the homemade croutons. You have the option to add on a fried oyster or duck leg too.

The entrées are divided between the Range and Sea. They are also quite large and offer a great bang for the buck.

Recently I dined on the 14 ounce Brined Duroc Pork Chop ($24). Huge and delicious, it could not have been cooked more perfectly. A maple and Dijon mustard glaze coated the outside of this chop and the caramelization of the sauce was evident all around. A fall vegetable and potato hash offered crispy Brussels sprouts and the celery root and apple coulis add just the right amount of sweetness to the dish.

I love when you can share with your partner and here Chef Tyler offers Mary’s Free Range Duck for two ($44). Wood oven roasted with ginger and honey, you really feel you are in another world when it comes to your table deconstructed. My favorite part was the breast, and again it was cooked perfectly.

With such great food, one would hope the service could match. Unfortunately, I have run into some serious service glitches a few times. The space can get very crowded and the servers can get very flustered and it shows when they do. Although it has not always been bad, I just think more attention needs to be focused on taking care of the customer.

Bringing Brooklyn to San Diego was the goal, and I believe they achieved it. I am so glad they found a home in Mission Hills.

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Travel the world in South Park Tue, 01 Nov 2011 12:29:35 +0000

Vagabond: Kitchen of the World

Fall is upon us; no more sharing the beaches with summer tourists and for a brief moment we get our highways back. It also means restaurants have to work twice as hard to get customers in the door.

With prix-fixe menus starting at $20 per couple in some local eateries, this is a perfect time of year for trying a restaurant that you have had your eye on. So, with that in mind start checking your to-eat list and consider the following suggestions for a fun and inexpensive night on the town.

Try a quick Google search of the restaurant by name as it may pull up recent articles that describe seasonal specials and other recommendations. Next, go to the actual restaurant Web site and check for daily or weekly events and meal deals.

Don’t just rely on Yelp, as there are plenty of other independent sources to tap. I personally prefer for restaurant reviews and dining out points as they are always good for planning future nights out. I trust and have talked to their management and public relations team on many occasions and I have always found them to have integrity and to be very honest.

One of my little “fall finds” is a restaurant that describes its concept as a “Travel journal put into a restaurant.” Vagabond: Kitchen of the World restaurant embodies world travel and its pleasures and you don’t need to go further than the community of South Park for the experience.

Vagabond brings you the flavors of France, Vietnam, Morocco and the Caribbean with a unique and eclectic menu. Long hailed as one of the more romantic restaurants in the county and recipient of the Silver Fork Award from San Diego Home & Garden and named San Diego Magazine’s Best Restaurant 2008, Vagabond is, truly, the world on a plate. The restaurant has introduced a prix-fixe menu every Wednesday night for $49 per couple. This consists of a shared appetizer, selected entrées and a shared dessert. It is worth noting that the entrées change weekly, allowing you the excuse to visit more often.

The Vagabond’s wine list is extensive and offers wines from seven countries starting at $6 per glass. Daily happy hour is 4-6:30 p.m. with $2 off wine, beer and well drinks, excluding the signature cocktails. Happy hour also offers selected food items like Korean Style Pork Ribs for $6, the famous Crispy Calamari for $5 and many more options for you to discover and enjoy.

The new executive chef is Tom Connolly, 34, the former chef of Wood Tavern in Oakland, Calif. Connolly has an extensive background in seafood, classical French and Pacific Rim cuisine and will be introducing the new fall menu by the end of October. Chef Connolly will certainly be one of the chefs to watch in San Diego.

If you have not been to Vagabond it is time to put your travelling shoes on and make your way there; and guess what – you won’t even need your passport.

Vagabond: Kitchen of the World
2310 30th St., San Diego, CA 92104
Tel: 619-255-1035

Mike Spradley is a regular contributor to San Diego LGBT Weekly’s The Restaurant Insider, by Christopher J. Hile.

insider scoop

Halloween isn’t much of a restaurant holiday, but that doesn’t mean it is not a food holiday. Now I’m not talking about the mounds of Snickers, candy corn, and Skittles that people devour this time of year. I’m talking about that big round orange thing you didn’t have time to carve triangular holes into. Forget about pumpkin pie – or at least wait until Turkey Day to make yours; here’s a completely fresh use for that big orange thing I think you’ll find absolutely irresistible:

Pumpkin cheesecake crumble squares


1 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, diced

1 cup pecan halves (about 4 ounces)

3/4 cup old-fashioned oats


1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature

3/4 cup pure pumpkin

1/2 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger


1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For crust:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 9x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Using on/off turns, blend first 4 ingredients in processor until coarse meal forms. Add pecans; using on/off turns, process until nuts are chopped. Add oats; process using on/off turns until mixture is moistened but not clumping. Press 3 1/2 cups crumbs onto bottom of prepared square pan (do not clean processor). Transfer remaining crumbs to lined baking sheet. Bake crumbs on sheet until golden, stirring once, about 12 minutes. Cool crumbs. Bake crust until golden, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven while preparing filling. Maintain oven temperature.

For filling:

Blend all ingredients in same processor until smooth. Spread filling over warm crust; bake until set, dry in center, and beginning to rise at edges, about 20 minutes. Maintain oven temperature.

For topping:

Mix all ingredients in small bowl. Spread evenly over hot filling. Bake until topping sets and bubbles at edges, about 5 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack. Sprinkle crumbs over topping; gently press into topping. Cover; chill until cold, about 2 hours. Do ahead. Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled. Cut into squares.

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Raising the bar for breakfast and lunch Thu, 29 Sep 2011 18:45:01 +0000

Breakfast and lunch usually signal the beginning of a lazy weekend with a growling stomach and far too many choices on where to eat. Sometimes it’s just too early to think about who’s got your morning fancy.

The pancakes maybe great at one place but their omelets can be under par; finding clever morning fare is simply hard. If you plan to meet friends for that oh-so-American adventure of identifying the best place to eat pancakes, you may find yourself discussing lunch before you all agree.

Sitting on the patio in the recently remodeled Fig Tree Café in Hillcrest I studied the new décor. It is very unique. With stone walls, glass lanterns, modern bench seating with rope and bare light blubs hanging from the ceiling, it sounds a bit like Ringling Brothers. Sadly, the sound is more cacophony than symphony.

On a recent morning, as the summer sun raised its sleepy head I was treated to my favorite breakfast delights. With me was Johan Engman, creator of the Fig Tree Café Pacific Beach and co-owner of the new Fig Tree Café Hillcrest between Fifth and Fourth on University Avenue.

That sunny Sunday morning found yours truly sitting outside with Engman, as he shared some of his life story and why he created the Fig Tree Café. Engman is one of the more interesting 30-year-olds I have met in the restaurant business. Not only do people swoon when he walks into the room on sheer looks, but he is notably eloquent and brims with the kinds of stories only a world traveler can tell.

When Engman asked what I would like to try, I took the plunge headlong: “Surprise me.” Famous last words as plate after plate arrived of French toast, pancakes, coffee cake, omelets and scrambles. I began to feel like Violet from the 1971 movie Willie Wonka and Chocolate Factory as she turned into a giant blueberry.

The first dish that arrived was the marinated brioche French toast. It was perfect. Not too wet or dry and with an orange zest syrup that burst in your mouth with flavor. I must say this dish was very, very good and a bargain at $7.95. If you are big eater you may wish to consider ordering a side of bacon or eggs to round out the lone French toast.

The Monterey Scramble was also an unexpected treat. It was served with three eggs, Ortega chilies, Monterey cheese, black beans, Mexican rice, corn tortillas and salsa. It may sound spicy but it was very mild. For those of you who usually like things on the spicy side you may be confused by the menu description and you may wish to pass on this dish or ask your server if they can spice it up to your taste. Great value at $9.75 and very filling.

The caffeine sampler is one of the more clever things on the menu as you are served three 4 ounce lattes, mochas or Mexican mochas for $6.25. I was surprised that no other cafes in the city had come up with same idea.

The House Made Buttermilk Pecan Coffee Cake is delicious served steaming hot with fresh berries for only $3.95. Add the Fig Tree Café’s own certified organic coffee or tea and your damage is just $7.

The lunch menu offers something for everyone. I enjoyed the Roasted Chicken Club with bacon, avocado, tomatoes, mixed greens and mayo. The sandwich is large enough to split or will satisfy the big eater. It has a wholesome California look and taste if you minus the bacon. No matter what you decide it’s a great deal for $9.25.

Overall for breakfast and lunch the Fig Tree Café is great, although I would encourage them to add some spice and fire to their breakfast menu.

I also wish to mention the staff who are very friendly and quick on their feet. I have no complaints with any of my three visits. Make sure to look at the very large daily special blackboard on the west wall and if you enjoy your experience at the Fig Tree Café, you may wish to sign up for their newsletter which can include special-offer coupons.

Fig Tree Café
416 University Ave.
San Diego, CA 92103

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Food’s in fashion at Strip Clubs Thu, 15 Sep 2011 23:11:28 +0000

The style of The Strip Club is a great alternative to the usual steakhouse.

Restaurant concepts take a lot of time to create. The elements of the idea, the food, service, décor, location, price point, logo design and marketing are just a few simple aspects that restaurants need to take into account when creating. And these days the competition is fierce.

Over the course of my career I have concepted restaurants myself and have eaten in hundreds all over the world. So when I see something unique and different that succeeds, it is thrilling. It is very difficult to break diners out of the box sometimes but we have a restaurant group here in San Diego that broke the mold.

Hailing from the very successful Cohn Restaurant Group, The Strip Club, with locations in the Gaslamp and La Jolla, has taken the idea of a steak house to a whole new level. This 40s supper club “grill your own” concept is not only fun and social, but the food is pretty good too.

The style of The Strip Club is a great alternative to the stuffy, expensive steak house. Large red and black vinyl banquettes, low lighting suspended from the ceiling and a bustling bar serving up classic martinis all together take you into an older era with a modern twist. The brick walls are covered with provocative and artistic sketches which might just be another reason as to why both of these restaurants have a 21 and up age restriction.

The stars of the dining room however, are the large grills that are in the center. Certified with commercial hoods, you will feel like you are your own five star chef. These days interactive cooking has taken over with open kitchens; this takes it to a whole new level.

When you first enter you aren’t greeted with the typical question “how many in your party?” but rather “have you dined with us before?” I think this is smart; you need an open mind when you come. The menu is filled with heart stopping goodies. Take one night and forget that cholesterol, fat and grease aren’t good for you and go full throttle.

The appetizers are simple and basic. Sweet Chili Calamari ($9.95) offers crispy deep fried rings that have a bit of heat to them. A Vegas Shrimp Cocktail ($9.95) comes to your table with six massive size jumbo shrimp predictably clinging to the edge of a cocktail sauce filled martini glass. I’m not a huge fan of onion rings, but here the Beer Battered Onion Rings ($5.95) will bring out the sinner in you.

A huge added value is that all entrees come with a family style salad dressed in their house vinaigrette. 80s style wooden bowls are filled with crisp iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, boxed croutons and sliced red and green peppers. There is nothing fancy about this; in fact it is very homemade. The sides are as well with a version of a Loaded Potato ($7.95), Truffled Mac and Cheese ($7.95) and of course Creamed Spinach ($5.95)

Being that the steaks are the show here, their list does not disappoint with a large selection of well chosen cuts. Choices range from a 12 ounce New York Strip ($19.95), an 8 ounce Filet Mignon ($23.95) or a 20 ounce Porterhouse ($21.95) to name just a few. You cannot beat the steak prices. When you order your steaks, be warned that they come to your table raw and wrapped in plastic wrap. Now trust me, this is where the fun begins.

Grab the steak that’s yours, head to the grill, and choose from an array of seasonings and spices. Everything from roasted garlic, to chili powder, to the unique Strip Club blend is there for you to use as you see fit. The grills are large and go around on all four sides so your whole table can head up at once. Bring your cocktail too; this is a social event as if you were in your own backyard. This is also a great way to meet other people. Every time I have been I always seem to meet my neighbor on the next table.

Even if you have never cooked on a grill before, don’t fear. There are directions on the side of each one explaining timing and temperature scales. And there will be many people there that are self proclaimed “experts.”

If you are looking for something different to do with your friends on a Friday night, this is definitely the way to go. There is just something to be said about the fun of standing around a commercial grill in a restaurant, cooking your own meat with a chilled martini in hand while talking with your friends and strangers. The one drawback? If your steak comes back to your table overcooked, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Gaslamp Strip Club
340 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

La Jolla Strip Club
4282 Esplanade Court
San Diego, CA 92122

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Bold and original: Brazen BBQ fires up the local barbecue scene Fri, 09 Sep 2011 16:17:41 +0000

Bolt’s Build-Your-Own-Platter

When you think of American cuisine it is impossible not to think of barbecue. However barbecue is one of the most misunderstood cuisines we consume. Since I know what I like but do not know a lot about barbecue I asked Kathleen and Kelly Macintosh, certified master judges from Kansas City Barbecue Society, to join me for this review. We started the review by examining the meat served. The smoke rings and texture of the beef brisket were perfect – “it passed the pull test.” The chicken and spare ribs were also deemed perfect for taste and texture.

Now that we have that out of the way let’s talk about the ambiance and food. This family style restaurant is beautiful with its wood beams and stone cement floor. You may choose from the long family style picnic tables, booths or the many four top tables in the middle of the dining room. One of the features I also enjoyed is the sink for hand washing in the middle of the restaurant. A large wood deck was recently added to the building that is great for people watching or soaking up a few rays.

I started with the meat platter for two with two sides. You may choose from several kinds of meat and I chose the brisket and chicken together with baked beans and coleslaw – a steal for $20.99. I was pleasantly surprised the meat was not swimming in the barbecue sauce. I personally detest food that is hidden under gallons of sauce; it makes me think the chef is trying to hide something.

The finely cut coleslaw was very enjoyable with a vinegar bite at the end. The baked beans had a faint hickory taste that is perfect for beer lovers.

The next item I was served was the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries. I hated it so much I left the plate clean and ordered it again the next day. The sandwich was served on a “soft bread” buttermilk brioche roll with perfectly prepared pulled pork. This is a true Southern style sandwich for under ten dollars, that once tasted will have you craving it for days and weeks after.

Jalapeño burger with fries

Brazen BBQ also features a full bar with flat screen monitors so you can enjoy your favorite sporting events. I will also add the bartenders are friendly and mix perfect drinks – I had several! If you are dining alone or with friends please feel free to sit in the bar area – you can bypass the front cashier. This is a great option if you are looking for great conversation with your neighbors.

I give high marks to John Bracamonte of Escondido and Brad Thomas of Philadelphia for creating delicious food in a fun and friendly atmosphere. Be sure to look at the hundreds of awards they have received for their barbecue including rookies of the year 2009 and grand champions.

Brazen BBQ, is serving a limited menu for the first month of operation. I am truly disappointed I was unable to sample the banana pudding and other culinary barbecue gems on the menu. However this only means I get to go back and put my pig snout on to enjoy the delicious food with family and friends.

Things to consider: The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays and good barbecue takes time to prepare. If you arrive late in the day you may be disappointed they are out of ribs or brisket. In my opinion selling out of an item is a good thing; it assures you the food is scrumptious and fresh.

Brazen BBQ Hillcrest
441 Washington Street
San Diego, CA 92103

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Piatti Ristorante & Bar isn’t missing any links in its chain Thu, 01 Sep 2011 20:06:32 +0000

Lamb Bolognese

National chain restaurants are spread throughout the country. You have your low-end family oriented, mid-range casual eateries and high-end chains offering ethnic fare. Although a lot of us will never want to admit we have dined in them, most of us have.

Of course, San Diego is not without its fair share. Most recently I discovered a chain that I was unaware existed, and what a pleasant surprise it was. Piatti Ristorante & Bar is a classic Italian trattoria that has been cloned with nine locations spread throughout the central states and West Coast. They define themselves as a collection of restaurants as opposed to a chain, and I must agree.

Housed in a white Cape Cod style house in La Jolla’s beach village, Piatti’s offers great fare at reasonable prices. La Jolla is certainly not known for its less expensive restaurants and that’s one reason I really want to share this little gem.

As you walk into this little house, you are greeted with their signature open kitchen and large white bar. Rustic and quaint, the terracotta floor brings you back to a little town in Northern Italy. Big solid wood chairs are reminiscent of a farm house and are lined around bistro-style tables. The exquisite patio was built around a solid oak tree that must have been there for centuries and really offers a unique backdrop.

The menu is simple with no fuss. Classic Northern Italian dishes are offered and as in any Italian restaurant, it is always great to start with something from the Antipasto section. Bruschetta ($7.95) is one of my favorite items here. The thick toasted ciabatta bread is smothered with a generous helping of tomatoes, garlic and basil. If fried calamari is your thing, don’t miss it here. The Fritto Misto ($12.95) comes with not only crunchy calamari, but shrimp and vegetables are also served.

The classic theme continues with the salads. I think I have tried all of them on the menu and two favorites definitely have emerged. The D’Indivia Rucola ($10.95) has fresh endive and arugula tossed with marinated beets. The lemon vinaigrette keeps it just light and refreshing. Of course the Caprese ($11.50) should be one of the best on the menu, and during my last visit it was prepared with the most amazing heirloom tomatoes. Colors of green, red and orange, mixed with a creamy burrata was summertime on a plate.

Pastas can always be hit or miss in restaurants like this. Although, most that I have had here were decent, I was disappointed in the use of dry pasta. The Linguine al Salmone ($19.95) was a departure for me, but a rewarding one. Rich kalamata olives and tiny capers were tossed in a light olive oil with spinach and onions. To my surprise the chunks of salmon were cooked to perfection and the light sauce really made this dish delicious.

Lasagna ($16.50), of course, is always a staple and this version is one that does not disappoint. Rich meat ragu and layers of mozzarella swim in a sweet tomato sauce. The Penne al Brassato D’Agnello ($17.95) with the use of lamb makes this an interesting play on Bolognese. A bit gamey for my tastes, it didn’t quite hit the mark.

If you aren’t counting calories, the Orecchiette ($16.95) is the way to go. A creamy and heavy gorgonzola sauce covers sautéed chicken breasts. The ear shaped pasta is the perfect size match for the sundried tomatoes and asparagus.

If your craving for pasta isn’t that strong the night you go, pick out a pizza or entrée. The Veal Piccatta ($22.95) is a true Italian dish, with thinly pounded veal medallions that are breaded and served with a tangy sauce of lemon, capers and butter.

As with most chain establishments, the wine list is a set corporate list. This list seems to be no exception. Several wines by the glass are offered, but all the standards are there. You can find a favorite, but don’t expect to find anything interesting.

With the friendly and comfortable style of the décor and menu, the service match’s the concept. You can see the family run connection in this location as the servers are smiling and really seem to enjoy their job. Each time I have received efficient and thoughtful service by professionals.

If you are a diehard snob against anything that is a chain, get over it here. Piatti’s really breaks the mold and never once have I not felt the true love that is put into this restaurant. One always thought that a restaurant with this price point and food quality could not exist in the tough market of La Jolla, but Piatti’s proves they can, among many other things.

Piatti Ristorante & Bar
2182 Avenida De La Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037

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Experience the true wonder of French cuisine in Hillcrest Thu, 25 Aug 2011 22:24:00 +0000

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Recently Chef Rene Herbeck invited me and a friend to have dinner with him at the new Au Revoir French Bistro, the former home of La Vache.

This chic bistro in the heart of Hillcrest reminds me of my favorite bistros and restaurants in Paris near the Pompidou in the city center or the famous Châtelet in the ninth arrondissement, with inviting French bistro décor, crystal chandeliers and wooden café chairs. It’s a mix of this and that, to be honest, but very pleasing to the eye.

I am very biased when it comes to Chef Herbeck who is one of my favorite chefs outside of Paris. I trust his taste and talent and allowed him to choose the menu for us.

Chef started us with fried curry calamari in a stewed tomato sauce with garlic and olives. It reminded me of a chutney sauce, just slightly different, served with a delightful red wine, “Les Violettes” Côtes du Rhône available by the glass or bottle. The sauce danced perfectly on the palette.

Next he served a cheese board with brie and a truffle oil mascarpone in between, with apricots, olive bread, figs and raisins. Once again perfect to the palette.

The entrée was a pleasant surprise; I was served a filet mignon medium rare, thinly sliced with a morels port sauce, sautéed green beans and pommes frites (“French fries”). Heaven on earth.

My dinner companion was served Noix de Saint-Jacques flambées sur lit de Ratatouille, Pommes Rattes and sauce au Pastis. In English, seared sea scallops on a bed of ratatouille; three very large scallops in a cast iron skillet served flambéed. A very dramatic and delicious presentation.

The portions were enormous, yet we still found room to consume caramel flan for $5.25, which is a steal because most restaurants typically charge $8 or $9.

My experience that evening was just magic in more ways than one; the French never cease to amaze me when it comes to their cuisine

If you would like to make your dining experience truly special sit at the wine bar and ask for the chef to come and speak with you, tell him what you fancy, likes and dislikes and let him create for you. I guarantee your experience will be wonderful.

The bistro also offers a happy hour from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Thursday that includes 30 percent off all wines by the glass and all lunch menu items. A varied weekend brunch menu is also a nice choice with outside café tables for soaking up a few rays or people watching.

Au Revoir has ample off-street and on-street parking. I suggest a walk around the many fine shops after dinner or better yet try Hillcrest Cinema for the latest independent films.

Au Revoir French Bistro
420 Robinson Ave.
San Diego, CA 92103

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Pizza: Opinions abound on this simple culinary delight Thu, 04 Aug 2011 19:16:05 +0000

Everybody loves pizza.

RESTAURANT REVIEWS: I love when food becomes a controversy and a debate. People all over become attached to what they think is the best and where the best is made. There is probably only one culinary dish around our different regions, even throughout the world, that brings such heated arguments. From its origin, to its style and cooking method, the versions can just be endless and vastly different.

Pizza is a simple culinary treat that people personalize and are adamantly loyal to where they get it, what city does it the best and what is the best way to eat it. It actually is amazing when you think about it. No matter where it comes from and whose making it, it all starts with only three key ingredients: Dough, tomato sauce and cheese.

Even the flavor changes dramatically by how it is cooked. Some say that only a clay brick oven is the way to go. While others say commercial convention ovens cook it the best. Whichever way you prefer, you will find a loyal fan club.

Considering my upbringing in the pizza capital on the East Coast, I consider myself to be a pretty good judge. I’m sure I will receive some backlash on this, but I will make the bold statement that San Diego is not known for pizza. However, there are two places that we are fortunate to have in town that do it right and in true fashion, they both do it differently.

Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano, located on Park Boulevard at the edge of Hillcrest, offers us a very authentic Italian version. Recipes and techniques are straight from the region of Naples, Italy, which is the worldwide city considered to have the best. Even the domed wood burning brick oven was crafted in Naples and brought over.

Every pizza on the menu is labeled in Italian and names reflect the ingredients. With so many good ones on the menu it was hard to pick just a few to write about, but alas I chose my favorites. The Salsicce ($15) is what jumped off the menu for me. Fennel sausage and broccoli rabe top the cheese and offer that bitter and sweet flavor I love so much. The Salami ($15) comes together with sharp reggiano cheese, soppressata and gaeta olives. The spice from the soppressata blend with the salty reggiano and you finish with the richness of the olives.

For those looking for the simpler versions, try the Bufalini ($17). There is no tomato sauce on this pizza but thick slices of vine ripe tomatoes smothered with olive oil, fresh buffalo mozzarella and big basil leaves. If you have a favorite, as many people do, there is a wide list of “extra’s” to add or create your own. Thankfully there is no pineapple available.

On the other side of the spectrum we have Basic in the East Village. Hailing from my home town of New Haven, Conn., this one is an exact replica. In an old converted warehouse with a large opening garage door, here the pizza is dished out more causally. The menu is a “create your own”. You start with a choice of your pie base, red or white. From there your sizes range from small ($9-$10) to large ($14-$16).

Cooked in a traditional pizza oven, the crust is thin and crispy. The toppings are all a la carte and there is a long list. Watch what you are adding, the pizza can get expensive rather quickly. But whatever version you want, they will create it. This is the place to go and get your East Coast fix: garlic and clam pizza. The red sauce is a secret recipe that is both sweet and acidic. There has been a rumor around for years that the recipe for the secret sauce was stolen by a disgruntled employee from another very famous New Haven pizza haunt, Sally’s. As I said before, pizza is big business and people get very serious about it. Whatever the case may be, it works for them.

Each pizza pie is served on large sheet tray’s with paper plates making this the stand around the bar and eat type place. Basic is definitely more lively as you get into the evening with club music blaring and young twenty and thirty something’s floating all around. You do have a choice however; sit on the non-bar side if you want to have that sit-down pizza experience.

From the Italian styles, to Chicago’s deep dish, and East Coast’s thin crust, every type has a personality and tells a story. The pizza wars will continue I believe, with expressive debates happening all over the world. Whatever the case, I get excited when people are passionate about food; it makes my job a lot more fun.

Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano
4207 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92103

410 10th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

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Azuki Sushi is all rolled up Thu, 21 Jul 2011 19:39:13 +0000

RESTAURANT REVIEW: I have always been a fan of ethnic restaurants of all kinds. Whether it is Indian, Thai, Japanese, I am fascinated by the cuisine. Here in San Diego, we do have our fair share scattered around our neighborhoods and some are so authentic you feel you have been transported into that country.

In the interesting times we are living in with our shaky economy, most restaurants have recognized the need to be simpler with menus and price points. The genre of sushi has been one of the hardest hit and even harder to change. Fish is caught and flown all over the world for the cuisine and prices have not dropped but in fact have gotten higher.

So when I see a sushi restaurant doing it right, I must applaud them. Azuki Sushi is a place that has bent the rules and gone with the ups and downs of the economic flow in an interesting manner. Some of your favorite classics are switched up using different ingredients. Through all this, a new manner of sushi has been defined.

Nestled on Fifth Avenue in Bankers Hill, Azuki Sushi is the place to go. There has always been a huge debate in town as to who offers the best and at the right price. After weeks of eating my way through countless sushi restaurants in town, my vote is for Azuki.

This cute little restaurant has a deceiving look to it. As you walk through the incredible large and very cool metal door you enter into a classic sushi bar with several chefs working away furiously. A few tables are scattered on the wall, leaving you to think that the place can only seat 20 people. But the surprise gem to this place is the back patio. It is such a great space surrounded with wood plank walls, it reminds me of a little spot in New York.

The menu is classically laid out in Japanese style. Sections are offered in sushi and sashimi, tempura, classic rolls to name just a few. Signature bites are a unique way to start your evening. The Spicy Albacore Tataki ($12) is a beautifully seared albacore with garlic chips and ponzu. The Tofu Three Ways ($8) is served chilled with black sesame, moromi miso and nikiri sweet soy sauce.

This is the place for sashimi and sushi and you have your choice in both styles. The list is extraordinary and the best in the city. The Hon Maguro (Blue Fin Tuna) ($15) just melts in your mouth. One of the best pieces of fish I have ever tasted. Branch out and try the Kanpachi (amberjack) ($16) or the Aji ($16) (Spanish mackerel). The list goes on and on with the fresh fish.

The specialty rolls are what make Azuki the leader in town. Creatively put together, they are the true stand out on the menu. The Sunshine Roll ($15) is rolled with a rock shrimp mix, hamachi, and tempura green onion. It is then topped with salmon, avocado and citrus ponzu which just brings an outrageous explosion of flavor.

The Vertigo ($12) of hamachi, crab, micro shiso, avocado, gobo, is all wrapped in cucumber and dressed with citrus ponzu. The avocado really puts an interesting spin and adds such a nice creaminess. If you want to be over the top, try the R U Kidding Me? ($17). Diver scallops, crab, tempura asparagus are all rolled together and then topped with seared tuna and white truffle oil. It is then served around mixed greens in ponzu, crowned with flash fried chives. This is not for the faint of heart.

Although they are all good and different, my favorite must be the Bonsai ($12). Shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, asparagus with white truffle and sweet poki sauce, is garnished with crunchy lotus roots and sweet potato. I’m not one that really likes anything sweet, but the white truffle and sweet poki sauce really is a marriage made in heaven.

I often get asked what the best drink of choice is to have with sushi. The debate goes on and on about sake, wine or beer. If you have never had sake before this is a good place to experiment. All the selections come with a flavor profile description which I think is very helpful when ordering. Even their wine list is decent with light and fruity wines to choose as a bottle or glass.

As the battle continues for the best sushi in town, I see Azuki arising as the main contender. Sushi is one of the hardest items to serve in a restaurant as nothing is worse than stale fish. Azuki has proven that you can still get the freshest fish from all over the world and offer it to us in a valuable way.

Azuki Sushi
2321 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

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Chef Joe Busalacchi did it his way at A Modo Mio Thu, 07 Jul 2011 22:13:30 +0000

Shrimp stuffed with crab and lobster

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Restaurant families these days are something of the past. In many culture’s it was a tradition to pass the business down from generation to generation. Some restaurants I know of in the country have been operating with the same family for over 50 years. Sadly, you just don’t see that much anymore.

In San Diego, we are lucky to have one of those families still doing what has been done decades before. Their family name is as big as their many restaurants and most of them have been cooking for us for over 25 years.

The Busalacchi’s have become a household name in San Diego and when you hear the name you immediately think of the restaurant empire that started with Joe and Lisa. These days, the several restaurants they operate are still running strong with the next generation. The couple’s three sons all play a very active role in the day to day operations.

After an iconic 25 years, Busalacchi’s on Fifth closed and A Modo Mio was a planned rebuild from the ground up just a few blocks away on the corner of Fifth and Pennsylvania. The successful redesign of the concept, menu and price points prove, once again, the Busalacchi’s are the top family in town.

This revamped addition to Hillcrest is exactly what the neighborhood needed. The Tuscan style villa brings a comfortable dining room with soft colors of mustard yellow and punches of rosy red. The large outside patio is phenomenal with a fire wall in the middle that has a stream of water coming right out of it; a play on fire and ice. The soft cushions on the chairs make it feel like you are in someone’s backyard. The genius installation of heaters above makes this the best place to grab a bite all year round.

I have been multiple times since it’s opening in early May with small parties and large ones. Each time was divine and left me wanting more. The seasonal menu will change often, keeping the affordable dishes (most everything is under $20) fresh and simple. Antipastos are presented in an a la carte manner allowing you to choose from a selection of meats, cheeses and a delicious array of various pickled vegetables, all starting around $3 a sample. This is a great way to start your table off.

If heading right into the first courses is your thing, dive into the Crudo di Pesce ($11). Pieces of fresh and raw ahi tuna were a beautiful dark red and topped with a slice of jalapeño that gave an interesting bite of heat that I absolutely loved. Big beautiful beefsteak tomatoes were sliced thick for the Caprese Salad ($9) and lined together with fresh mozzarella and a chiffonade of basil. Carpaccio di Bue ($11) was classically served paper thin and topped with a lemon caper dressing. My dining companions have told me the beet salad is the best in town.

Entrées are divided in the Italian way of pasta, fish and meats. One of my all time favorite dishes is Linguine alle Vongole ($15). A bowl with a heaping pile of fresh pasta arrived swimming in a light sauce of white wine, garlic and olive oil. Big bright clams lined the rim of the bowl and had a briny sweet flavor. A recent special of halibut was offered. The perfectly cooked piece of the white flaky fish was topped with a tomato olive sauce that offered just the right amount of acidity to the dish.

For meat lovers, the Cotoletta alla Milanese ($19) will remind you of something your mother would make, in a good way. Flattened to about a quarter inch, the lightly breaded chop is seared on both sides, leaving the inside juicy for every bite. Veal Medallions ($17) are predictably served in a marsala sauce and a classic Filet ($20) makes an appearance on the menu as well.

The two drawbacks I feel were the wine list and service, both something very few restaurants in San Diego can master. With such outstanding Italian food, I was hoping for that perfect Italian wine, both red and white. Sadly, I was disappointed. Although the service was efficient, on all occasions I felt it lacked personality. I am hoping that these things are just growing pains of a new restaurant and will iron themselves out as it grows.

As the Busalacchi family continues to grow, with even the next generation, let’s hope we can look forward to many more years of their restaurant dynasty. And Joe, the patriarch of them all, continues to pass down the integrity he has shown to us over the years, and clearly A Modo Mio has been done his way.

A Modo Mio
3707 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92103

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Tofu is the star at Tao Thu, 30 Jun 2011 19:26:28 +0000

Tao’s handmade tofu rice pot

With only weeks before Pride, we all are watching our calories and carb intake so we are in the best shape to walk down University Avenue with our shirts off. For me, it is cutting out meat, eating a ton of vegetables, loading up on proteins and doing as much cardio as I can.

Normally on a Friday night, my friends and I get together for dinner in some restaurant in town. A few weeks ago, when I suggested we try a vegetarian restaurant, I thought everyone was about to drop their drinks. Begrudgingly they obliged, and at the end, they were glad they did.

Tao is labeled as a Vietnamese and Japanese restaurant and is hidden in a little spot on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights. Never once did I consider even reviewing the place since it is so out of the box from the norm. Alas, the food blew me away on every occasion so I must share with everyone this little secret.

Now don’t expect to go and see an over-designed and expensive costing dining room that we see in a lot of restaurants in San Diego. Think East Village or Chinatown neighborhoods in NYC in the ’80s and you will understand the style. This is a simple place and they make no excuses as to what and who they are.

With barely enough seating for 40, the tables line the walls that are loaded with graffiti of quips and autographs from the many patrons this place has seen over the years. There is no artwork for sale and the latest trendiest paint color is not on the walls, but the rawness of the room creates the charm and what put this restaurant on the map for me is its food.

Having a menu as large as they do, I was surprised to see how tasty everything was and at the value that it was offered. With entrées ranging from $8.99-$12.99, I was astonished at the portions and generosity seen. As you sit down every table is greeted with a complimentary house salad with fresh chunks of tofu and crisp fresh greens that are dressed in sweet vinaigrette.

The list of appetizers is truly a taste of Asia. Everything from satay’s of beef to miso soup to garlic chicken wings, it’s all there and delicious. A must try are the Wrap It Yourself Salad Rolls ($10). Served in fresh rice paper, with lettuce, mints, bean sprouts, cilantro and rice noodles, they are all rolled up with your choice of protein.

There must be at least 30 entrées to choose from, so ordering can be a bit overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, the staff are great and incredibly helpful. The menu is broken out in two ways, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I will suggest however, you order your entrée vegetarian with tofu. This has to be the best tofu I have ever had: it is handmade fresh, daily.

Tofu braised in a Black Bean Sauce and Asian Kale ($10.50) came to my table with a large piece of tofu, atop perfectly cooked black beans, white (or brown rice) and topped with Asian Kale. The combination of flavors was explosive; I couldn’t get enough of the rich bean sauce. Another interesting flavor combination was the Tofu in a Sizzling Citrus Sauce ($10.50). The sweet and tangy sauce was intoxicating with the zucchini, asparagus and ginger. A sure show stopper.

If sauces aren’t your thing, try a rice pot. Tao’s handmade Tofu Rice Pot ($12) is to die for. Nothing is better for you than a big heaping bowl of steaming vegetables and tofu. Zucchini, shiitake mushrooms and broccoli are just a few of the vegetables that come in this cast iron bowl. I could eat this dish every day.

If you absolutely won’t try tofu or vegetarian cuisine, all the dishes also come with the option of chicken, beef or seafood. But I do urge you to try the tofu as you will not be disappointed.

3332 Adams Ave,
San Diego, CA 92116

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Celebrate the season of rosé wines Thu, 16 Jun 2011 17:51:13 +0000

One wine that, with its release each year, carries a worldly celebration. The little pink wine known as rosé starts a season of fresh crisp wine drinking. Its production and release at this time every year is the perfect spring and summer accessory for our approaching warm San Diego weather.

For those of you who aren’t familiar or even shy away from the wine due to its color, don’t fear, rosé is vastly different from the tragic White Zinfandel that this country has come to know. Over the years the term “blush” became a four-letter word and was synonymous with a cheap poor man’s wine. This rosé imposter desecrated the image of the wine and changed our view of the pink juice.

Since then, we have become a more educated society and rosé itself has gained great respect with critics and wine lovers alike. Once you get into the celebration, like me, you will look forward to it every year.

The wine is made from any number of red grapes, not just white, and each grape offers its unique twist. Most varieties you will find come from Rhone grapes of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. In recent years, versions made with Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese have made an appearance in the market. Even Argentina is producing a stellar rosé made from their indigenous grape Malbec. Regardless of what variety you choose, drink them icy cold; as it warms in your glass, you will discover the crisp flavors of grapefruit, strawberries and raspberries.

The production of rosé starts in the traditional way of crushing the grapes and allowing the juice to sit with the skins. Traditionally, the skins would sit with the juice for a long period of time, but with rosé, the skins are removed within just a few hours to a few days. By doing this, you get the flavor of the grape, with just a hint of color. After the skins are removed, the process continues with fermentation. Once the sugar has been broken down and the alcohol created, the wine is bottled.

Instead of letting the wine “settle,” it is released and ready to drink. You want to consume rosé within a year or two of its release. Generally these wines would not benefit from aging and in fact will lose their luster.

Since you drink the wine so early right after its production, every year huge festivals are thrown during the season all over the world. In the south of France, the birthplace of the wine, parties lasting days are thrown during the summer months celebrating the wine.

Now I often talk about pairing wine with food and with rosé, there is no exception. The versatility of the wine is remarkable and can hold up to the simplest of flavors and to the boldest. Since most countries produce a version of the wine, it works with all types of cuisine. From Chinese takeout to steaks on the barbecue, try it with everything. This is the one time of year where there are no rules on wine drinking.

When choosing, remember to make sure it is the current vintage, which today would be 2010. Think about which red wines you like, and then look for a rosé made with the same grapes. Pick one, two or even three, they are some of the most affordable wines on the market with costs ranging from $10-$20 a bottle, so experimenting is easy.

I encourage you all to join in the celebration. Grab your friends, pull some corks, pour some glasses and create a festival in your own backyard. Once you create the tradition, you will look forward to the celebrated season each year – and don’t we all need something to look forward to!

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Paris is burning at Café Chloe Thu, 19 May 2011 18:32:02 +0000

Café Chloe


Café Chloe

721 Ninth Ave.

San Diego, CA 92101


Among many things, Paris is known for its quaint sidewalk cafés and its springtime fever. As you walk down the wide streets you see people sipping rosé, munching on breads and cheeses, enjoying the culture and weather of one of the world’s best cities.

So now that springtime has finally hit our little town of San Diego, I have been yearning for that same Parisian experience I have grown to love. I knew of only one place to go that could offer me the experience I was looking for. Café Chloe is nestled on the corner of Ninth and G streets in the new up and coming neighborhood of San Diego’s East Village.

The bar at Café Chloe

Café Chloe came together as a vision for three partners. Tami Ratliffe, John Clute and Alison McGrath brought a little slice of French culture to an area of town that needed a little boost. Opened in 2005, they are still cooking the culture of French cuisine and have really become a staple in the downtown area.

The sidewalk of their corner location is lined with classic iron tables and chairs while inside small wooden bistro tables provide a cozy atmosphere. Even the white marble bar is a comfortable place to grab a bite. Being one of the only quality places in San Diego that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, whichever meal period you choose, the experience will leave you wanting more.

Chef Katie Grebow changes her menu daily and uses only the freshest local ingredients. When menus do change that often, it is hard to critique them since you never get the same dish twice. Chef Katie’s menu however, has never disappointed.

Start your evening off with a classic French nibble of Pommes Frites ($7.50). Served with a trio of aiolis, the excellently seasoned frites are just the thing to get your appetite ready. Although the salads are always different, the Bistro Salad ($8) has become a love of mine, and thankfully is a staple on the menu. Crunchy bitter frisée is lightly dressed with a lemon vinaigrette while a perfectly poached egg lays atop.

On the many visits I have been there, the mussels have been served in a variety of ways and I have seen them offered both as an appetizer or an entrée. Whichever you choose, you are in for a treat. On one of my last visits, I munched on Mussels Provencal ($16). A traditional favorite in the south of France, these were luscious and left simple to let the flavor of the mussels and broth blend together.

Seafood is definitely a stand out on the menu. Offering a fish du jour, as well as a plat du jour every day, you’ll never be bored with the menu. Recently my dining partner and I enjoyed both specials.

Flaking and moist halibut wrapped in prosciutto was a delicious fish du jour, while a perfectly cooked skin-on salmon was a great choice for the plat du jour. Both dishes had bright vegetable accompaniments and the plates were sauced with just the right amount.

Steak frites is a staple on any bistro menu and many versions grace the menus in San Diego. At Café Chloe, the Steak Frites ($20) lives up to the classic French prototype. The flank steak is grilled a perfect medium rare, the frites ideally seasoned and the sauce is bold and offers a smoky flavor.

The menu at Café Chloe changes daily.

Game meats are just another genre that chef Katie is not afraid to explore. Duck makes an appearance occasionally and chef Katie has one of the best versions of duck confit in town. She chooses to serve the duck leg in a variety of ways, but each time myself or someone I’m dining with orders the dish, it never disappoints.

To make this café even more Parisian, the selection of cheeses is always outstanding. Like the menu, the cheese selection changes very frequently. Classically served on a marble stand, this is a must order course. Even if you just hop in for a glass of wine, this is the exact accompaniment needed.

The wine list is small but very well chosen. Just like a Paris café, the wines are served by the glass, carafe or bottle. Here they take their wine seriously and offer distinct varietals from all over the world. My one criticism when it comes to the wine served here is the low stemmed glass. I’m just not a fan.

Whether you are longing for the Parisian café experience or simply just hungry, Café Chloe can satisfy all your desires and do it with style and grace. And although G Street may not be the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, sit down, order some mussels and a glass of crispy wine, and for just a split second, you might just think you’re there.

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Food and art are combined with culture at Wet Stone Winebar Thu, 05 May 2011 19:05:08 +0000

Wet Stone Winebar and Café
1927 Fourth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101

One of the greatest things about living in San Diego is the dining scene never ceases to surprise me. Over the years, I have seen restaurants come and go, new top chefs hailing stoves around town, and mom and pop bistro’s popping up in all kinds of neighborhoods.

Beet salad with crumbled macadamia nuts

So when I stumbled upon what seemed to be a secret spot in Bankers Hill, I was not only surprised, but also found myself absolutely delighted. Snuggled on Fourth Street between Grape and Fir, Wet Stone Winebar is a glimpse into the culinary world of global cuisine. Chef and proprietor Christian Gomez has taken his ethnic heritage of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Panamanian and matched it with an impressive career of food art and cosmopolitan education.

The dance of service, ambience, music and food is well choreographed and brings a symphony of joy for anybody looking for a unique dining experience. The restaurant is non traditional with communal tables both high and low. Elements of imported woods, metals and stones come together to create a setting that transcends you into a small South American café.

The menu consists of small plates and offers a tapas style of dining. A variety of sections from salads, flatbread pizzas, skewers and cheese plates all come together and shoot out bold flavors. Everything is meant to be shared, so don’t be shy when ordering. The Quesadilla Do Guayba ($8) is a three-cheese blend of rich gooey-ness. The addition of guava paste adds that zing while the charred scallion adds the zest.

Braised pork belly crostinis

Anytime I see pork belly on a menu, I must order it. You find it on every menu in Europe and South America, so when I see our San Diego chefs using it, I am overcome with smiles. Although it took some convincing for my dining partners, once they took one bite of the Braised Pork Belly Crostinis ($9), they were sold. Dusted with Chinese five spices, I thought it was a brave way to go, but it paid off and clearly showed chef’s roots.

The dishes come out as they were ordered and sometimes can be random. Remember to keep a menu at your table as you undoubtedly will order more. Skewers of Flat Iron Steak ($12) cooked a perfect medium rare, brought me back to my days in Buenos Aires. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, the Argentinean chimichurri was a well-prepared version.

The Churrasco ($16) brought a trio of grilled meats. I love the idea of this dish, but I felt the chicken breast was dry, the lamb sausage a bit flat and the flat iron steak very basic. Its savior was a special that night. A grilled tuna filet perfectly seared rare and served with bright lush fruits of mango and guava; everything just melted in your mouth.

Flat bread pizzas are popular all around town and every chef has their idea of how one should be. The Shitake Mushroom ($15) is one of the better ones I have found. The flavorful shitakes and the sharpness of the fontina cheese lay atop freshly made flat bread. The Prosciutto ($15) with fresh mozzarella was rich and delicious and once again showed the global roots of the menu.

I have said in the past, just by having wine bar in your name doesn’t make you one. My applause goes to Christian for the eclectic list he put together. There is a lot of bad imported Spanish and South American wine out there, but here, Christian has found some of the best, and at amazing value. It brings me great joy to see non-traditional varietals from otherwise obscure countries.

Churrasco plate with chicken, lamb and steak

Get out of your comfort zone of Chardonnay and Merlot here and try something you would never try. The staff is educated and can guide you through. Where else in town can you go and order a Rabo de Ovelha from Portugal?

A lot of restaurants can offer great food and drink, provide a comfortable atmosphere to enjoy it in, but very few can tie them all together with music, an element missed by so many. Whether it is samba, electric beats or classic tango, Christian sets the mood and hits the mark spot on.

It’s great when you can discover places that just do it right. Bringing together the worlds of art, culture and food is an art within itself and creates a circle of life that is always evolving. Get out of that box and allow yourself to experience living in a circle, even for only just one night.

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San Diego Wine Bars: Some are sparkling, while others are dry Mon, 02 May 2011 10:23:28 +0000
LGBT weekly wine bar

The art & love of wine | image source:

Mastering the art of wine drinking is not as easy as it sounds. The path that goes along with the study can be a lot of fun, but the study itself is where the challenge lies. Tasting wine and drinking wine are two very different things and there is a science to both. I have chosen to study that field, so it was important for me to rate our city’s wine bars.

Trendy as they may be, wine bars continue to pop up and offer a wide range of knowledge, atmosphere and selection. Some have full dining with restaurants attached while others have wine bar in their name and offer nothing of the sort.

There definitely is a formula that works for a wine bar. Although not in San Diego, I like to use Suzanne Goin’s Los Angeles gem A.O.C. as the gleaming example. The space was designed with the wine lover in mind. There have been many places that have tried, several that have failed and a few who have succeeded.

Wine Steals lives up to its name and is probably the leader in the market for budget wine drinkers. With four locations, they have stocked cases of affordable everyday wines, which are decent. Great happy hour specials, rotating varietals by the glass and a simple menu of cheese, meats and pizza make all their locations successful. The staff are always entertaining and passionate about what they serve.

In downtown, we have two places that could not be more opposite. Vin De Syrah is self-described as a Spirit and Wine Parlor; neither is true. The only thing about this place that falls into the genre of a wine bar is its name. Having selections of grocery store wine by the glass, and not even good ones, this place falls short on all levels. It is a Gaslamp nightclub like all the others. Here it’s not about wine, but rather slinging vodka redbulls to the very young crowd.

On the flip side of that coin, there is a little spot on G Street between Sixth and Seventh. Bacchus Wine Mart and Tasting Room is a quaint European style place to purchase a unique bottle or to attend one of their many weekly tasting events. Run by two great individuals, Karin and Jeff share friendly knowledge, education and a wide range of well-selected wines for you to choose from.

Wine educated wine professionals are something we do lack in San Diego. Very few restaurants have sommelier driven wine programs. With myself included, we have only a handful of Advanced Master Sommelier’s in town. I’m not saying that everyone needs to have a degree in wine to work at a wine bar, but it certainly helps and proven by the educated staff hailing from Wendy Segal’s Red Velvet Wine Bar in Little Italy.

Hidden in the corner of her husband Jonathan’s latest building known as the Q, the small, yet sophisticated spot chooses to not serve Chardonnay’s and Merlot’s. Rather, the wine list consists of obscure varietals, such as Macabeo and Monastrell. Servers consistently pour the unique wines and bartenders that can talk about where they come from and what flavor profiles you should expect from them.

With more than 3,000 different varietals in the world it may be daunting to some and often times intimidating. This fact has led some establishments to cut out the “middle wine man” altogether. A few Wine Lounges opened with self serve wine machines. Splash in North Park provides 70 wines in machines that dispense a taste priced by ounces. Some are great value while I found others to be a waste of my $2.40.

The once swanky Ivy Hotel, now tragically operated by Hyatt, installed one of the best systems I have seen in years. With 88 wines for you to sample, you have the opportunity to taste wine you most likely would never get the chance too. Vintages from the ’90s are poured from some of the best cabernets in the world while others are hard to find cult wines. Although very beautiful and loungy, the atmosphere lacks one thing, people. This clearly was an afterthought to breathe new life into the dying nightclub below.

Whatever your wine drinking knowledge and education is, there are plenty of spots to hone your skills, gather with friends for a few glasses or simply pick up a bottle to enjoy at home. We still have a ways to go to get to the level of sophistication that many other cities experience, but with each new harvest, we get a year closer.

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Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge a standout Thu, 07 Apr 2011 20:46:54 +0000

Beef Wellington


The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge

729 W. Washington Street

San Diego, CA 92103


Cities all over the country seem to have their fair share of steak houses and San Diego County is no exception. From the typical over priced chains to several local favorites, there seems to be one, and sometimes more than one, in every neighborhood.

There is a little one that stands out above all the rest and offers a different take on the popular concept. The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge is a hidden gem on the strip of Washington Street in Mission Hills. With barely 40 seats, the sexy atmosphere is welcoming and quaint.

Shiny black leather booths sit in the corners, while the sides are lined with classic banquettes. There are no windows, dark and boldly colored wallpaper lines the walls and scattered mirrors give you the impression that the space is bigger. All this comes together to create a ’40s supper club that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Marlene Dietrich would have frequented weekly.

Living up to their name, the Martini list is the best in town and generously served in big stemware. Start with a traditional one or branch out and try their original creations. There is not much room to grab a drink at the tiny bar, so arrive at the time of your reservation and settle in at a cozy table.

House Wedge Salad

Attached to the Red Door Restaurant and Wine Bar by both the chef and kitchen, chef and partner Brian Johnston plays the dual role of executive chef for both. At The Wellington, chef Brian stays true to a typical steak house menu with salads, appetizers and entrees reflecting the theme.

The House Wedge Salad ($8.50) is the best version in town. The generous wedge of crispy iceberg lettuce, crunchy applewood smoked bacon and pickled onions soak up the well made creamy buttermilk dressing.

The standard table starter of a Spinach and Artichoke Dip ($10.50) doesn’t disappoint. Chucks of artichokes can be found in this creamy spread. Goat cheese tops the dip and offers a different twist.

Although I do love it when chefs take on classic dishes and put a spin on them, here the Crab Cakes ($14.50) are a good example of the saying, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Moist and made with jumbo crabmeat, I am confused by the use of kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes.

The Steaks and Chops is a collection of appropriately portioned and well-priced selections. Two filet mignons, a 6 oz ($23.50) and an 8 oz ($33.50), are both tender as can be and showcase the cut well. My favorite from this section is the 10 oz Charolais New York Steak ($30.50). Perfectly seasoned every time, the top grade strip melts in your mouth. You can be assured that chef Brian uses only the highest quality beef and it shows in every bite.

The steaks are à la carte, and so are the sides. Each comes with two selections at no additional cost, a concept foreign to all other steak houses. The variety of the à la carte offerings can really keep your dishes interesting each time you dine.

Asparagus Spears are crunchy and delicious while the Sautéed Mushrooms are loaded with different varieties. The Mac-n-Cheese are gooey and a bit too much for me. Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes are non-offensive, but the Roasted Dijon Yukon Potatoes are the best with the steaks. In addition to the great sides offered, you get a choice of five house made sauces.

Of course with a name like The Wellington, you would assume the iconic dish would be a signature. Not being my favorite item on the menu, the Beef Wellington ($33.50) overall is executed well, but lacks the luster of what I would expect from the dish. It might have been just an off night for chef and his team.

I hate to point out such a negative of a restaurant I truly enjoy, but one of the largest downfalls of the restaurant is the wine list. Poorly selected, it is dominated by your grocery store brands at restaurant prices. There are two or three decent bottles, but those hit above the three figure mark. When you go, my suggestion is to pull a nice bottle out of your collection and pay the corkage.

The great lesson The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge has taught us is not to be afraid of steak houses anymore. Here, they have proven that the concept can be executed with quality, done in an affordable way and set in a swanky setting. Ladies, grab your clutches and gentlemen your hats, and take your evening over to an era when dining was meant to be sexy, the steaks were rare and the martinis just flowed.

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Jaynes Gastropub: The best of both worlds Thu, 24 Mar 2011 21:50:52 +0000

The patio at Jaynes Gastropub is one of San Diego’s best kept secrets for outdoor dining.


Jaynes Gastropub

4677 30th Street

San Diego, CA 92116


No pub menu would be complete without fish and chips.

If there was an award that went to the definition of gastropub, it would go to Jaynes.

Pubs, as they are known, are causal drinking establishments with little emphasis on food and are a big part of the British culture. Gastronomy is the art and science of good eating and was around long before Bravo’s top chef made it a household name.

In the late 20th century, the term gastropub was originated and a new concept of a restaurant in a pub reinvigorated the dining culture. By combining the two, you get an easy-going, fun atmosphere with incredible food created by cooking masters.

There are many imitations of this style that have migrated into the cities of America. Thankfully, here in San Diego, we have one that is the real thing, no imitation required. Jaynes Gastropub is the epitome of that concept and borders two of our best neighborhoods for dining, University Heights and North Park. Housed just in from the corner of 30th Street and Adams Avenue, white brick with black trimmed windows and lighted topiaries offer a flicker of sophistication.

On entering, you are welcomed by a quaint copper bar, walls lined with white subway tiles and an open kitchen that allows the flavors of the evening to emanate into the air. Simple white clothed bistro tables and wooden chairs line the room. An enormous mirror, alongside large colorful European posters make you feel like you have just hopped Concorde and landed in a cozy corner spot in London’s West End.

Jaynes burgers are gaining popularity in San Diego.

If you are lucky enough, you might just score a table on the brick and ivy lined back patio. Truly, this is one of San Diego’s best kept secrets for outdoor dining.

Chef Jayne Battle is not only the mastermind behind the food, but is also your gracious host for the evening. Offering one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen, she is proud of her establishment, and it shows. As you get settled, one of the magnificent servers greets you with charm and guides you through the bistro style menu with great assurance.

Crostini with White Bean Puree ($11.50) is the simple table starter. Served with house roasted peppers right off the grill, the white beans are pureed to perfection and served with lightly toasted Levain (sourdough bread).

The Gambas Al Ajillo ($15.50) is a dish I have had all over the world; Jayne does it best. Flawlessly cooked shrimp are drenched in a sauce of olive oil, sliced garlic and fresh chilies. Once the shrimp are all devoured, the flavorful jus becomes the best dipping sauce for the grilled baguettes.

No pub menu would be complete without a dish of Crispy Calamari ($10.50), Chips (French Fries) and Gravy ($11.50), and of course a cheese course. On my last visit, one of the ever-changing cheeses served that night was a hybrid of cheddar and blue. Creamy and sharp, the Dunbarton Blue was brilliant and one of the most interesting I have had lately in any restaurant.

Jaynes Gastropub boasts a very popular Cheap and Cheerful Happy Hour.

As if the décor, atmosphere and service didn’t already, the entrée selection defines exactly what a gastropub should be. Bangers and Mash ($19.50), a traditional English dish, and Jayne stay true to its heritage. The grilled sausages are plump and juicy while the garlic mashed potatoes are fluffy and soak up the rich gravy of balsamic onions.

I have an aversion to ordering chicken in any restaurant because it usually comes out dry and overcooked. Jaynes Chicken under a Brick ($21.50) is an exception and happens to be one of the favorites of a frequent dining partner. The Jidori Chicken is crispy and is served with a rarely seen side of couscous loaded with pine nuts and currants.

Steak Frites ($24.50), a classic in any pub, is executed well, but not the star on the menu. That placement goes to the Seabass Fish and Chips ($19.50). It is a dish as classic to its heritage as Jayne herself. Delicate filets of fresh seabass are beer battered with Newcastle Brown Ale. Offering a nutty taste the beer is known for, the lightly fried fish is the only fried food I would ever eat. Dabbed with just the right amount of malt vinegar, the fish is fried crispy on the outside yet sweet and delicate on the inside. Chips seasoned to perfection come along side, with beautiful snap peas providing a nice crunch.

Everything in this restaurant screams gastropub, even down to the music. Jon Erickson, Jayne’s partner in crime for all things great, DJs your evening with soft sounds of classic retro music that leaves everyone at your table randomly saying, “Oh wow, I love this song.”

As the wine flows from the well chosen list, you can sit back, enjoy several laughs with your friends, a non pretentious dish that tastes just great, and thank God that we are fortunate that Jayne and Jon landed with us to share their passions. Everything here ties itself together like a little present from Harrods. And for us as diners, that’s a gift we all want.

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Break out your ’60s pearls for this vintage mid-century haunt Thu, 10 Mar 2011 19:23:44 +0000

In San Diego, our neighborhoods are all very unique. Probably so much so, that we tend to never leave them.

I often talk to people who live in North Park that never venture to Little Italy. Some Hillcrest residents stay within the triangle of Bankers Hill, University Heights and Mission Hills. Even La Jolla sometimes feels like another state away and I have friends who literally have not been there for years.

For this review, I felt like I needed to venture out of our traditional comfort zones and explore something different. Point Loma seems to be one of those places we as a community never venture to – unless, of course, it is Sunday and we make it to The Hole. In the midst of military housing, million dollar estates and yacht parking, there is a little hotel that could tempt you to venture a little further afield.

The Pearl is one of those cheeky places that is a throwback to an era that is known for strong gin martinis, key parties and shag carpeting. Interesting enough, all three of those things still seem to exist in this time machine of a restaurant, bar and hotel. Throughout the country I have often seen many places try and capture the style of a certain decade. Some do it very well, others do too much, while there are some that don’t do quite enough. Here it is done exceptionally.

In the new craze of mid-century design, The Pearl has done well to recreate the best vintage from the time. The outside of the building on Rosecrans looks like a million other hotels that we have scattered around. What makes this one different is the world they created inside. With the front desk to your left and a happening bar on the right, immediately your eye goes to the design and the shag carpeting.

Dark teak woods make the tables which are all high bar tops. The chrome and white leather stools offer a modern touch. A bar is reminiscent of what you’d find in the living room of an affluent ’50s suburban household. Large sliding glass doors open up to a large kidney shaped pool. You can just imagine ladies in daisy bikinis floating in the center of the pool, as hunky men in white swim trunks stand on the rim drinking their scotch and sodas.

The mid-century feel continues to flow through in the menu. Chef Aaron Lamot embraces the theme, but offers a more healthy view of modern times. Oysters on the Half Shell ($13) are served on a retro oyster plate and offer a fresh, tasty, variety that is different every time.

Bacon-Wrapped Tiger Shrimp ($12) might be one of the only items that give no consideration to your heart and cholesterol level. Drenched in bacon grease and then topped with a triple crème fraiche, the crispy house made bacon delectably wraps a large tiger shrimp. Disappointing on one visit, the shrimp was very overcooked and had a rubbery texture. Yet, on the next visit, they literally melted in your mouth.

The mains, as they are listed, have great variety. This definitely is one of my favorite aspects of any restaurant, and chef Lamot has done a great job putting together the entrée list. There is something for everyone.

Being able to cook duck and scallops perfectly are two simple tests that show up the talents of a young chef. Chef Lamot passed with flying colors on both. Oven Roasted Duck Breast ($22) served a perfect medium rare was the ideal match for the rosemary gratin. The Burgundy reduction combined with the juices from the duck left me wanting more bread to sop it all up.

The Meyer Ranch Boneless Short Rib ($18) keeps with the trend of everyone having a version on their menu and this one I have seen a million times. I wish chef had chosen to do something more original and thematic with this dish. I am exhausted by the overdone style of polenta and braising greens.

The Jumbo Diver Scallops ($25) is a dish that really showcases chef’s talent. Seared with just the right amount of caramelization, chef keeps the dish simple with a sweet corn risotto together with a beautifully done Meyer lemon vinaigrette. I loved the mix of luscious scallops, sweet corn and the tangy sauce. This to me won hands down as the best dish on the menu.

Keeping the theme going all the way, the drink menu is one of my favorites in town. Where else can you go and get an iconic Old Fashioned or a Rob Roy that you actually want to drink? Even the detail of the garnish is reminiscent of the time period.

The Pearl’s mantra is “Down to earth and up with style” and I couldn’t agree more. “Vintage retro meets modern boutique” is definitely the flavor of the ambiance. Matched with good food, crazy fun cocktails and a “dive in” poolside theater get out of your comfort zone and step back into time, all the way to Point Loma.

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Soul is the star of this Mexican restaurant Thu, 24 Feb 2011 22:02:51 +0000

The abundance of Mexican restaurants in San Diego is just another reason I love this town. We have everything from high-end establishments to the 3 a.m. “hole in the walls,” which we all must admit we love. Even our Old Town neighborhood is dedicated to celebrating Mexican culture and cuisine. Some of my favorite Mexican restaurants are there and have been around for 30 years, operating as they always have with family all around.

That’s why I was surprised to find one in our own backyard. Barrio Star graces the corner of Fifth and Nutmeg Street where you can’t miss the bright red orange building. Just on the border of Hillcrest and Bankers Hill, I think it is one of the best additions to our community.

Offering a twist on classic Latin cuisine in all her restaurants, restaurateur and chef Isabel Cruz chose to focus on the soul side of the culture for Barrio Star. Brilliantly executed, Mexican cuisine has never been so good.

The vibrant flavors she introduces to the diner certainly have earned her some well-deserved national praise. Even her cookbook, Isabel’s Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen has been rated as one the most notable by the New York Times, and with good reason. Her unique recipes have become a signature for chef Isabel and certainly that is the case for the menu at Barrio Star. Branch out with an open mind and just follow her lead.

Sliced Cucumbers with Cumin, Red Chilies and a Cilantro Lime Sauce ($3.50) are such a refreshing change from the typical chips and salsa. The marriage of the bitter cumin with the tangy lime sauce, matched with the heat of the chilies and the crunch of the cucumber is the perfect way to start your culinary adventure.

The classic Tortilla Soup ($6) is done in an alternative way by reversing the star of the dish. A base is made from roasted red guajillo chilis and the corn is made into a simple garnish. The guajillo chili’s thin, deep-red flesh offers a green tea flavor with berry overtones giving a wild perspective on such a traditional dish.

At lunch, I often crave the Barrio Romaine Salad ($8.50). The prominent Cotija cheese dressing has a salty taste and clings to the romaine leaves. Adding pickled red onions for a nice tang and avocado for creaminess, this salad has been transformed into Caesar on steroids. Due to my nut allergy, I had to opt out from the addition of chili peanuts; however, my dining companion said they provided a nice crunch and just a hint of heat.

The culinary excitement I get here always leaves my taste buds to wonder what’s coming next. Be that as it may, the Barrio Bowl ($14) is a win in the dish itself, but I expected an interesting twist and this one just fell flat for me.

Its savior was the Brazil Bowl ($15). Having protein options of grilled chicken, carnitas and tofu, the tofu was the best out of the three. Coconut rice, black beans and just the right amount of mango salsa kept the dish simple. Adding the coconut chili sauce just made the whole dish sing.

I am very critical of any tamale dish, as one of my good friends is the master and even has taught me some tricks. Although not as good as his, these were still pretty tasty. The chili Colorado (red chili sauce) was my favorite part. The jasmine rice soaked up the bold flavor of the sauce and the chipotle corn salad was the perfect accessory.

What’s a Mexican restaurant without tacos? Here you have six to choose from and they range from $13 – $15. Coming three to a plate, each are prepared with house-made tortillas, made from freshly ground corn. All types of combinations are available.

On one visit, I could not resist myself and ordered three different ones. Each night the white fish changes for the fish tacos and that night diced Mahi Mahi was wrapped with a Thai slaw and chipotle aioli. This version showcased the best, and chef Isabel’s Asian influence and creative thinking could not be more prevalent with this dish.

Outside of all the well-prepared food, you will find a mouthwatering drink and Tequila menu. The bartenders are the masters in town for a good margarita. Every ounce of lime, lemon and orange is freshly squeezed into your glass.

Your choices of Tequila are endless. Everything from the simple everyday variety to some of the rarest produced in Mexico. Belly up to the bar, as most likely you’ll be waiting for a table, and order one of the house crafted specialties for only $8. Everything about these drinks is smooth and tasty.

The very friendly servers have a way of talking you into more and before you know it, you’ve had three.

The atmosphere is loud and colorful with the crowd being peppy and vivid. Don’t be afraid to get to know your neighbor sitting next to you as the tables are so close you won’t have a choice. The pretention is low here, the music loud and it is unquestionably a boisterous place to spend an evening with a group of friends.

We are lucky to have this gem so close to our community and Barrio Star is a modern day Mexican gem.

Barrio Star

2706 Fifth Ave.

San Diego, CA 92103


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Cucina Urbana offers new flavors, but bad tastes of the past still linger Sat, 12 Feb 2011 20:21:17 +0000

The dining room has a more rustic look at Cucina Urbana.

I often applaud restaurants that have the courage to reinvent themselves in this interesting economy and do it successfully. As I have stated many times, the days of white table cloth dining is past and vacant fine dining establishments need to either accept the fact that their restaurants will be empty or do something bold and change their identity all together.

The renovation from iconic Laurel to the trendy Cucina Urbana is a perfect example of taking lemons and making lemonade.

Hailing from the very successful Urban Kitchen Group, owner Tracy Borkum saw the need to do something different and maximize her prime location on the corner of Fifth and Laurel. Her new concept drew her to ditch the old style of etched mirrors, French banquettes and crystal chandeliers, and start all over with a look that is both amusing and dramatic.

Using only recycled material from local San Diego dumps, the modern poor man’s look was born. Witness columns wrapped with dilapidated fence boards, Edison light bulbs suspended from the ceiling as if it were a basement closet and a graffiti sprayed wall painted with Italian quips that are barely noticeable.

A few items were kept. The iron clad stair case that is now lined with vintage shoe-trees and the outrageous (and always packed) bar that is oddly reminiscent of a chicken coop.

Other items were added. The flaming hot open pizza oven sits in front of a new dining bar and a communal table attracts a variety of diners on a first come first serve basis.

All of this creatively combined proved once again that Tracy and her team are a power house in San Diego.

Duroc pork chop served with three bean, kale, smoked bacon and a balsamic orange blossom reduction.

Being the first in town to offer the “$20 and under” menu that we now see all over, Chef Joe Magnanelli dishes up Italian fare from a menu that is large, friendly and set up in a way that invites you to share with your neighbor.

This menu proves that Chef Joe is one of the most versatile chef’s in town. From his days at the head of the stove at Laurel, to running the accelerated kitchen of Cucina, the passion he has for food is displayed in the dishes that are expeditiously brought to your table.

Laid out in a variety of categories, I always enjoy starting with a jar or board. The mini mason jars are a constant reminder of my Italian great aunts. Just as they would make, the jars are bursting with flavor. The Burratta and Roasted Garlic Confit ($7) is so creamy they serve it with a spoon. The Smoked Trout and Baby Golden Beets ($7) was a delectable surprise as I spread it on the accompanying rustic toast.

I love the idea of unique and playful dishes in a restaurant and here it is with the Boards. With selections of antipasto, formaggi and salumi, and polenta served tableside each is proudly placed in the center of the table, on what seem like wood cutting boards. The polenta changes each night, and recently I had the pleasure of feasting on Creamy Polenta and a Short Rib Ragu ($13.50). The mound of polenta is spooned right on the board, and out of a mini copper pot a fragrant shortrib ragu was placed atop. To this day, one of my favorites remains on the menu. The Ricotta Gnudi ($10.50) with sage brown butter is soft, delicate and literally melts in your mouth.

The salads are basic and rather boring. I’d skip over this section and order a second board. Bread is served on request and at a cost.

The pasta’s are fresh and made with care. If you are looking for the so-overused penne, you won’t find it here. Chef takes you back to the old world with dishes like Cavatelli and Corzetti.

Clam, shrimp and squid dote over the Cavatelli de Nero ($17.50). Truffle oil, pine nuts and English peas are merged with porcini cream and sheets of corzetti to bring you a rich hearty dish of Forgared Mushroom Corzetti ($15).

Formaggi and salumi board.

The gourmet pizza also doesn’t disappoint. Crispy thin crusts and interesting toppings of pears, fennel sausage, candied pecans and pistachios are baked in the open brick oven. Workout an extra day in the week and enjoy one of these carb filled delights.

Out of the entrée selections timeless versions of veal Marsala, Jidori chicken and grilled New York steak are staples you can’t go wrong. The eggplant “Parm” ($15.50), a classic in its own right, was a little lackluster and mushy.

The grilled ‘duroc’ Pork Chop ($19.50) was dry and overcooked, and nothing is worse than dried out pork chops. It seems the focus goes to the more profitable sections of the menu, leaving you to wonder if that is the plan all along.

With the brilliant redesign of the space, concept and menu, Tracy added a wine mart and dropped the bottle prices on the list to retail level. I think that idea is the cleverest in town. The prices are so reasonable, I often find it hard to control myself from ordering five or six bottles at a time, which I have been known to do.

I’m always acknowledged by the wait staff. Casual, frenzied, humorous, the edgy servers run the floor with ease. It is interesting to watch as they battle each other in a game of flipping tables. The door and hostesses, however, need a lesson in hospitality.

The LGBT community has been true supporters of new restaurants, trends and innovative concepts. When Cucina Urbana first opened, every table was filled with members of our community. Now it seems to be filled with a crowd of stodgy conservative residents of a north county suburb. Although still welcoming to us, the glimmer is gone.

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for our “double income, no kids” community to be asked back. Maybe this time we won’t have a time limit.

Mini mason jars with spreadable seasonal delights and Tuscan toast.

Cucina Urbana

505 Laurel Street

San Diego, 92101


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Farm House Cafe is a true French classic Thu, 03 Feb 2011 03:14:03 +0000

Artisan cheese plate, Bread & Cie rustic bread, fruit & nuts

Celebrating their three year anniversary this February, Farm House Café is led by one of the most genuine couples I have met in years. Chef Olivier Bioteau, along with his wife Rochelle, are the powerhouse team that brought their dream to the San Diego dining scene. Both with impressive resumes spanning over 20 years of international restaurant experience, they each bring a passion for food and wine, coupled with Chef Olivier’s incredible global culinary background, to a little spot in University Heights.

Chef’s humility is just as impressive as his culinary background and is reflected in his cuisine. Trained in top Michelin starred restaurants in France, the menu is just as native to the Loire Valley as the Chef himself. Simple clean flavors come together to create spectacular menus that change almost daily. You can taste the farm fresh ingredients Chef uses to make everything from scratch. Start off with the ever popular Farm House Café Flatbread ($10.00). Every inch is covered with perfectly caramelized onions, crispy bacon, topped with a peppery arugula and finished with a balsamic reduction drizzle.

Chicken Niçois: free range chicken breast, new potatoes, roasted tomatoes, fava beans, tapenade

If you are a lover of Chicken Liver Mousse ($10.00), and even if you’re not, this is the best around by far. Classically served with grainy mustard, house pickled vegetables and a crispy baguette, the creamy mousse is rich in flavor and light in texture. Of the many times I have been there, the California Burrata ($11.00) has had many versions. Some nights it has been served with succulent heirloom tomatoes so fresh I swear he grows them in his backyard. Other times, the delicate Burrata comes with spring onions, arugula and sprinkled with orange scented bread crumbs. Whatever version you see when you get there, order it, it will be delicious.


Reviewing the entrees is such a challenge, since I have never had the same one twice, which is a refreshing part to this restaurant. Over the course of three years, I probably have eaten over 15 different entrees, and not one has been disappointing. On a recent visit with my parents, I feasted on one of the daily specials. Not even having a name for the dish, Chef came out to my table and explained it with his French accent. A leg of Duck Confit came to my table and was served atop some Beluga Lentils. Outside of France, I have never had a duck so crispy. The lentils were cooked to perfection with just the right bite to them. They had soaked up the meat juices allowing the flavor to explode in your mouth. This dish was worthy of a Michelin star, as was the Cassoulet I had months prior. Even my very Italian father raved about the Housemade Fettuccine ($16.00). Done in a French Bolognese style with Moroccan spiced lamb, Parmigiano Reggiano, and candied lemon zest. I have never had candied lemon zest in a savory dish before, but its addition proved once again that Chef Bioteau is one of the best chef’s in San Diego. It brought the dish to a whole better level.

Porcini crusted New Zealand grouper, celeriac puree, pea tendrils, bacon vinaigrette

With the menu changing all the time, the one thing that remains constant is the service. As an attorney by day and restaurateur by night, Rochelle brings her experience from working the floor for years at Laurel to run the front of house at The Farm. The majority of the staff is original from the first few months of the restaurant’s opening; an incredible feat in any industry. When you go, you can easily tell that this is a restaurant family. Everyone works together delivering food, pouring wine, clearing plates, all with no attitude, but with giggles and a genuine care for you. The warm homey feel that Olivier and Rochelle wanted to create, succeeded and is passed down from them to the entire staff. Each and every staff member is knowledgeable about the menu, the wine list and everything in between. They are truly a class act.

Belgian endive, red frill mustard greens, house made brioche, Vermont goat cheese

You won’t go away from Farm House Café thirsty, either. It is probably one of the only places left in San Diego where you can go and order some amazing French wines. I’m not talking about ‘82 Bordeaux’s where you need to skip a mortgage payment to pay the bill, but instead well chosen regional wines that not only have quality in taste, but also in their price. Laid out by varietal, the 50 or so bottles listed match perfectly with the rustic cuisine. Don’t be afraid to ask questions either, or even for a taste as everyone there enjoys sharing the experience of food and wine with you. And now, every Tuesday and Wednesday, they offer half off all bottles and glasses. That’s the best deal in town.

Upside down pear cake, salted caramel, vanilla ice cream, sugar halo

To top off your Farm House Café experience, Chef Olivier is a certified Chocolatier. Not only is every dish made from scratch, the chocolate is too. As with the menu, the chocolates change every day. The unique candies can be filled with anything from fruit to caramel to spiced peppers. A definite must when you visit.

The LGBT community is so embraced by The Farm. There is no pretense or question about who you are when you come here. Every time you walk through the front door, you are welcomed as if you just walked into their house. Hugs are a natural thing here. Rochelle makes sure you are enjoying everything, and Chef pops out of the kitchen frequently to talk to people at the dining bar, or to roam around the table’s smiling and talking about his dishes. It’s a family business, a modern family. And when Chef comes around with his chocolates to share, all you need to say is “Oui Chef.”

Farm House Café

2121 Adams Ave.
San Diego, CA 92116
(619) 269-9662

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You won’t need your money roll when you head to Bankers Hill Thu, 03 Feb 2011 02:27:15 +0000

It is always a wonderful thing when you combine a celebrated chef and a seasoned restaurateur; together they create a great restaurant. Superstar Chef Carl Schroeder of Market fame, and restaurateur and chef in her own right, Terryl Gavre of Café 222, came together this past year in a joint venture that opened in May. Taking over the old Modus spot in Bankers Hill, the restaurant was transformed into a dramatic rustic space of brick, steel, glass and cement.

Appropriately named for its location, Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant is a great representation of two artistic minds coming together. Taking his impressive fine dining background, Chef Carl’s menu lives up to his reputation. It is laid out in the unique style of an old accounting ledger and is comprised of classic bistro favorites such as fish and chips, duck confit, and of course, a burger. Several of the dishes certainly show his roots and have just a hint of the personality he created for Market, without the price tag. Here the menu is very reasonably priced with nothing over $20.00.

Since its opening, I have dined there several times. Sometimes at the bar with a friend, other times on the patio with a small group, and most recently on New Year’s Eve with a large party at the family style table. Each and every time I have been, the restaurant is buzzing with hip attractive diners that frequent some of our restaurants in San Diego. Well dressed gays and straights crowd the bar to sip the delicious cocktails that are just as crafty as the menu itself.

There are several great aspects of this restaurant, but one of the best is the small plate. As trendy as they may be, they work here very nicely. One of my favorites is a throwback to the fifties, the Deviled Farmers’ Market Eggs ($7.75). Served four on a plate, they are creamy and just as delicious as my grandmother would make. Served with an Arugula Parmesan Salad and homemade Lemon Potato Chips with a Buttermilk dip ($7.25), which are also offered as small plates individually, they are a great way to start the evening.

Salads, fish, poultry, pork and beef are the other menu sections that follow. Each category has just a few dishes listed, which leads me to believe Chef chose to focus on the best to not overload the menu. The Roasted Beet and Citrus Salad ($9.25) is overdone in restaurants, but here Chef combined the rich sweetness of the beets with the tanginess of the citrus and finished it with a bitter endive and creamy goat cheese. Definitely one of the best versions of this classic salad I have ever had. On one occasion, I splurged and ordered the Local Ling Cod Fish & Chips ($19.75). Beer battered and deep fried, this English classic was greasy, yet deliciously sinful.

Chicken is always hard to serve in a restaurant; many times it is dry and stringy. Sadly, my experience here with the Braised Chicken Papper-delle ($15.25) was no exception. The Pinot Noir sauce was extremely dry, as if the dish had sat under the heat lamp too long, and the caramelized carrots were so mushy they should have turned them into a nice carrot soup. On a bright note, the Crispy BBQ Braised Pork Tacos ($14.25) were put together with just the right amount of lime sour cream and fresh avocado, letting the tangy barbeque sauce be the star of the dish. I also think this is a great plate to share; hopefully Chef will make a smaller version and include it with the small plates.

A true standout for me has been the Grilled Hangar Steak ($19.75). Cooked to perfection each time, the steak melts in my mouth. Unfortunately on my last visit, it was very rare making it tough and rubbery. However, it was New Year’s Eve, and that is not the time to judge any restaurant. The Cabernet Braised Short Ribs ($19.75) is a dish so well executed, it was even perfect on New Year’s Eve. It would be a tragedy if you or someone at your table didn’t order the short ribs. Served with traditional whipped Yukon gold potatoes and roasted vegetables, the short ribs are as tender as can be, offering explosive flavor in every bite.

As readers are learning, service is always a big thing for me. You can have amazing food, wonderful wine and a fun atmosphere, but service ties all the elements together. I give a lot credit to Terryl for gathering some shining stars from some of the top restaurants in the city. But with every good bunch of apples, there are some bad ones too. With only two bartenders, the staff sometimes get very overwhelmed. I suspect it is due to the crafty cocktails, which take about ten minutes to make. At times while sitting at the bar, I have experienced a great deal of pretention and felt as though I should be honored to spend my money there. Alas, the servers on the floor offer a different experience, with smiles, jokes, and a casual, but efficient attitude.

All in all, I think Bankers Hill is a perfect example of a restaurant done well, with the front and back of house run by true professionals. It is hip, trendy, sophisticated and definitely the place to be seen. I must say it is getting increasingly hard to get a reservation, so I do suggest you call early. If you haven’t had a chance to swing by with your friends or lover, even for just a cocktail, do so. Not only is the design of the space something the LGBT community will love, the food is pretty good too.

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