With the holiday season and Valentine’s safely behind me, I can dig into the best fare offered by local restaurants without any weighty worries. Let me tell you, there’s so much must-try food around the city and county that my following list of 10 “Must-Try Dishes” doesn’t do full justice to all that’s available. It’s a good starting point, though, and you’ll want to move these plates from the “Must-Try” column to the “Wow, that was good!” list as fast as you can.
At Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria in the cute and cozy Lumberyard center in downtown Encinitas, the “Little Gems” Caesar Salad is good enough to die for – although I’d rather stick around and eat it again and again and again. Composed entirely of top-grade ingredients, including an especially delicate and flavorful type of Romaine lettuce, this salad soars thanks to its imaginative toppings. Instead of the big, sometimes tooth-threatening-hard croutons many restaurants serve, Chef/owner Wade Hageman came up with the idea of sprinkling garlicky bread crumbs generously over the salad. The crumbs, joined by grated real, genuine, nutty-flavored Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (there is no better Parmesan), make the greens so delicious that when I hit the bottom of the bowl, I always wish there was a little more.
- One of the reasons I choose a primarily vegetarian lifestyle is because vegetarian cuisine can be so amazing. Sometimes I think that nobody does meat-free cooking better than the Italians, and in this part of the world, few restaurants surpass some of the options offered by Davanti Enoteca in Little Italy and Del Mar. One dish I just love is the Focaccia di Recco (on the menu it’s listed under the heading “Per la Tavola,” which means “for the table”), a freshly-baked, Ligurian-style bread that has wonderful “bite,” a chewiness that a baker like me really appreciates. What makes it such a flavor-packed starter – and perfect with a good glass of wine – is the garnish of soft, fresh cow’s milk cheese and honeycomb, a wonderful combination of creaminess and sweetness that makes my tongue want to dance.
- Does it seem like I have a weakness for starters? I do. They’re not called “appetizers” for nothing, since they get the ball rolling, the show on the road and the whole world humming in harmony, especially when there’s some really good wine on the table. The new True Food Kitchen in Fashion Valley is oriented to vegetarian and light fare and does both well. The starter I love best is the plate of Edamame Dumplings. Dressed with tangy daikon sprouts and drizzled with intoxicatingly pungent truffle oil, these dumplings derive a unique flavor from the special Japanese beans, and I really love the creamy texture.
- I find a party in each bite of the amazing “R U Kidding Me?” rolls at Azuki Sushi, the cute little place in Bankers Hill that out-sushis a lot of bigger, fancier and better-known places. Listed as a specialty, the r u kidding me’s are expensive, but when you divide the price by the pleasure quotient found in every bite, they’re an affordable taste of heaven. A rich and deluxe assortment of ingredients goes into these treats, including snow crab, diver scallops, tempura-fried asparagus and aioli. Once the basic roll is built, it’s topped with seared tuna and white truffle oil, and finished with mixed greens, garlic ponzu sauce and flash-fried leeks. It’s unforgettable. Would I kid you?
- When I decide to go all-out vegan, which I do to get my system totally re-booted, one place where I like to eat is Hillcrest’s Evolution Fast Food, which is 100% vegan and offers 100% delicious meals. My favorite here is the Raw Tacos, a “must-try” dish that is a great, healthy play on regular tacos and makes you feel both full and refreshed. It’s such a simple idea, but so good – Evolution piles Napa cabbage shells with a raw, hearty filling that just couldn’t taste better or be more satisfying.
- One of the privileges of living in San Diego is getting to dine with an ocean view once in a while, and if you can ask me to name a spot with a more beautiful view than at the rooftop Ocean Terrace at George’s Califonia Modern (I still call it George’s at the Cove), well, I probably can’t. What I really, really love is the Anson Farms Farro Salad, which is just so fresh and light, and fits perfectly with the ocean setting. The farro grain makes a wonderful base for a colorful jumble of good things like grilled zucchini, roasted cauliflower, radishes, creamy California avocado and cherry tomatoes. Do the rich, pungent Kalamata olives and sharp, marinated Feta cheese shoot the other flavors right up to the sky? They do.
- If I have to say it twice, fine: Nobody does vegetables better than the Italians. I love Monello in Little Italy, which is right next door to the long-running and really popular Bencotto. This place is devoted to Milan-style street food, and while I don’t know that I buy the idea that the Bietole All’Aglio, which is a deliciously pungent saute of Swiss chard and garlic streaming with ribbons of melted Parmesan, is really something you’d find on the street, I’d be glad to eat it anywhere.
- If you’ve never had Japanese “Robata” cooking, get yourself downtown right now to Katsuya. There is a large selection of vegetables cooked in the robata and I like all of them. Each is so artistically presented, and the flavors are so bold and unique.
- When I go to Monello, I’m always reminded that I need to get back to Bencotto, too, and here’s why: the Pasta Fresca alle Noci, Other local restaurants serve this dish, but not as well. Their homemade pasta is tossed with a delicious walnut and Gorgonzola cheese sauce that is a creamy, lick-the-plate-clean dream.
- Of course my list of “must-try” San Diego eateries has to include a Mexican restaurant, and Little Italy’s El Camino offers Sweet Potato Flautas, which put a great Mexican spin on my all-time favorite veggie. When I want sweet potatoes South-of-the-border-style, I just zip over to El Camino and have a memorably good time.
I’ve kept something secret ’til now. Call it a nod to my profession but my “Top 10 Must-Try List” is actually a Top 13, or baker’s dozen, list, since there are three other dishes that definitely are must-tries for everybody who craves fine cooking. No surprise that one of the three is served at Davanti Enoteca, which not only offers great fare but the kind of plush, sophisticated mood I really enjoy when dining out. For an appetizer that is an especially tasty building block of a vegetarian meal, I really love Davanti’s Roasted Cauliflower. It’s not a particularly complicated dish, but it includes as much flavor as seems possible. Roasting makes the cauliflower taste especially sweet, kind of sensuous and ready to be remarkably accented by the garnishes of Sicilian green olive tapenade spiked with piquillo peppers (piquant, but not too), preserved lemon vinaigrette and crispy ceci beans. It’s a winning way with vegetables.
And there’s no surprise that my 12th must-try is at Monello. This time, it’s not a vegetarian dish that delights me, but a very special seafood presentation of octopus called Polipo Alla Griglia. A full-sized entree that shares very well, the dish finishes grilled, tender octopus with vegetables that both challenge it with tartness – arugula and fennel play these roles – and provide sweet notes, as do celery and tomatoes. Taken any way you like, it’s a definite must-try!
Flatbread is easier than pizza, cleaner on the palate than pizza, and just plain more pleasing to me (most of the time), especially if it’s one of the creative flatbreads at Bo-beau Kitchen and Bar in Ocean Beach. My 13th, last but certainly not least pick is Bo-beau’s Shrimp Flatbread with avocado, garlic-lime aioli, almonds and ancho chilies. It’s divine, and a great light entree after one of their tasty salads, too.
Now that I’ve shared some of my favorite dishes with you, I hope you’ll share some of yours at our restaurants with me. Every March on our Extraordinary Desserts Facebook page, we play Dessert Madness. Just like March Madness, Dessert Madness starts with two brackets of Extraordinary Desserts’ cakes and desserts. We ask our Facebook fans to vote daily on which desserts should move up throughout the month by pairing two desserts from each bracket with the winner moving on to the next round. Eventually, we narrow it down to one, the ultimate winner.
So, now that I’ve given you my “Must-Try” picks for dining exceptionally in San Diego, I’d like you to give me your dessert picks for Dessert Madness. It’s a sweet deal, don’t you think?