I ate my way through the revamped UTC mall. Here’s what I found.
The Westfield UTC mall’s $600 million expansion is a time capsule of that certain San Diego lifestyle, circa 2018: SoCal boho chic boutiques, trendy outdoor seating areas complete with water features, more zen-inducing natural skin and home products than you can shake a diffuser stick at, and food.
Lots and lots of food.
More than a dozen new restaurants have opened at Westfield UTC since October, including Shake Shack, Great Maple, The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar, True Food Kitchen and Sweetfin Poké. Still to come are outposts of the cult global dumpling house Din Tai Fung, healthy-casual Mexican Tocaya Organica and high-end regional Mexican Javiers.
Serving up a variety of buzz-worthy, high-quality eateries was integral to the transformation of Westfield UTC from a mall into a hip, upscale destination.
“It’s not just about the shopping anymore,” John Alderson, Westfield UTC’s vice president of development, told the Union-Tribune last year when the first incoming eateries were revealed.
“We look at food just like we look at merchandising. … Food is a really fantastic way to express ourselves in what the customers want and how they want it.”
The anchor of the revamped mall is the new, 145,000-square-foot, two-story Nordstom store, which is flooded with natural light — a visual and aesthetic shift from the closed-in, institution-esque department stores of old that shoppers are increasingly turning away from.
Nordstrom’s fresh and airy approach to the San Diego market is best represented by Bazille, its fashionable bistro. Located on the second floor, it offers a nicely curated cocktail and wine program, towering windows, terrace seating overlooking a courtyard, fairly reasonable prices, and the hands-down best dining experience of all the new UTC spots.
Backing up that claim are the weeks I spent visiting the mall — one day a 10-hour binge — eating my way through the pizza, flatbread, custard ice cream, poké bowls, Caesar salads, Brussels sprouts, dry-aged beef, lobster risotto, maple bacon doughnuts with fried chicken, chocolate sea salt caramels, mushroom empanadas, burgers and barbecue.
Most of my meals were delicious, a couple were lacking; at several places, service was slow and scattered. Three different nights at three different restaurants, I had the same problem with multiple wines on the list not being available. Was it a coincidence that they tended to be the least expensive options? Several servers were clearly unfamiliar with their restaurants’ wine — and wine in general.
“They need a sommelier for the mall,” one of my dining companions observed. “A mall-ier.”
Which brings me back to Bazille. Nordstrom’s celebrated customer service is on full display at this welcoming restaurant. It’s as polished as the dishes coming out of the gleaming, new open kitchen. Every dish I had over two visits was perfection. And the snazzy dining room banishes any notion that department store eating has gone out of style.
Everything seems well-thought out — including the eatery’s origins. In deciding to make UTC one of 28 locations (out of over 370) to have a Bazille concept, Nordstrom executives studied the local scene, the coming competition and especially customer feedback.
“What we saw in the marketplace, we knew full-service was a must for UTC and we knew spirits were a must,” said Vincent Rossetti, Nordstrom’s vice president of restaurant operations.
“Years back we had closed the (UTC) bistro. The feedback was that was a mistake … you messed up,” Rossetti said.
“They (customers) were dying for us to have a restaurant, so we went with the best we had.”
Rossetti said that while Bazille’s menu is the same around the county, each chef is given creative license with the specials. When they’re a hit — as the Korean BBQ Braised Beef and the crab, mango and avocado salad were — they get added to the regular menu.
Right now, what sets the local restaurant apart is how light and bright it is, he said, and how it’s integrated into the store, instead of being tucked away.
“UTC is very unique from a Bazille look and feel,” Rossetti said. “It’s the newest, the latest and greatest.”
So whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a sit-down meal or you’re — like me — just eating your way through Westfield UTC, here’s a rundown of the new culinary offerings, where to drink, and a select list of the top five recently opened stores, because no matter how many food options there are, there will always be shopping.
Top pick, sit down: Bazille. For the reasons above and these dishes in particular: Kung Pao Brussles sprouts, cilantro lime chicken tacos, the Bistro Club sandwich, and the warm Asian-glazed chicken salad. No room for dessert? Pick up a three-pack of the exquisite dark chocolate sea salt caramels from Nordstrom Makers Chocolate, to go. shop.nordstrom.com/st/nordstrom-la-jolla-at-utc
Top pick, fast casual: Sweetfin Poké. This Los Angeles-based chain does the hottest trend in food right. Whether you get a signature bowl, with spicy tuna, yuzu salmon, Sriracha tuna, miso kanpachi and more, or you build your own, everything tastes pristine — because it is. Through August, you can try the limited-edition Blais Bowl, created by chef Richard Blais (Juniper & Ivy, The Crack Shack), made with salmon, yellowfin and albacore tunas, with yuzu soy sauce, pineapple rice, mango avocado pickled red onions, pine nuts and a topping of crispy fried onions. sweetfinpoke.com
On the go: Tie — Napizza and Paraná Empanadas Argentinas. When you’re hungry and need something quick, take things into your own hands. Both Napizza, for pizza, and Paraná, for empanadas, excel in the crust department and specialize in fresh, local ingredients. My Napizza pick is the decadent porcini pie; at Paraná, I favor the rajas with chipotle chimichurri. Now get going; those shoes aren’t going to buy themselves. na-pizza.com/locations/utc-la-jolla; paranaempanadas.com
Coolest new space: Smokeyard BBQ and Chop Shop. Go for the industrial chic dining room, warmed up with wood and custom tile work throughout, and sleek bar. But stay for the luscious, lacquered beef ribs and tender tri-tip and pulled pork. There are also plenty of healthier options — know your market! — but why? Added bonus: Smokeyard owners and brothers Alon and Guy Ravid are originally from South Africa, and the wine list has some choice picks from there that go surprisingly well with American barbecue. smokeyard.com/utc-san-diego
Best place to be good: True Food Kitchen. Here’s where you go for righteously healthy, upscale fare. The extensive menu has veggies, ancient grains, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options galore. The organic kale salad, with lemon, garlic, grana padano and breadcrumbs, is arguably San Diego’s best bowl of greens. The lovely patio fronts The Pointe, the unofficial Westfield UTC restaurant row. truefoodkitchen.com/sandiegoutc
Best place to be bad: Great Maple. Oversize portions of over-the-top comfort food and glorious desserts are what Great Maple is known for, headlined by the maple bacon doughnuts. Pair them with the crispy, buttermilk fried chicken with maple syrup and call it a day. Yes, there are salads, but again, why? The hip, retro décor is similar to the Great Maple in Hillcrest/University Heights, but the UTC location has a pretty, sizable patio. Look for it on Genesee, outside the mall’s labyrinth. thegreatmaple.com/la-jolla
Best people-watching: Queenstown Bistro. We had a couple of food fails here at the little sister to Little Italy’s Queenstown Public House. Luckily, its prime location nearly makes up for it. The outdoor-only eatery is right at the clock tower, affording views of the goings-on in the surrounding central plaza. Have a drink and order the tasty Bare Lil Lamb burger with blue cheese, but skip such lackluster dishes as the bland chimichurri hummus, chicken pot pie and Caesar salad. queenstownbistro.com
Winner, What Took You So Long category: Shake Shack. San Diego seems to be having a love-hate relationship with this New York City burger chain. Is it because it opened up in seemingly every other city in America before it came to here? Or are we supremely spoiled by having both In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys? Maybe the high prices and controversial fries play a part in all the mixed reviews — which range from raves to mehs to cries of “overrated!” But there’s no denying the crave-ability of the frozen custard concoctions or the shakes. shakeshack.com/location/utc-san-diego-ca
The splurge, wine country cuisine edition: The Winery. Contemporary California cooking served up in a vibrant, stylish setting makes for a fun night out. Just be prepared to spend. Five of us tasted through ten dishes — all of them pretty delicious. But aside from the moderately priced mushroom flatbread ($12.95) and the roasted chicken ($23.95), everything else was somewhat gulp-inducing. Nearly $50 for halibut? Nearly $54 for lobster risotto? Even for this group of high-end restaurant frequenters, that didn’t quite taste right. thewinerylajolla.com
The splurge, steakhouse edition: Larsen’s Steakhouse. You expect a steakhouse to be costly, and Larsen’s is certainly that. Unfortunately, the kitchen hasn’t quite found its stride yet. The 8-ounce dry-aged filet and 20-ounce “wet-aged” ribeye were tender and flavorful, as they should be at $54 and $56, respectively. (“Wet-aged” might be the most unappetizing menu descriptor since “snout-to-tail.”) We skipped the overpriced starters (most in the $20 range) and opted for two so-so sides, garlic mashed potatoes and Larsen’s Brussels sprouts. I devoured the butter cake for dessert; my friend thought it was too sweet. Not sweet? The sky-high prices on the wine list. larsensrestaurants.com
Top picks for day (and night) drinking:
- La Colombe. The independent, nationwide coffee emporium, which was founded in Pennsylvania in 1994, roasts its own beans and offers custom drinks as well as lattes and cold brew on draft and in cans. Even this Nespresso addict fell hard for the creamy, dreamy milkshake-like draft latte. No worries, hard-core coffee fans, the Pure Black cold brew on tap has your name on it. La Colombe was also runner-up to Smokeyard for the title of coolest new space. lacolombe.com
- The Wine Bar. An airy, compact bar and patio lounge run by The Winery next door, The Wine Bar has a happy hour menu featuring $7.95 wine and cocktails, $4 beers and $8.50 appetizers. A perfect pairing would be Anna de Codorníu sparkling Cava with the YG Alsatian “Pizza,” a feather-light vehicle for gruyere, applewood-smoked bacon, onion and crème fraîche — a signature dish from French-born Winery co-owner and chef Yvon Goetz. thewinebarlajolla.com
- Raised by Wolves. No other opening signaled UTC’s shift from mall to hip(ish) hangout than CH Projects’ elaborately designed $3 million bottle boutique and hidden speakeasy. This latest venture from the local team that brought you Born & Raised, Polite Provisions, etc., knows its spirits, so check out the impressive stash in the front store before heading to the back for a drink. To get there, step on the revolving platform, the one with chairs and a faux fireplace, and prepare for a slow ride. It feels sort of like a cheesy game show set, except the prize is … cocktails! raisedxwolves.com
Five stores to check out
- Rituals. A standout among Westfield UTC’s many, many natural skincare and zen-inspired lifestyle stores. The Ritual of Hammam foaming shower gel smells like rosemary and eucalyptus and feels like silk. rituals.com/en-us/home
- Arhaus. If our aspirational living dreams had a brick-and-mortar store, it would be Arhaus. Its unique, super stylish, home-décor-magazine-worthy pieces don’t come cheap, but a girl can dream. arhaus.com
- Quay Australia. Born on the music festival circuit Down Under, this edgy eyewear shop has designer-quality sunglasses, aka “sunnies,” for about $60. Celebrities and Coachella Queens snatch them up. quayaustralia.com
- Kendra Scott. The Austin, Texas-based jewelry designer and mompreneur started while pregnant and on bed rest. The brand didn’t explode into an empire because of a good backstory; Scott’s jewelry is accessible, customizable body art for confident women. kendrascott.com
- Nordstrom. With the aforementioned natural light, more square footage and space dedicated to the sales floor, this Nordstrom store feels more like a hip art gallery than a stead museum. And the elegant shoe department is the highlight of this collection. shop.nordstrom.com/st/nordstrom-la-jolla-at-utc
Where: 4545 La Jolla Village Drive, San Diego
Phone: (858) 546-8858
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