I was getting ahead of myself. Maybe.
By mid-January, I was already typing up the leading contenders for the Union-Tribune’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year and 2019 Chef of the Year.
“It’s a little early, isn’t it? A lot can happen between now and December,” my more measured colleague said.
She was right, of course, but that detail didn’t tamp down my excitement — it only boosted it. Because if these two nominees aren’t the best we’ll see this year, if there’s more bar-raising awesomeness to come, then 2019 year may go down as a watershed for San Diego dining.
What’s behind my uncharacteristic gastro-giddiness? Call it the Manny effect, where the arrival of a powerhouse star doesn’t translate into victory but represents an exhilarating step forward.
It’s not just the new kids in town to get excited about: Local luminaries are pushing themselves in unexpected ways. Established restaurants are upping their game. New dining hubs are emerging. Respected mega-chains are moving in. And, hallelujah, even San Diego’s notoriously laid-back service seems to be improving.
What. Is. Happening.
From this perch, it feels like culinary critical mass and that the region — already blessed with superlative seafood and fresh produce, a talented pool of homegrown chefs and an enriching influence from Baja — is poised to crack into the dining big(ger) leagues.
Perhaps, like the Padres, San Diego can finally retire its also-ran reputation. Though like the Dodgers and the Giants, the L.A. and San Francisco dining worlds won’t be considering us restaurant rivals for a while yet.
Still, here’s a roster of reasons to be unabashedly optimistic:
- There have been the impressively delicious openings of Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad (young and beautiful, indeed), Fort Oak in Mission Hills (more on that stunner from Trust’s Steve Schwob and Brad Wise later) and the dream Italian trattoria Cesarina in Point Loma.
- San Diego will soon welcome four Michelin-starred chefs into its fold, including Michael Mina (International Smoke at Carmel Valley’s One Paseo) Akira Bak (Lumi, in the Gaslamp) and father and son Calabrian chefs Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino (Il Dandy, a partnership with Civico 1845’s Gallo brothers). Each is a high-profile, multi-million-dollar venture. Only the Abbruzinos will be living here; Mina and Bak will visit and tend to their restaurant empires’ newest outposts from afar. But all of them choosing to have a presence here is perhaps a paradigm-shifting harbinger.
- On the horizon are such exciting and new portfolio-expanding projects as the $3 million-plus Morning Glory in Little Italy (from the team behind Born & Raised, Ironside Fish & Oyster and more), Animae (a $5.5 million Asian restaurant in the Embarcadero area from Herb & Wood’s Brian Malarkey and Chris Puffer and former Cucina executive chef Joe Magnanelli) and a yet-to-be-named Cali-Med eatery from chef Travis Swikard, a San Diegan who spent 10 years in New York at the side of globally renowned French chef Daniel Boulud.
- On the radar: El Jardín chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, the U-T’s 2018 Chef of the Year, received a James Beard Award nomination on Feb. 27, giving San Diego what is believed to be the first such prestigious accolade for a female chef. No San Diego chef has ever won a Beard award, which is the food world’s equivalent of an Oscar. Will history be made? On March 27, the semifinalist list will be whittled down to the finalists; the winners be announced May 6. And Monday’s glowing New York Times review of El Jardín can’t hurt her chances.
- On the radar? Last week, Michelin announced it would release a new guide that would rate restaurants and bestow career-making, über-coveted stars throughout California, a first for any state. While L.A. will undoubtedly amass a galaxy’s worth, in San Diego, all eyes will be on Addison. Chef William Bradley, a protégé of seven Michelin star holder Thomas Keller, has arguably the single best shot at scoring one (or three!). No other local restaurant better represents the quality and precision that Michelin stars stand for. Period. If overlooked, it would be a major league shutout. Not to mention a travesty.
- Other causes for heightened enthusiasm — mini Manny signings — are happening everywhere. (See below.) .
If there’s one new restaurant that encapsulates the upswing San Diego is on, it’s Fort Oak.
It’s the latest project from the Trust Restaurant Group — as in Hillcrest’s stellar neighborhood eatery Trust — and it builds on every important aspect of that trailblazing, instant classic. Creative and hip? Absolutely delicious? Super professional service? Check, check and check.
Fort Oak’s menu is a snapshot of where San Diego’s food scene is right this minute: raw, fresh, produce-forward, unpretentious but ambitious, seemingly casual but clearly founded in well-honed technique. It is globally inspired cuisine, rooted right here.
The Mission Hills restaurant shows the progression of 33-year-old chef and co-owner Brad Wise’s ability to coax vibrant flavors out of his pristine ingredients, while adding smoky depth to everything that comes off his custom, very-Valle wood-fire grill.
Over three visits — two dinners and a brunch — I tried 22 dishes and only one, scallop aguachile, was good. The rest were great.
Wise’s skill is apparent across the board, from perfectly cooked and seasoned proteins to the brightness of the hamachi and crudos, to the heartiness of the charcuterie, the restraint of the sauces and innovative preparations like opah pastrami toast with gribiche and egg yolk caviar and the soulful local duck with heirloom beans, duck sausage and vadouvan.
Two favorite dishes were spectacularly simple, yet complex, vegetable plates — hearth-roasted carrots with Humboldt Fog, smoky yogurt and pickled fennel and charred caulilini in shallot vinaigrette, with fermented chili aioli, smoked almonds and currants.
Wise knows his way around pasta — see: his ricotta angolotti at Trust — so it’s no surprise that the goat milk cavatelli, with charred broccoli, fennel sausage, grana di capra and truffle, would be outstanding. It’s at once earthy and luscious.
And Wise has finally made this pancake-French toast devotee a waffle fan. The crispy, light-as-air Tahitian vanilla waffle is crowned by not-too-sweet sweetened ricotta, intensely citrusy lemon curd and hot smoked almonds. The composition was perfect. Too perfect, in fact, to pour syrup on.
Fort Oak also benefits from co-founder Steve Schwob’s obsession with tuned-in, elevated service. Example 1: On my first visit, I was coming down with a cold and after my server heard the rasp in my voice, she — unprompted — brought me a cup of hot water with lemon and honey. And then refilled it twice. Example 2: A dining companion on my second visit couldn’t have dairy and was about to miss out on the sterling dessert choices. Until our server — again, unprompted — brought her a sweet little metal pail of berry and coconut ice pops, complete with scissors with which to cut them out of their plastic tubes.
The restaurant offers four unique spaces: a stylish, mid-century main dining room (much quieter than Trust’s!), an outdoor patio, a meticulously transformed center bar in what used to be a Ford dealership and a 16-seat chef’s counter, adjacent to the open kitchen and that wood-fire grill.
Open only since January, Fort Oak embodies San Diego, circa 2019 — on fire.
Where: 1011 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills.
Phone: (619) 722-3398
More reasons to get excited
- Menus are always being updated, but several places are revamping and adding new dimension to their restaurants, including Born & Raised exquisitely ingenious new happy hour menu, Deborah Scott’s Asian-infused lighter fare at Island Prime, and Provisional’s Brandon Sloan taking an exceedingly capable turn to Italian food.
- Four new food halls — in Carlsbad, Sorrento Mesa, Poway and Barrio Logan — are opening, each with a distinct flavor. They’ll follow in the successful footsteps of Liberty Public Market, which itself is ever-improving, most notably by recently landing The Land & Water Co.’s celebrated sushi chef Rob Ruiz and his Hold Fast quick-service seafood stand.
- Global chains Din Tai Fung and Bonchon have finally opened locations in San Diego (at Westfield UTC and on Convoy Street, respectfully). No doubt they want to capitalize on San Diego’s growing hunger — and high standards — for Asian food.
- North County is rising. Excellent restaurants are no longer concentrated in neighborhoods like Little Italy and North Park. Impressive dining hubs have taken root in Carlsbad and Oceanside and beyond.
- Great eating is going both ways: Lola 55’s modern Mexican is said to be expanding from the East Village to North County; La Jolla’s gelato nirvana, Bobboi, is opening two stores in Little Italy; and Little Italy's acclaimed Herb & Wood will have a North County sister, when Malarkey and Puffer open Herb & Sea in Encinitas this summer.
- Las Vegas’ Clique Hospitality is sprinkling a little Sin City glitz on two unlikely places. The trendy firm behind The Pendry’s Lionfish is working with the venerable Hotel Del on its new signature restaurant, Serēa, to replace 1500 Ocean. And Sycuan Casino will amp up the dining stakes when it unveils its new hotel and resort, complete with the chic, Clique-run Bull and Bourbon Steakhouse.