10 Most Memorable Restaurants of 2012

"I was pleasantly surprised by Isola Pizza Bar where pizzas are thin and delicious. Wines are from the owner's family vineyard and everything they serve is cooked in the oven they imported straight from Italy."

a farewell to 2012 with a year-end round-up



This year has flown by and now we are at my last post of 2012. Like last year, I end with a run-down of my 10 most memorable restaurants/meals of the last 12 months. On my list are two San Diego restaurants and another, which has made my list two years in a row. Thank you to all my readers who have come along for the ride and I hope you will continue to journey with me as we embark into the new year.

I start my “best of” with a casual spot close to home. Mick’s Karma Bar is a small space offering up burgers, and they only have five on the menu. You can choose from a beef, turkey or veggie pattie with a bunch of different toppings, but that’s it. There is also a fish taco on the menu. Order the strawberry basil lemonade as well, it’s seriously addicting! Michael Schepers, owner of Mick’s keeps everything simple, but it is always absolutely delicious!

I’m a huge fan of Lucca Cafe and its chef Cathy Pavlos. Chef Cathy is the warmest, most hospitable woman I know and her passion for food shines through in her wonderful dishes featuring seasonal produce and using the simplest of ingredients at its prime. I love the Sunday Suppers usually held monthly and features an eating debauchery shared family style.

Last year, I featured Anepalco’s Cafe on my year end list. This year, Anepalco’s Cafe opened its second location at Ayres Inn in Orange and there was never a doubt they would make it onto the list this year. Chef Danny Godinez has taken his breakfast and lunch menu to a whole new level by offering dinner at the new location. His dishes reflect his Mexican roots with his experiences in traditional French cuisine. The result is using French techniques and marrying them with bold Mexican flavors. You’ll have to taste it to believe it.

When Mokkoji Shabu Shabu opened this year, I must say my son and I visited so often that when I received my credit card statement, I was shocked at how many of the charges were from there. Chef/owner Tommy Kim, an alumni of the St Regis Hotel uses his fine dining experiences to create an experience like no other. This is THE best shabu places in Orange County. Once you’ve tasted the difference, and experienced the extra mile they go to make your meal delightful, you won’t go elsewhere.

One of the biggest surprises this year has been a little place in San Diego which offers some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a while. Cafe 21 has an incredible breakfast/lunch menu with fantastic pancakes and even better egg dishes. However, their dinner menu also blew me away with fresh, great quality produce, superb proteins leaning towards a Mediterranean feel. Cafe 21 has become a favorite of mine in southern California and they deserve every bit of success they’re receiving!

On the topic of San Diego, I was pleasantly surprised by Isola Pizza Bar where the pizzas are thin and delicious. Wines are from the owner’s family vineyard and everything they serve is cooked in the oven they imported straight from Italy, including the shrimp dish pictured below.

best shrimp


The Ranch seems to be one of those places where my friends and I go to celebrate something special. Early this year, I celebrated a friend’s birthday here during restaurant week. Then, last month, I celebrated my birthday here with 11 of my friends for dinner. It was a fun-filled evening with delicious food and wine. I returned for a wine dinner a few nights later and that was an absolutely stunning pairing of food and wines. The Ranch remains one of my favorites in Orange County.

This year, The Landmark in Corona del Mar was renovated into a chic, trendy space with new owners and a new chef worthy of praise. Chef Travis Flood, a native San Diegan comes with an impressive resume including Fifth Floor in San Francisco, working under Laurent Gris. The menu is true fine dining style paired with comfort food kicked up a notch or two. Definitely worth a visit.

My new favorite sushi place is Shunka, a little place in a non-descript mall in Costa Mesa. The restaurant serves up beautiful sushi using best quality fish, some of which are imported from Japan. I highly recommend sitting at the sushi bar and ordering omakase and let the chef take you on an incredible ride. Unfortunately I haven’t written up a blog post about Shunka, but this is my go-to place whenever I’m hankering for some top quality sushi close to home!

Last but not least, this fantastic fine dining establishment recently got a new chef and a new seasonal menu. The hand-made pastas are created in house and definitely worth ordering. They blew me away as I haven’t had anything like this since my trip to New York in the fall. Andrea Ristorante offers spectacular views and if you get there at the right time, you can watch the sunset over the Pacific.

Well, that’s it! Thanks to all of you who have followed my blog this year. I love all the comments you leave and appreciate your support and enthusiasm! See you all in 2013 and I hope to bring you more tasty places to visit in the new year!


Dining 2012: What did the year taste like?

"Flashing back on the big-ticket spots, hipster haunts, hotel restaurants, chef picnics and ethnic-food enclaves I gnawed through, across San Diego County's 4,526 square miles, I feel confident in saying this: 2012 tasted like doughy comfort."

Dining 2012: What did the year taste like?

pizza dining

Keli Dailey

It’s time to unpack end-of-the-year thoughts about dining.

Flashing back on the big-ticket spots, hipster haunts, hotel restaurants, chef picnics and ethnic-food enclaves I gnawed through, across San Diego County’s 4,526 square miles, I feel confident in saying this: 2012 tasted like doughy comfort.

I got an email from the new restaurant blog in town, Eater San Diego, soliciting input on their year-in-review dining story. “Describe the SD food scene of 2012 in one word,” it said.

Easy: “Flatbreads.”

They’re at two upper-crust spots in Rancho Santa Fe. The remade Rancho Valencia Resort supplies its wallpapered Pony Room lounge with wood-fired flatbreads, using novel toppings like Maine lobster plus garlic cream, wild mushroom and a triple-creamy organic Mt Tam cheese. And at Delicias, a flatbread is tastefully spackled with artisanal pork sausage, roasted artichoke, spinach and ricotta cheese.

Seasons 52, which just opened a craftsman-like restaurant at the updated Westfield UTC Mall, focuses on featherweight, calorie-conscious, rectangular flatbreads that are like fine hors d’oeuvres.

The new Patio on Lamont Street has sirloin with Gorgonzola. It’s skirt steak and blue cheese at BJ’s in Chula Vista. At the downtown hotel restaurant Pinzimini, the mushroom flatbread is drizzled with truffle oil, which is like putting expensive ketchup on fries.

I’ve also inhaled flatbreads at Baleen, Kelvin, Cedros Cafe, Cusp, Dolce Pane E Vino, 98 Bottles, First Avenue, 100 Wines ... it’d be easier to list places I didn’t have them this year.

Were some crush-worthy? Sure. But they took the place of menu innovation and inspired me to use this hashtag: “#FlatbreadFatigue.” A friend says they’re the new burger.

Little Italy newbie Isola Pizza Bar pulls a round crisp-dough thing from its oak-burning oven. It’s a pizza.

Food history says pizzas evolved from Egyptian flatbreads, and before I totally confuse you about the difference between these flour-dusted offerings, let’s have some chalk talk with a professional:

Paul McCabe, La Valencia Hotel’s new executive chef, said flatbreads are like deflated pizzas because they’re docked — “When you poke a whole bunch of holes, when you press out your dough, so it doesn’t rise.” Usually smaller than pizzas, maybe oval-shaped or rectangular, flatbreads have rustic, unconventional toppings, McCabe said. “They’re approachable, they’re shareable — the dining scene shifted toward sharing.”

Still, restaurants baked a bunch of pizzas in 2012.

Monello, another fresh concept in Little Italy, is focusing on simple house-made ones like its chewy margherita. And I’d cosign on Brooklyn Girl Eatery’s thin, wood-fired pizzas (even though I adore Lefty’s deep-dish Chicago pies nearby in Mission Hills). At Brooklyn Girl, there’s a smoky littleneck-clam-and-applewood-bacon pizza with a buttery, springy crust that’s taken to the next level by sweet Taleggio cheese, fingerling potatoes and a few outer leaves of Brussels sprouts.

A stranger passed by me one visit. “What kind of pizza is that? It looks good.”

There’s an audience for doughy comforting joys, of course.

The U-T food writer shares her wishlist for the year to come. She’d like to see more:

Dessert variety: Brittly crème brûlée and soggy tiramisu ladyfingers are draining.

Asian ingredients: Great chefs are already using dashi (a Japanese soup stock) in dishes you wouldn’t label Asian: See Nine-Ten’s dashi-infused pine mushrooms and charred leeks with black cod. At the Marine Room, there’s zesty togarashi spice and lemon myrtle marinade on your pompano. More, please.

Sea life: This year, I made first-contact with percebes (goose barnacles) at George’s California Modern, Geoduck clams at Erizo Baja Fish House in Tijuana, and Venus clams at Table 926! I’m always looking for novel and good, bonus points if it’s sustainable seafood.

Cocktail-and-beer-paired dinners: Need I explain?

Food community: Groups like Slow Food Urban San Diego and publications like Edible San Diego keep the food obsessives informed. And there was great turnout for our first Dîner en Blanc flash picnic this year. Still, the people who care about food seem to occupy a subculture in San Diego. Or am I just sour about labeling for genetically modified food not passing in California?

More local ingredients: K-Pasta, a tiny Imperial Beach spot with from-scratch angel hair and pumpkin pasta, uses local Suzie’s Farm veggies. Even an Arizona import like True Food Kitchen brings local produce into its Fashion Valley Mall location. “Chefs/owners really made buying local a reality,” Hanis Cavin of Carnitas’ Snack Shack points out. San Diego-grown is a growing part of our gastronomic identity.

Brussels sprouts: If these little cabbages have a weakness, it’s that they’re too mainstream. You’ll find a soupy version at The Lodge at Torrey Pines and bacony ones at Hillcrest’s Uptown Tavern. Their overexposure has made room for another vegetable: cauliflower. Recently, Chandler’s Restaurant in Carlsbad featured a side dish of lemony and crunchy cauliflower (no Brussels on the menu). But the real case for cauliflower’s ascendance? Chef Katherine Humphus’s Brussels are popular at Bo-Beau in Ocean Beach. At Hillcrest’s 100 Wines she prepares the same dish — flash fried, tossed in Parmesan, salt and pepper, balsamic vinaigrette — but the veggie star is cauliflower. “I actually prefer the cauliflower,” she said.

Reclaimed lumber: This comes from Jon Mangini, owner of Basic Urban Kitchen, URBN Coal Fired Pizza and downtown’s new pan-Asian restaurant, Gang Kitchen: “Please, no more restaurants that make you feel like you’re in a forest full of repurposed wood.”

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