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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