San Diego eats, 2014 edition.

I have been writing the things for Insiders, on the Justin Upton trade and the Derek Norris/Jesse Hahn trade just in the last 24 hours.

The best meal in San Diego, our annual big writers’ night out, was at Juniper & Ivy, Richard Blais’ restaurant in Little Italy and one of my favorite restaurants in the country. I arranged the dinner well ahead of time, so we had a prix-fixe menu that included some items (like the amazing mac and cheese with house-made pasta and fontina) that aren’t on the typical menu. The takeoff on the Yodel is a regular item, though, and it’s bonkers … I split one with USA Today football writer Lindsay Jones and it didn’t stand a chance. There was a second dessert, not listed on the menu, that had to be tasted to be believed: blood-orange gelée, frozen yogurt, clementine supremes, lemongrass ice cream, and shards of roasted-citrus ice. I wanted to take that gelée home, but was afraid I couldn’t get a pound of it through airport security. The staff went all-out for us, clearly, and the service was exemplary. I reviewed J&I in full in March, and have now eaten there three more times, never once walking away less than fully satisfied.

If you aren't jealous, you should be. @juniperandivy @richardblais

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based in La Jolla, opened a second location a month ago, right across the street from Juniper & Ivy, and it’s now the best coffee option in the city, a small-batch roaster that is also the only direct-trade outlet in San Diego. I had an espresso macchiatto there each morning, but they also offer pour-overs and Chemex brews as well.

My other dinners in San Diego came at Cucina Urbana and Prep Kitchen, both strong, with Cucina Urbana my preference among the two. A new, upscale but reasonably-priced Italian trattoria, Cucina Urbana features a deep menu of pizzas, house-made pastas, and a slew of small plates, including the daily “polenta board,” assembled tableside with a ragù spread on top of a thick smear of creamy polenta on a wooden board. My pasta dish, bucatini with tomato, guanciale, cabbage, chili pepper, and a poached egg, was a great southern-Italian comfort-food dish, satisfying in texture (al dente, with the added bite from the jowl meat and the cabbage; smooth from the egg mixing with the tomato) and flavor (obvious), with just the right portion size between the starter polenta and the fact that I wasn’t leaving without trying the chocolate donuts with hazelnut filling, which didn’t even need the passion fruit dipping sauce except maybe to cool them off enough to eat them.

Prep Kitchen was a little more hit-or-miss. The yellowtail crudo was actually a slight disappointment, with a not-subtle fishy note marking the tuna as less than perfectly fresh, and the chocolate “budino” wasn’t a budino (an Italian custard, often thickened with cornstarch as well as eggs) but a warm chocolate cake served in a mason jar, but the pumpkin bread pudding had great balance of sweet and savory flavors without turning to mush, and the porchetta (which appears to be off the menu already) was superb if slightly fattier than I’ve had elsewhere.

I grabbed lunch twice at Bottega Americano, located just east of Petco Park in a cute space that combines a little Italian market and deli counter with a sit-down restaurant. Despite the grammatical error in its name, the restaurant serves excellent sandwiches and salads and makes a legit French macaron as well. The speck (smoked prosciutto), fuyu persimmon, shallot marmellata, arugula, and goat cheese sandwich on olive bread was my favorite for flavor, although I found it tough to tear through the speck, which they need to slice more thinly before serving; the olive-oil poached tuna sandwich with yellow pepper aioli and farmer’s egg (I didn’t know farmers laid eggs, but perhaps that’s a new mutation) was much easier to eat but needed more acidity somewhere in the mix. That was a better option than Kebab House, which is outstanding if you’re looking for cheap eats near the ballpark but was much heavier and I think a little overloaded with garlic.

I am in love with the Mission for breakfast in San Diego, and ended up eating there three mornings out of four; the one variation was at the Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest, where I had a disappointing salmon benedict with a potato/arugula side dish that couldn’t live up to the Mission’s amazing rosemary potatoes. I know the Tractor Room gets raves for its brunches, but I wasn’t there any morning when it was open for breakfast and have to save that for a future trip.

Juniper & Ivy.

I was fortunate enough to have time on Saturday to visit Juniper and Ivy, the new San Diego restaurant from Top Chef (and onetime podcast guest) Richard Blais. I can report that Chef Blais’ hair is even crazier in person. Also, the food was spectacular – different from what I had at the Spence in Atlanta, but with a similarly experimental bent, very much what you’d expect at a place with Blais’ name on it.

(Full disclosure – Richard was kind enough to send out a number of dishes for me to sample, so portions of my meal were complimentary. As always, this doesn’t affect what I’m telling you about the meal or its quality, but I’d prefer you know this information up front.)

The menu is extensive, longer (I think) than the Spence’s, divided into a number of distinct sections: Snacks, Raw items, Pastas, Toasts, Small plates (including salads and vegetable dishes), Entrees, and Desserts. I didn’t really need to capitalize all of those, now that I think about it. The restaurant opens at 4 pm for cocktails and snacks, with the full menu available at 5 pm.

The first item on the Snacks menu is a buttermilk biscuit served with smoked butter. I have never turned down a biscuit, but I think I’m something of a biscuit snob – I like them tender, not flaky; I think buttermilk is overrated; and I demand a browned crust. J&I’s biscuit hit all three points. The texture was more like that of a warm cake than a traditional biscuit, with no layers like you’d expect from biscuits that came out of a can. The buttermilk flavor was subtle – it reminded me of a tangy Southern buttermilk biscuit, without smacking me in the face with that soured milk flavor. And the top was crispy, with the salty smoked butter drizzled over the top. The presentation is slick as well, coming out under glass, served in a miniature cast-iron pot. Blais’ Chicken and Biscuits should be coming to a strip mall near you, damn it.

From the raw menu, I ordered the one item both Chef Blais and my server, Alexis, recommended – Dungeness crab with meyer lemon curd and dill pollen, served on a nasturtium leaf that you roll up to eat the crab mixture, almost like you’re stuffing a grape leaf. The peppery leaf was a good offset for the two sweet elements inside of it (crab meat tastes sweet to me, at least); Blais loves lemon curd, which is the star ingredient in the recipe I cook most often from his Try This At Home, lemon curd chicken, and here I would have been happy with a little more curd to crank up the acidity even further.

Chef Blais sent out the hamachi (yellowtail) crudo, served with a tiny panzanella on top that included sliced olives, giant raisins (I’m not sure what kind but they tasted more like dried cherries than grapes), and samphire – glasswort, a wonderfully crunchy, salty vegetable that isn’t used often enough in my opinion – with a jamón vinaigrette. I enjoyed the panzanella, but at the end of the day, a crudo dish lives and dies by the quality of the fish, and this was top-end, beyond fresh, sliced sashimi-style, and if they’d sent the fish out as one plate and the panzanella as another I’d still rave about both because the fish was that good. (The main food item or category I missed while living in Arizona was quality fish; in fact, the only restaurant where I’d order raw fish preparations in the Valley was, appropriately enough, crudo.)

The Toasts menu had three items, two of which included things I prefer not to eat – raw beef and beef heart – so I went with the vegetarian option, charred black grapes with ricotta, hyssop, and ice wine vinegar. (Hyssop is a strongly flavored herb used in a lot of cough medicines as well as in the liquor Chartreuse.) The grapes were skinned but served whole, all on a giant slab of grilled sourdough bread that was coated with a thin layer of ricotta, a flavor combination (grapes and ricotta, which isn’t even really cheese) I wouldn’t have thought of myself – grapes and cheese, yes, but I think of ricotta as a pretty generic food because I grew up only knowing the kind that came in the plastic tub from the supermarket. (So did Blais, who grew up a few towns over from me.) The creaminess of the ricotta helped balance the sweetness and slight acidity of the grapes plus the brighter acidity of the vinegar, and I’m a pretty big fan of grilled bread in all its permutations. I didn’t really notice the hyssop, or anything that reminded me of Chartreuse.

Chef Blais also suggested the green gazpacho, which is poured tableside – a bowl arrives with “early” green grape tomatoes, green almonds (a new item for me), lime caviar, and what I think was coarsely diced honeydew, after which the rich green soup, which is more like a dressing, is poured over the top, tableside. This was a vegetable-lover’s treat, with all of the huge flavors coming from the produce itself, especially the tomatoes. This is the kind of dish I would have hated twenty years ago because it was all vegetables, and ten years ago because it has tart and savory notes, but now I could easily see this as the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal. It is potent, almost aggressive in its vibrancy, like a spring harvest in a bowl.

It wouldn’t be a meal at a Richard Blais restaurant without at least one weird plate. “Abologna” is pretty much what it sounds like: mortadella, a forcemeat that originated in Bologna, that includes abalone in place of some of the pork fat. J&I’s abologna also includes pistachios and is served in slices with drops of passion fruit-Dijon mustard. Once I got over my initial reaction – the abologna looks like olive loaf, a form of bologna popular in New York that I have always found repulsive – I was shocked by the texture of the abologna, softer than the American bologna, more like an airier paté than a typical forcemeat. The fish added a sea-air flavor but there was nothing fishy about the taste; I think the conflict between the pork and sea flavors is the dish’s defining characteristic. It lacked a contrasting textural element, however; anything this soft needs something hard or crunchy to offset it, even just some grilled bread, and the pistachios weren’t able to fill that need.

That brings me to the best item of the night, the prawn-and-pork rigatoni, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a classic New York Italian red sauce with meat, but this time also uses bits of prawns, which add more texture than anything else. The result is a small plate (a primo portion) of pasta that feels more satisfying because the three main components, the pasta, the pork, and the shrimp, all have some tooth to them. You could split one of those biscuits in half and cover it with this sauce and probably get a line halfway to Escondido. You could also put a few New York Italian grandmothers to shame with this sauce. I’ll even forgive Blais calling it “gravy.” It’s sauce. Salsa pomodoro. Save your gravy for Thanksgiving.

Dessert was one of the treats sent from the kitchen, but it was actually the dessert option I would have chosen of the four on the menu: coconut panna cotta with passion fruit, crushed almond macaron, and jasmine rice sorbet. The sorbet was the most interesting and peculiar sorbets I’ve ever tasted; sorbet is usually kind of a letdown, all ice and no mouthfeel, but this one had the essence of the rice so that one taste brought to mind all the flavors and experiences of sitting in a Thai restaurant, then reinforced by the coconut flavor in the perfect panna cotta. It was also the most visually stunning dish of the night.

Juniper & Ivy also has an exclusive cocktail menu, including a gin drink similar to the Sailor’s Crutch that I liked so much at the Spence. I went for the rum drink this time, however, called Twice on the Vine – rum, grape-tarragon gastrique, lime, and fino (sherry) finish. Aside from the garish magenta color, it was solid, with about the right sweet/sour/strong balance for a rum drink, although the rum itself was a little lost under all of the finishing flavors. (The classic ratio for rum cocktails, especially the one best known as planter’s punch, is encoded in rhyme: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Flip the sweet and sour and you lose the rhyme but get a less cloying result.)

The prices are very reasonable for this kind of cuisine, especially given the superlative quality of the inputs, comparable to the price point of the nearby Searsucker (another great place to eat in downtown San Diego) but providing better presentation and more creativity to the dishes. It’s a little further off the beaten path, however, so it won’t likely get the walk-in traffic that Searsucker could get if it weren’t already so well-regarded. If you’re in San Diego, Juniper & Ivy is well worth the ride over to Little Italy whether it’s for a meal or just drinks and a biscuit.

Umamicatessen & Intelligentsia Coffee.

The offseason buyer’s guides continue with today’s post on the outfield market and yesterday’s on middle infielders. Wednesday’s will cover starting pitchers.

Umamicatessen is the latest creation of Adam Fleischman, the man behind Umami Burger (which I reviewed in February 2010), folding a burger joint into a restaurant with a larger menu that also includes salads, starters, Jewish deli sandwiches (mostly featuring pastrami), artisan hams (including prosciuttos and two types of jamon serrano), various cooked pig dishes created by Top Chef Master Chris Cosentino, and doughnuts made to order. It’s over the top by design, and while some of the more decadent items were too rich for more than a few bites, every item we tried – I went with D-backs beat writer Nick Piecoro – was outstanding.

I focused on the Pigg menu, by Cosentino, ordering pork cracklins ($5) with smoked paprika, sage, and cayenne, as well as the Texas Toast, topped with an obscene quantity of barbecued pig’s tail and a small amount of vinegary cole slaw. The cracklins, one of three lard-fried items on the menu along with crispy pig ears and French fries topped with ham and “brainaise,” were highly addictive, with the crunchy, airy texture of puffed rice but the unmistakable tangy-salty flavor of pork skin. If they had a flaw, it’s that it would be too easy to eat the entire cardboard cone full of them without realizing just how much you were eating (including the sheer quantity of fat).

The Texas Toast ($11) is an enormous plate of food, giant chunks of pig tail that looked a lot like an oversized short rib, fattier on the inside than that cut of cow, and with a slightly tough skin that needed knifework where a short rib can be eaten with a fork (teeth optional). The flavor of the sauce itself was the star item on the plate, elevating the smokiness of the tail with red pepper, cumin, brown sugar, and dark flavors that reminded me of coffee or aged whiskey. Every part of the dish worked together, but the pig’s tail itself was a fair amount of work to eat and I’m sure I left some bits of meat in the middle because I was trying to perform liposuction with a steak knife.

The roasted baby carrots ($4) were a huge bargain considering the quality of the carrots – actual baby carrots, not giant factory-farmed carrots cut and tumbled to look like baby carrots – and the care in their preparation, leaving them ready to eat right up to the half-inch of green extending from the carrot-tops, as well as the smoky red harissa sauce beneath them. The beet salad featured yellow beets (I presume roasted and peeled) with truffled ricotta, wild arugula, and smoked almonds rested primarily on the flavor of the cheese, which was thicker than most ricotta, more like a soft goat cheese, with enough tang to balance the earthy truffle flavor and the pepper notes of the arugula – but the beet was a little lost in the mix, even though overall the salad was excellent.

We ordered two donuts, the tres leches cake donut ($4) and the yeast-raised beignets (two small ones for $4), with the tres leches the clear winner for both of us. The donut itself probably stood on its own, but the combination of milks, caramel, and cinnamon-topped whipped cream turned it into the best coffee cake you’ve ever had in your life. The beignets were a little dry throughout, although the burnt sugar-coffee-chicory dipping sauce was a clever nod to New Orleans-style coffee (and, to be honest, had a lot more flavor).

The draft beer selection included about eight or nine options, running the gamut from IPAs to the Deschutes porter I chose. Nick went with the Bourbon Pig, bacon-washed bourbon with sugar and bitters, topped with a few thin slices of crispy pig’s ear. He described it as “smoky but not too strong. Basically it was wildly dangerous and amazing.”

Speaking of LA, I owe a shout-out to Intelligentsia Coffee, where I had an espresso back in September and got a little free coffee as a gift from a reader. I do love coffee but find most espressos are too harsh to drink without either milk or sugar – and sometimes both. Intelligentsia is one of the very few that uses beans fresh enough and high enough quality that I can drink the resulting espresso straight, with their Black Cat producing a beautiful, viscous shot with bright fruity notes (stop laughing) and a little oak, but none of the bitterness from older beans or much darker roasts. They started in Chicago, with four locations there and now three more in greater L.A., along with roasting operations in both places, and an emphasis on a personalized coffee experience in the store, where you get a barista with his/her own station who takes your order (and offers guidance) and makes your drink. It’s expensive relative to the big chain espresso spots, but you are paying for quality of inputs and the expertise of your barista. I’d rather pay more for that than spend 30% less on battery acid in a demi-tasse.

Osteria Mozza.

I had dinner on Friday night at Osteria Mozza, one of the most popular and famous restaurants in Los Angeles at the moment, joined by my friend and colleague Molly Knight, a known cheese enthusiast and a veteran diner at Mozza. The restaurant is the brainchild of three luminaries in American food, including Mario Batali, who likely needs no introduction. The primary force behind the restaurant and its neighbor, Pizzeria Mozza (next visit!), is Nancy Silverton, co-founder of the legendary La Brea Bakery as well as of Campanile restaurant, where she previously served as pastry chef. The third partner, Joseph Bastianich, is a vintner, restaurateur, and son of Lidia Bastianich, the matron of Italian-American cooking. Names like these don’t always guarantee success, of course, but in this case, the restaurant lives up to its pedigree. Everything we had was outstanding; I would say some dishes were more outstanding than others, but nothing we ordered was less than plus.

The server said the menus are updated daily, so there are no off-menu specials. We went with two starters, two primi (pastas), and one secondo (main), plus a dessert and two beers. I believe it’s the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for myself, just barely surpassing Craftsteak. The wine list looked extensive, as you’d expect given Bastianich’s involvement, but as I can’t drink red wine and couldn’t see white standing up to the duck ragù I went for the smaller beer list instead.

For starters, Molly humored me by letting me order the testina con salsa gribiche, better known in English by the unfortunate moniker “head cheese.” It’s not actually cheese, but is a terrine or aspic made by simmering the cleaned head of a pig (or sometimes cow) so the remaining the cheek and jowl meat ends up set in a gelatin from all of the connective tissue that surrounds it. The resulting terrine can be sliced and served cold, but Mozza slices it thickly, breads one side, and pan-fries it, serving it with a sauce gribiche, an emulsion of egg yolks and mustard to which one adds capers, chopped pickles, and herbs. (One might compare this dish, then, to a hot dog with mustard and relish, but I wouldn’t want to be so crass about it.) The result is very rich, with the strongly-flavored meat surrounded in luxurious gelatin that produces a fat-like mouth feel, while I left thinking I really need to use sauce gribiche a lot more often at home. The pan-frying, by the way, gets rid of the one real objection you might have to head cheese – the stuff looks like the result of some sort of processing accident.

You could build an entire meal just from Mozza’s selection of starters based around fresh mozzarella without getting bored, but we both zeroed in on the burrata (fresh mozzarella wrapped around a suspension of mozzarella bits in cream) with bacon, marinated escarole and caramelized shallots, which I think was my favorite item of the night. The saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, the acidity of the marinated escarole, and the sharp sweetness of the shallots were all beautifully balanced and gave depth to compliment the creamy texture of the cheese, which, while extremely fresh (of course), was mild in flavor.

I would have probably told you before Friday night that I wasn’t a big fan of potato gnocchi, but apparently I’d just never had a truly great rendition prior to tasting Mozza’s gnocchi with duck ragù, a dish we ordered primarily because I’ll eat just about any dish with duck in it. The ragù was strong, with deep earthly flavors and small chunks of tender breast meat, but played a clear second fiddle to those little pillows of love, lighter than any potato gnocchi I’d previously tried. It’s the kind of meat-and-potatoes dish I could stand behind.

Molly ordered one of her favorite primi, the goat cheese ravioli with five lilies sauce. The pasta was as thin as I’ve ever come across in ravioli, but with good tooth thanks to strong gluten development, wrapped around a thin layer of assertive chevre-style goat cheese; those thin wrappers produce a much better pasta/filling ratio than you typically get from filled pastas. The “five lilies” sauce refers to five members of the allium family – garlic, onion, chives, scallions, and leeks – which stands up well to the tangy goat cheese.

We went with one main, the short rib braised in Barolo wine and served over a very soft, creamy polenta. I’ve never met a short rib dish I didn’t like, and the braise was perfect, producing a rib that stands up on the plate but pulls apart with no effort. If I was to criticize anything we had all night, it might be that the exterior of the short rib was on the soft side, so it might not have been seared that much (it was definitely seared at some point) before the braise. But the criticism is a bit absurd, as the dish was still a 70.

For dessert, we went with the house-made gelato, mint chip and coffee side-by-side with a giant pizzelle with a faint anise flavor. The texture was perfectly smooth, no hint of ice crystals or of extra overrun; the coffee was a little sweeter than I like my coffee ice creams (but I admit I like coffee and chocolate ice creams to be as dark as possible), while the mint chip surprised with real mint flavor – not like an extract, but like actual mint leaves, brighter, fresher, and less harsh than your typical mint-flavored ice creams. (Plus, it wasn’t green.)

We sat at one of the two bars in Osteria Mozza and, at 7 pm on a Friday, didn’t have to wait to be seated, but there were no regular tables available before 10:30 pm at that point. (I actually love sitting at the bar in restaurants, alone or with a friend; you’re rarely forgotten by your server and you often get to see a lot of what’s going on in the kitchen, or at least what’s coming out of it.) The prices are not for the faint of heart, but as I said to Molly when we left, this wasn’t so much dinner but an experience, the kind of meal you might only have a few times in your life, but one you’ll think about for weeks afterwards.

Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, & San Diego eats.

MB Post in Manhattan Beach is set in a former post office and, despite a trying-way-too-hard hipster vibe, the food is excellent. It’s a tapas bar in practice, although they use the tired “little plates” euphemism, bringing together Spanish, American, and southeast Asian influences; every dish we ordered was enough for two to share but would have been stretched for three, except for the Brussels sprouts (with hazelnuts and Emmentaler) which was roughly a week’s supply. The first winner was the warm pretzel with hot horseradish-mustard, a sinus-clearing (that’s good) dipping sauce that probably should be served at every decent burger joint in the country. The confit pork belly with Swiss chard and corn agnolotti, one of the nightly specials, was soft enough to spread on toast and very generous with the chard, although I found the agnolotti almost dessert-sweet. The menu includes a number of vegetable dishes that highlight the star ingredient (as opposed to just satisfying the demand for vegetarian options), like the marinated cucumbers with peppadew peppers and crunchy roasted and fried chickpeas and the aforementioned Brussels sprouts – and the giant “fee fi fo fum fries” are stellar, brown and salty and not greasy with a mayo-based dipping sauce. The menu changes daily, though, so the vietnamese caramel pork or the yellowtail sashimi with yuzu may not be there if you head over. It’s one of the best and most fun upscale meals I’ve had in a while.

Over in Long Beach, I tried the tiny, family-run (I presume) Korean place Sura, sparsely furnished but featuring the dish I was after, bibimbap. (They also have short ribs and bulgogi, which are the only other authentic Korean dishes I really know.) The bibimbap was good by my ignorant standards, with fresh ingredients and the egg brought tableside for me to crack directly into the hot bowl. Service was a little weird – the meal came with four small plates of “sides,” mostly pickled and/or fermented vegetables, which I tried, but since I hadn’t cleared them my server said, “oh, you haven’t even touched them.” I guess I missed the pre-meal contract obligating me to clean every plate. But I’d go again for the food.

Moving on to San Diego … I finally got to Neighborhood, which many of you recommended last year when I was taking the family there while I covered a Padres series. I love their philosophy, but wasn’t sold on the execution. The Local Animal sandwich is a good microcosm of the problem – what’s not to like about two kinds of pork (sausage and braised pork, presumably shoulder), caramelized onions, and gruyere on a crusty roll? Well, the fact that it’s not a sandwich, for one, but has the remaining ingredients, including a mustard/molasses glaze, sitting on top of bread that can’t be picked up or closed. And the piling of flavors just left the whole thing muddled, sweet and slightly tangy but with the pork, which should be the star of the show, left somewhere in the second or third row. The fries, which come with garlic mayo (they claim to have no ketchup on the premises), were extremely hot and so greasy that a package of Viagra wouldn’t have helped them. Neighborhood does have an outstanding beer selection; I went with the Alesmith Speedway Stout, which at 12% had its intended effect rather quickly.

I also met up with a couple of readers for lunch at the Burger Lounge location in Hillcrest on University. It’s a solid-average burger, made from high-quality local beef (their site claims it’s all from one farm where cows are grass-fed and are “well treated”), but without many choices for toppings (just two cheeses, white cheddar, which I don’t like, and American, which is just nauseous). The fries were solid-average as well, crispier a garlic-herb mixture sprinkled on top. And they have ketchup. I do actually like ketchup on my fries, crazy American that I am.

I can still vouch for breakfast at The Mission in North Park – rosemary bread, rosemary potatoes, perfectly cooked eggs, and a great atmosphere – but a return visit to the downtown Cafe 222 after many years was disappointing – their pumpkin pie waffle was just a mushy mess and tasted of stale spices, not pumpkin or pumpkin pie.

Catching up on recent eats…

‘Pomo Pizzeria*, located just north of Old Town Scottsdale in the pretentious Borgata shopping center, has been certified by the Neapolitan authority that travels the world and gives its imprimatur to pizzerias serving authentic Naples-style pizza. It lacks the cachet of Pizzeria Bianco, but has the benefit of being easier to patronize, since they’re open for lunch and take reservations, with a product that’s nearly as good as their more famous rival.

*Yes, there’s an apostrophe before the word ‘Pomo, something I have yet to decipher. The Italian word for tomatoes is pomodoro, but if the restaurant’s name derives from that word the apostrophe is on the wrong end. Perhaps the Borgata’s owners insisted on the apostrophe to ratchet up the restaurant’s elitist factor.

‘Pomo’s menu is straightforward – a few antipasti, salads, and many pizza options with an extensive list of ingredients, several of which are imported from Italy, including mozzarella di bufala and proscuitto di Parma. The oven runs up to 950 degrees, on the low end of acceptable for this kind of product, and the crust had the requisite slight char with plenty of lift to it. Neapolitan pizza doughs are very thin in the center and should still be wet when they reach the table, although they’ll tend to firm up as the pizza cools; don’t be alarmed by reviews that call it “soggy,” as that’s an application of an American standard for pizza to a completely different product. The texture is fine, while the dough’s taste is a little quiet compared to the toppings.

I went with two other writers, Nick Piecoro and Molly Knight, and somehow we all ended up with pizzas that boasted at least one pork product. I went with a bianca pizza, one of maybe a half-dozen tomato-less options on the menu, featuring mozzarella, prosciutto, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, a combination that would be too salty and acidic if you layered any sort of cooked tomatoes underneath them. Nick and Molly both went for tomato-based pizzas featuring more charcuterie, including the diavolo, featuring a spicy salame that ‘Pomo uses in lieu of pepperoni (which is fine by me, as I find most pepperoni to be harsh).

There’s a definite focus here on fresh and authentic ingredients; the mixed greens in the salad were immaculate, the Parmiggiano-Reggiano was the real deal (not some American or Argentine knockoff), and the tomatoes come from San Marzano (although I admit I probably wouldn’t know the difference on that score). They also offer a handful of Moretti beers for about $5 apiece, including La Rossa, a red beer that’s about 8% alcohol that is outstanding but requires that I surrender my keys before ordering. Total damage for three pizzas (which run $11-16 each), a salad, a beer, and four glasses of wine was about $105 with tax but before tip, and we had probably 2/3 of a pizza left over. It wasn’t quite the transformative experience that my one meal at Pizzeria Bianco was, but it is among the best pizza experiences I’ve ever had in the United States, one I strongly recommend.

Speaking of authentic pizza in America, in December my family and I went to Via Napoli, the new restaurant in Walt Disney World at Epcot’s Italy pavilion; we were lucky to get two reservations in our week in Orlando but I understand it’s become a tough ticket as word has spread. Via Napoli’s menu is somewhat limited, with fewer toppings available and not much in the way of salads, but more antipasto options including some expertly fried verdure fritte (fried vegetables) and prosciutto e mela (prosciutto and fresh cantaloupe). The restaurant boasts three giant wood-fired ovens and the dough is superb, with thicker crusts (perhaps to suit American palates?) but less of the trademarked char on the exterior. As with ‘Pomo, Via Napoli imports many of its key ingredients and I felt the mozzarella they used was more flavorful, perhaps because it contained a little more salt. (Cheese without salt is like water without oxygen.) The dessert menu includes real gelato and a new take on zeppole, the Italian version of fried dough; Via Napoli’s includes ricotta cheese in the mix, which you’d expect would make the end product heavier but instead creates these soft, slightly sweet pillows of dough that don’t actually need any accompaniments but oh hey you brought some dark chocolate sauce so I feel obliged to use it. Via Napoli is where I discovered La Rossa and where I discovered that a large serving of it will keep me inebriated for at least six solid hours.

On to Los Angeles from mid-February, where I’ll start with the last meal I had, Bludso’s BBQ in Compton on Long Beach Boulevard, a real hole in the wall that focuses on takeout with an emphasis on brisket and beef ribs. The service was definitely more Texas than downtown LA, and when I asked what the specialty was the woman behind the counter insisted that I sample the brisket before ordering; it was smoky and tender and didn’t need sauce to provide flavor or moisture, although the salty-sweet-earthy sauce they use is a good complement. For takeout they package their meats in foil with a healthy dose of sauce, enough that it started to drown out the meat’s flavors, but that’s easily fixed by asking for less sauce or for the sauce on the side. The ribs were smaller than I expected but had good tooth and pulled away from the bone pretty easily. The collard greens were deep-South style, cooked low and slow with plenty of liquor included; the baked beans had become soft and mushy but had strong flavors from the meat included in them. For about $11 you can get two meats, two sides, a piece of northern-style (that is, very sweet) cornbread, and some of that white bread that people in Texas always serve with Q but that just confuses everyone else. Yes, it’s a bad area, but it’s worth seeking out.

I met my friend Jay Berger at his local favorite sushi place, Yoshi’s Sushi on Santa Monica in West Hollywood. We had nothing but nigiri, which has become my style anyway after reading The Story of Sushi last summer. About half came with a ponzu sauce, including the yellowtail and the halibut; everything was fresh and only the salmon was disappointing, although I should know by now that salmon nigiri is not very authentic – I just love salmon in any preparation. The albacore, which I usually find kind of boring, and red snapper were both among the best I’ve had of each kind of fish. However, I tried octopus for the first time and am still chewing it three weeks later. Next time I’ll stick with the raw stuff.

And I should throw another mention at Square One Dining in Hollywood, which is becoming my breakfast ritual when I’m in town for the Compton workout. Square One focuses on natural, local ingredients, and their breakfasts include some real throwback elements, like bacon rashers cut about three times as thick as you’d get at a typical diner or fresh eggs cooked to order. My only criticism is that despite using good tea, somehow it’s already overbrewed and bitter when it reaches the table, which makes me think they have pots of tea ready to go for breakfast service – thoughtful, but counterproductive.

San Diego eats + ESPN linkage.

My hypothetical awards ballots are up, and some of the comments are priceless – mostly whining about bias or calling me an idiot. You can also see my briefer-than-normal scouting reports on the eight playoff teams:

Minnesota Twins
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays
Texas Rangers

Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Philadelphia Phillies
San Francisco Giants

I hope to resume regular dish blogging now that those playoff previews are done. Thanks for bearing with me.

We didn’t make it to my old favorite, Cafe 222 (waffle heaven), but did get to The Mission, recommended by readers and by a scout as well. It pushes a hipster vibe but on Sunday morning the place was full of families with young kids, so all the talk about “revolution” seems a little silly. All of the food was fresh with bright colors, and the egg dishes come with two slices of light, airy rosemary bread that I’d probably buy by the loaf if I lived in San Diego. The blueberry-cornmeal pancakes were a disappointment, as they’re not cornmeal pancakes but regular pancakes with some coarsely-ground cornmeal thrown on the griddle – dry – with pancake batter poured over them, resulting in an unpleasant, pebble-like texture that ruined what was otherwise a soft, fluffy pancake. The meats, both bacon and chicken apple sausage, were better, while the rosemary potatoes were hit or miss, with some pieces perfect but others overcooked. I’d like to try them again while ordering differently.

Our other breakfast spot was Brian’s 24 on 6th, offering huge portions of solid-average food (eggs, pancakes, french toast) but nothing spectacular. It had the advantages of being fairly quick and walkable from our hotel, but I’d rate it behind the Mission and Cafe 222.

Ortega’s Mexican Bistro in Hillcrest was the huge dinner find, authentic homestyle Mexican cooking in a more upscale setting. The restaurant is in what looks like a converted two-story house with funky internal architectural features and lots of distressed wood, but really, who cares about that when you have someone in the back making fresh flour tortillas by hand? I might fly to San Diego once a week to grab a bag of those things – the texture and fullness was amazing, and if you told me they used lard in there I’d believe you. The roasted-tomato salsa that came with the chips before the meal was also outstanding, thick but not unwieldy and not in the least watery, and they make a very solid jamaica agua fresca. The sopecitos appetizer was rich, a little too dense for me (that’s a comment on my tastes, though, as “dense” may be authentic for all I know), and didn’t need the sour crema laced over the tops. Their carnitas were superbly done, no hint of dryness with lots of crispy edges, and with the sides of rice and charro beans it was more than either of us could finish. That whole Hillcrest neighborhood looks like the kind of place I’d love to live.

We had one dinner in the Gaslamp district – I got a lot of suggestions from readers, but many weren’t appropriate for dinner with a four-year-old – so we called an audible and went to Trattoria la Bocca, offering well-made if overpriced Italian food. My wife’s mushroom risotto was perfectly cooked, just al dente with a creamy (texture, not flavor) sauce that didn’t overwhelm the rice or mushrooms; I had a sauteed veal dish with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and zucchini where every element was cooked properly but the dish as a whole had too many competing flavors. For what it’s worth, of those reader recommendations, the most intriguing one was a bar-restaurant called Neighborhood, which will be at the top of my list of places to hit the next time I’m in San Diego by myself.

Right near Petco is a small boutique shop called Cupcake Heaven that sells … well, you know. We tried several kinds over the 48-odd hours we were there, with the chocolate-chocolate and peanut butter ones my favorites; the peanut butter frosting had a texture somewhere between mousse and buttercream, and there were peanuts in the cupcake itself, resulting in something like the lightest peanut butter cookie you’ve ever had. The pumpkin cupcake’s frosting was very gingery, fine for me but lost on my ginger-hating wife. And the cupcakes were still fairly moist the second day.

I only tried one concession stand at Petco, Randy Jones’ BBQ, which was nothing more than standard, boring ballpark Q drowned in a sticky-sweet sauce. I hope there’s something better there for Padre fans.

Hollywood eats.

My first draft column of 2010 is up today, a breakdown of Saturday’s showcase at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in LA, featuring just about every top senior in SoCal this year. (One guy was missing, and I’m working on finding out why.) There’s also a clip of my ESPNEWS hit today, talking Victor Martinez (my most boring answer of the day, of course). And I’ll be on ESPN Radio’s Baseball Tonight in the 10 pm EST hour tonight.

To the eats:

First meal was at Umami Burger in Hollywood, which turned out to be within walking distance of my hotel, which made me feel rather stupid for driving there and rocking the GPS to go a whopping 0.4 miles or so. Anyway, it’s a good burger, made from the relatively unknown cut of cow called flap meat, which has a strong beefy flavor and responds well to quick searing (so I don’t think you want to go past medium on your burger here). Where they shine is in the toppings, a mix of grilled and roasted vegetables designed, in theory, to hit that “fifth taste” of umami; I know I spotted caramelized onions, some kind of roasted tomato, and a little cracker made from grated, griddled Parmiggiano cheese, served on a Portuguese (and therefore slightly sweet) roll. I strongly recommend the burger, but skip the fries and try the thick-battered onion rings, with a crunchy crust that shatters on impact.

Sticking with Hollywood, I went to Ike Sushi at Hollywood and Gower, buried in a corner strip mall, which turned out to be a great find. The fish was fresh – I’m not sure how a sushi place in LA would stay open if they didn’t use the freshest fish – and other than the salmon, just barely laced with a little ponzu and some finely minced scallion, it was all served straight-up, including some of the best yellowtail I’ve ever had (Ike also had yellowtail belly, or toro, a good find although it was a little tougher than what I get at Koi in Seal Beach) and very strong maguro. Six or seven orders of fish, including tip, was under $40. They’re apparently known for their rolls and combinations, if that’s more to your tastes, but when I’m in California I want the real deal.

Breakfast the next morning was at Square One Dining, a recommendation from dak of FireJoeMorgan fame. They specialize in local & organic ingredients, and the menu incorporates a lot of fresh vegetables in their omelettes and baked egg dishes. The basil and asparagus omelette with goat cheese and squash was fresh all over, but a little light on flavor – it needed salt, but also could have used some oomph from a spice or a bitter vegetable. The thyme-roasted potatoes were golden and crispy and tasted a little more fried than roasted, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and they had an excellent tea selection, with large bags of either whole leaves or something close to it.

I also went back to the Culver City location of Versailles, a small local chain of Cuban restaurants, which I hit last year as well. I mention it here to recommend it again (the lechon asado is excellent, and the service is fast – I was in and out inside of 20 minutes after sitting at the counter) and to torment Joe Sheehan, who recommended it to me in the first place.

Los Angeles eats.

Versailles, recommended to me by Joe Sheehan, is a local mini-chain serving authentic Cuban food and I ate at their location on Venice Blvd in Culver City. The menu is extensive, so I asked the waiter for suggestions, and without hesitating, he pointed to three. Figuring that was a good sign, I went with his pick from the list of pork dishes, lechon asado, pork shoulder marinated in a citrus-based mojo and then roasted for several hours at a low temperature. The meat should pull apart easily with a fork, which it did, and it had been largely trimmed of exterior fat. The sauce was too tart for me to just eat the pork on its own, but the buttery white rice that came with the dish was a perfect complement that cut the acidity of the meat. (I admit I followed the example of the young Cuban kid sitting next to me, who was inhaling a roast chicken dish by mixing everything together on his fork. His meal didn’t stand a chance.) The maduros were insanely good – who needs dessert when you have maduros? They are dessert – and the meal also came with a small cup of black bean soup that was a little bit thin but also not as heavy as most black bean soups I’ve had. I actually went to Versailles with an hour or so to kill before heading to LAX for my redeye and ended up in and out of the restaurant inside of a half-hour. You order, and in a few minutes, the dish is in front of you. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, though.

The rain on Sunday morning meant I could have a regular lunch before going to the MLB complex in Compton. The Waffle, on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, was hopping at noon on Sunday, and as you might imagine, they serve … waffles. They’re Belgian-style in shape, although they’re not as light as true Belgian waffles, which are made by folding beaten egg whites into a waffle batter that contains an absurd amount of butter. These were closer to traditional waffles that had been baked on a Belgian-style waffle iron, so they were on the dense side, and the plain waffle had a subtle taste of vanilla but otherwise tasted a little plain. The “house sausage” was good, not too greasy or too spicy, just solid-average.

The issue of Los Angeles magazine in my room had an article on the area’s twenty top bakeries, which was as clear a call to action as I’ve ever seen. One of the things I dislike most about living in Boston, aside from the permafrost, is the lack of decent bakeries. Aside from a very small number of good shops in Back Bay, we don’t have good ethnic bakeries or good high-end bakeries around here. I do a lot of baking, but there’s a difference between wanting a cookie and making an entire batch. I only made it to two of the twenty shops recommended, in part because one of the options, Amandine in West L.A., is still in business but apparently never open.

La Provence Patisserie, tucked into a strip mall on the south side of West Olympic in Beverly Hills, was more style than substance. Their almond croissant was very good, flaky, not dry, with real (possibly homemade?) almond paste inside, but their big seller, their macaroons, were insanely overpriced ($2 apiece for a tiny sandwich in any of a half-dozen fluorescent colors) and tasted like sugar rather than coconut. There was a clear see-and-be-seen vibe to the place, and since I have no particular need to be seen and no desire to see, that didn’t add anything to the experience.

The Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica was a better bet. They do cupcakes, and despite the name, they do a lot of chocolate cupcakes. I went with the sampler, three mini-cupcakes for $5, so I could try three flavors – mint chocolate chip, black and white, and chocolate raspberry. The first two were just chocolate cupcakes with different kinds of buttercream frosting, while the third cupcake was filled with raspberry preserves and topped with chocolate ganache and a fresh raspberry. The bottom line here is the cupcakes: moist and very dark with a strong cocoa flavor, while not too sweet. You get enough sugar in the frosting, so backing off the sweetness in the cake is the right call. They do have non-chocolate flavors, and their specific varieties depend on the day, but I didn’t see any point in wasting time on something that wasn’t chocolate.

Dana Point eats.

I did breakfast both days at Harbor House, a diner right on PCH in Dana Point, going back on day two because day one’s meal was so good. That first meal was scrambled eggs with chorizo, home fries, and toast. The eggs/chorizo were probably the best I’ve ever had – not overwhelmingly spicy (seriously, I can only take so much heat at 8:30 a.m.), obviously made to order rather than as part of a huge batch – and the home fries were just a pinch of salt away from perfection, with no grease, plenty of crispy browned bits, and soft interiors. The second meal was pancakes, bacon, and eggs; the pancakes were solid-average, good but unremarkable in flavor and – like most pancakes – a little heavy, and while the bacon came in thick slices that could have been fried a little longer to get some crisp to them.

I had one lunch at R.J.’s in Dana Point Harbor, although they’re also open for breakfast and seem to have a local following. The turkey sandwich with feta is pretty much just that, turkey roasted in-house with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a sprinkling of feta cheese, plus mayo if you’re so inclined (I wasn’t). The turkey was excellent, nothing like the cheap previously-sliced stuff you get in too many restaurants, and the bread (a French roll) was obviously fresh. The sandwich comes with soup or salad; you might want to try the soup, as the salad was drowned twice over in dressing. Getting into the place was kind of tricky; the best way seems to be to go westbound on Dana Point Harbor Drive and pull into the lot just past the intersection with Golden Lantern.

My other lunch was too much of a good thing, a Mexican place called Olemandi right across from the beach. The food was amazing, but the portion sizes were absolutely over the top. Their carnitas are among the best I’ve ever had, moist but with some browned ends, deeply flavored but neither too acidic nor too spicy, allowing the flavor of the meat to still take center stage. The dish comes with a small amount of very good Spanish rice, a large serving of refried beans, plus tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, and so on. All of that plus easily 3/4 pound to one pound of carnitas makes a great value for $16, but it’s also ridiculous to send that much food back when, like me, you have no place to which you can take leftovers. Oh, and the meal comes with tortilla soup, which was very rustic (just a delicious broth and tortilla strips with a little diced tomato) but sort of added to the gluttony. I can’t really complain about having too much food, but sending that quantity of food to the disposal/trash does bother me a lot.

I had one very, very bad meal on the trip, sushi at Gen Kai in Dana Point. The fish was bland, boring, slightly tough, and way too cold. I wouldn’t say it was bad in the sense of going bad, since I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was unacceptably low quality fish. Even the green tea was a mess (way too hot – green tea should be brewed at around 160 degrees). I did make it up to myself by stopping in Seal Beach en route to the airport and having my last meal of the trip at Koi, amazing as usual and relatively quiet for a place that usually offers a wait for a seat at the sushi bar.