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.
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.