Just 15 years ago, San Diego was a sleepy Navy town distinguished mostly for its beautiful climate and proximity to Tijuana, Mexico. Fine-dining options were few, and mostly steeped in older European traditions. But today, the region's growth -- in population, convention/tourist traffic and sophistication -- is igniting a vibrant restaurant scene. Drawing upon a bounty of local ingredients, young, inventive chefs and managers address new market opportunities by opening their own, way edgier restaurants.
Chef Amiko Gubbins and manager Robert Butterfield worked together for a long time before deciding to open their own place: Parallel 33, in Mission Hills. The name and cuisine mix philosophy and culinary adventure.
While gardening, and pondering food's contributions to the development of civilization, Butterfield says he realized that San Diego sits on the same latitudinal degree as the "Fertile Crescent" -- the Middle East's Tigris-Euphrates valley, where early man first became a farmer instead of a hunter-gatherer. Tracing that parallel around the globe, he connected San Diego to other climate-blessed places, including Morocco, Lebanon, India, China and Japan.
Long fascinated with the flavors and texture of exotic food, Gubbins devised a menu focused on 33rd-parallel cultures -- producing her interpretations of classic dishes and even executing her own inspirations. Signatures draw raves: ahi poke, with Asian pear, mango and spicy wasabi dressing; warm, phyllo-encased chicken b'stilla, with Moroccan spice, almonds and preserved lemons; and pan-seared Goan shrimp curry, with coconut basmati rice.
The restaurant's intimate interior meanders along the same global circuit, using natural materials, evocative spiritual symbols and sculpture of assorted deities. Toast the occasion with Tears of the Prophet, an amazingly refreshing cocktail mixing Absolut Mandarin and pomegranate juice, garnished with fresh mint.
Chef partners Michael Stebner and Allyson Colwell represent their Hillcrest restaurant, Region, as a modest "neighborhood place." But, this eatery is just too special not to be discovered by diners-at-large and lauded by national press.
An avid supporter of the Slow Food movement, Stebner calls his cooking genre "Farm Fresh Cuisine" -- essentially California-style, incorporating Mediterranean influences, with food that's local, seasonal and sustainably grown. Colwell is the official "forager," ferreting out the best ingredients and creating partnerships with local producers.
Try the daily-changing "Trust the Chef" menu. It delivers four courses: an appetizer; pasta, risotto or pizza; entree; and dessert.
Overall, the decor is understated to spartan. "Trust" is spelled out in large brass letters on an interior wall. A chalkboard lists the featured producers. But don't be deceived into thinking that this "simple" cuisine, in a rustic environment, is simplistic.
Each day, the kitchen hand-makes pastas, ice cream and desserts. Curing his own charcuterie -- mortadella, prosciutto, salami -- Stebner presents a world-class antipasti platter. Desserts -- seasonal panna cottas; goat cheese mousse, with cherries and almond milk sherbet; warm, homemade doughnuts, with Meyer lemon curd and candied almonds -- are heart-stopping, as is Region's reasonable pricing.
Kensington Grill, Chive and Laurel
London-born, with an art and theater background, restaurateur Tracy Borkum has been described as the Karl Lagerfeld of restaurant interiors. But it's the total package -- not only gorgeous ambience and sophisticated service, but also fabulous food -- that earns her kudos.
Her three, very smart restaurants -- Kensington Grill, Chive and Laurel -- plus a catering company, operate under the banner of San Diego Urban Kitchens. Each has its own magnetic personality and distinctive culinary profile.
Kensington Grill, the first venture, offers a neighborhood environment with a menu ranging from comfort foods, such as meatloaf and short ribs, to Asian and Mediterranean influenced fish, lamb, pork and duck.
Chive, a hip modern room in the Gaslamp Quarter, goes upmarket with global fusion food -- lemon-grass glazed blue prawn, with bay scallop, Okanawa sweet potato and eggplant in red curry broth; bourbon-coffee glazed beef short rib, with Chinese long beans and buttermilk onion rings -- plus a selection of small plates for grazers.
Undoubtedly, the star of Borkum's restaurant triad, though, is Laurel, a contemporary space exuding glamour and youthful elegance. In 2006, it claimed awards for Best Food and Best Wine & Bar Selection and placed second for Best Value and Best Service. It was also the only place in San Diego to earn four Mobil stars.
Laurel's cuisine applies modern sensibilities to French and Mediterranean traditions: roasted baby- beet frisee salad, with ricotta salata, dill-cream and toasted-pistachio vinaigrette; smoked elk carpaccio, with toasted almonds, lemon oil, arugula and blueberry lavender coulis; herb-crusted rack of Australian lamb, with ratatouille and white-bean basil puree.
All three places have excellent wine programs and knowledgeable sommeliers to skillfully match wines by the glass to diverse dishes. Another boon: Each restaurant offers a series of tasting menus, including an early-bird, pre-theater special.
Just arrived, Jsix -- in the Hotel Solamar, a new development by boutique hotel developer Kimpton Hotels -- showcases sleek design and compelling coastal California cuisine. The lunch menu offers items to share -- clay-pot shrimp, Kobe beef lettuce wraps, passion fruit ceviche -- plus brilliant soups, salads and such stellar sandwiches as a lobster BLT on homemade bread, with bacon, sundried tomatoes, lettuce and a secret dressing. At dinner, delve into assorted small plates or large-plate entrees -- especially the signature Baja fish soup of shrimp, clams, fin fish and calamari in a robust tomato-fennel broth.
Among the house-made desserts, find satisfaction in an ice-cream sundae, with caramel sauce, chocolate and mint, or the Satanic Brownie with fresh berries. The wine list spans white and reds from the Baja to hard-to-find boutique bottlings from Walla Walla, Wash.
Of course, by no means should you ignore San Diego's other, high-profile dining destinations. Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe, Bertrand at Mr. A's, Jack's at La Jolla, George's at the Cove and Nine-Ten, also in La Jolla. Each delivers such splendid options that you're surely spoiled for choices. And the hot list just keeps on growing.
If you go
Getting there: US Airways just made flying from Pittsburgh to San Diego more difficult: You need to connect through either Philadelphia or Charlotte. Other airlines also require a connection.
Getting around: A 10-minute taxi ride from the airport, $12, takes you downtown or to the adjacent Marina and Gaslamp Quarter districts. All major hotel chains have locations in these areas. But, remember that San Diego County encompasses 4,261 square miles of distinctive communities. So pick a hotel near your area of interest, and still anticipate some traveling.
Petco Park: The new home of baseball's Padres is on the eastern edge of the Gaslamp Quarter. Beyond city center, Old Town surrounds the Mission which was San Diego's first settlement. Hillcrest is a favored residential area, with notable restaurants. Further north, Mission Hills has several hotels, a large shopping center and Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers.
Coronado Island: If you savor the sea, Coronado Island is just offshore, across a beautifully curved bridge. The magnificent black-and-white clapboard Hotel Del Coronado was location for scenes from the film "Some Like it Hot."
Along the beach: Closest to the city center, picture postcard perfect La Jolla offers the glorious cove, plus stylish shopping, eateries and clubs. Unique and luxurious quarters mark the Grande Colonial Hotel and La Valencia here. Additional luxury is found at L'Auberge Resort & Spa, in Del Mar.
Inland: Move inland to explore assorted suburban communities, like Rancho Santa Fe, stretching along the freeway - -all easily reachable via Interstate 5. But, beware of rush hours when an unfortunate replica of Los Angeles traffic testifies to the area's rapid population growth.
Details: www.sandiego.org .