BEYOND THE GILDED terrace, the line block-ading strollers from progressing down Fifth Avenue usually numbers 20-plus moderately patient souls. Gaslamp’s Cafe 21 typically is
so jammed for brunch that manager Jason Ernst calls the scene outdoors “the fire drill on my patio.” On weekends, it seems the whole town hankers for zucchini flower omelets; cloud-like pancakes smothered with homemade peach marmalade; and the “grow, sea, fly,” a one-of-a-kind arrangement (as perhaps it should be) of amaranth grain, grits, shrimp and duck eggs. Ernst choreographs dashing staffers and restive waiters like a skilled ballet master. No wonder. We know the fragrant “apple cinnamon cast-iron pancake” isn’t made of cast iron; it puffs in a 12-inch skillet. Utterly intimidating in size (you’ll eat it all), this hybrid pancake-omelet is sweet, lovely and mouth-scorchingly hot. Unimaginably imaginative morning cocktails cost $15 and sell like hotcakes. A buffet in a Hurricane glass, the Prawn Star Bloody Mary encompasses skewered olives, pepperoncini and pickled onions; long sticks of crisped prosciutto; an asparagus spear; a mushroom cap; and, looming above, a real prawn — a big guy, satisfyingly succulent and definitely not a shrimp. It’s a salad with vodka. Much less than a nautical mile away, Spike Africa’s also serves a Bloody Mary that boasts a boastful shrimp. It better pre-cedes the exceptional ceviche than the “OMG” cinnamon sticky buns, which stick to your ribs and other anatomical areas. Spike’s has elevated the south-east crossing of Broadway and Fourth from downtown’s most rugged corner to a civilized perch for brunching on chicken chilaquiles, crab-asparagus quiche and chef Paul Rinaudi’s favorite: a huge, inimitably orange construction of buttermilk biscuits, shrimp and bacon buried in a lava-like sauce that tastes far better than the color suggests.
DUELING DUCKS duke it out daylight and darktime. Noonishly on Sundays, at Brooklyn Girl in Mission Hills, the Duck Duck Duck piles quacker confit, peppers and potatoes, orange-jalapeño marmalade, a fried duck egg and duck cracklings on rye. Good, but we confess a preference for the crab cake-based eggs Benedict. Sunday evenings draw cognoscenti to Duck Confit Night at University Height’s elbow-rubbing-cozy Farm House Cafe. Olivier Bioteau proves that not all ducks waddle the same way by presenting a new version of confit weekly. Around the bend at 4615 Park Blvd., the new Red House Pizza (pictured above) makes no idle promise when it proffers “pizza made with pure love.” A pleasing selection of crusts — traditional, whole wheat, thin with herbs and gluten-free — propose tender foundations for combinations occasionally named for neighbor-hood streets. The Madison — topped with arugula, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms — is memorably good, like the Sophia, adorned with gourmet handmade meatballs. Mama mia, meatball madness is sweeping San Diego. Tack-sharp restaurateur Alex Minutella, known for snaring extremely advantageous leases, met his match with the short-lived Sora, a perplexingly Japanese-Italian fusion concept that confusioned everybody. In a prestigious but lonely West Broadway tower that few ever have wished to visit after dark (who remembers the unmemorable Crescent Heights Kitchen & Bar of circa 2008?), the place has reopened as Meatball Cucina. The more mainstream menu spares neighborhood residents the hike to Little Italy.
HOLY COW, there’s no predicting which way the culinary winds will waft over Coronado. On Orange Avenue, Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge opened well a couple of years ago and then nosedived so badly that sages among us vowed “never again” — until we heard a kitchen rethink culminated in food worth cross-ing the bridge for. The new menu delights foodies and word fanciers alike, thanks to menu descriptions like the “holey cow, bacon jam, truffle fries” printed under the listing for the boldly beautiful Brandt beef burger. “Holey cow,” of course, is Swiss cheese, one savory element in a plate that has many. The bacon jam is just that, and the more the merrier. Double-dip the pungent frites in lemon aioli and pomegranate ketchup.
MANY A SELF-ANNOINTED chef would fear to attempt the classic preparations that come naturally to Robert Hohmann of 1500 Ocean at Hotel del Coronado. Vitello tonnato, wonderful but little known in San Diego, is delicate and made exceptionally well by a martial arts expert whose forearms bear the tattooed mottoes “Pain is Temporary” and “Pride is Forever” in Japanese characters. Tender slices of veal repose in a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce accented with tuna (canned and Italian for authenticity), preserved lemon, arugula and caper berries. More about the chef soon. Bice Ristorante, one of Gaslamp’s handful of truly good restaurants, recently commenced offering vitello tonnato as well. The menu describes it as “thinly sliced roasted veal tenderloin in a caper mayonnaise sauce and a touch of tuna,” which is a tad wordy but accurate. The flavors are supremely pleasure inducing.
Dish: By David Nelson • Photography by Martin Mann