Vistal’s Crackerjack Pound Cake
Our gossiping gourmet reviews Vistal, plus more food news and reviews
Writing a menu that intrigues right to the finish is difficult, but well within the abilities of long-serving local chefs Paul McCabe and Amy DiBiase. The two jointly rule the kitchen of Vistal, the third-floor restaurant in downtown’s new, decidedly upscale InterContinental San Diego hotel. The spacious room and outdoor terrace showcase the hotel’s plum location above the Embarcadero and bay, and even were the sweet-corn pound cake not studded with enticing honey-caramel popcorn (and dressed with vanilla gelato and a fig), it would be quite the finish to an imaginative meal. Dine outside and there’s no need to imagine the glamorous, unexpectedly intimate views, with colored lights dancing above the USS Midway, and airplanes soaring from Lindbergh Field into platinum clouds snuggling a pink sunset. Paul and Amy create dishes that fill the mouth with novel flavors, like an appetizer of crusty seared ahi belly, basted with garlic butter, served on a bed of maitake mushrooms and drizzled with citrus-y ponzu sauce. Pickled black cod with sliced Persian cucumbers takes an international approach with lemon juice, pink peppercorns, Japanese plums, a wonderful dash of dill and horseradish. Other notables: caramelized cauliflower ravioli, pork cheeks pungently glazed with coriander and cider and a dessert of coconut “haupia” with blueberry-ginger compote.
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Yes, you do pay at the cash register, but otherwise, North Park’s new La Catrina Tapas & Cantina is a rare local example of the sophistication found south of the border, not just in Tijuana and Ensenada but especially in the Valle de Guadalupe wine country. The small space on University Avenue is brightly decorated with skull-themed artworks (skulls even adorn wine bottles) and a few crimson armchairs at small tables; the other seating is high-rise and communal. Pleasant service, touches like cloth napkins and recorded music rich in baritone ballads make a warm background for a mostly affordable menu of specialty tacos, tart aguachile ceviche and the house specialty, a novel “surf and turf” combo of octopus and carnitas. La Catrina serves desserts, but bear in mind that Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream is just one block west.
Over the years, downtown La Mesa—where the original Farmer’s Table resides—has had more good restaurants than you likely imagine. In the mid-1980s, an internationally known chef startled just about everyone by opening an excellent Japanese-French fusion restaurant, a first not only for La Mesa but the county. On the ground floor of a handsome brick building on La Mesa Boulevard, the new Curbside Eatery + Drinkery attracts crowds with its open-to-the-breezes setting and a menu of what sells these days: ahi poke, short rib nachos, tostadas (pictured at left), a stylin’ half-pound burger, salads and more.
Recycled tractors are not yet standing idly in front of all eateries across the county, but there are a few. At the new Farmer’s Table in a renewed neighborhood shopping center in Bay Park, the big machine expresses the restaurant’s “farm to fork” zeitgeist, which is equally well-emphasized by a long menu of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. It takes a while to read the menu, but be sure to order the second item, deep-fried, stuffed zucchini blossoms. Filled with cheeses, herbs and spinach and unusually garnished with fruit preserves, these are so sensational they may partially explain why the place was jam-packed at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. Game is another specialty, with daily offerings as well as a standing appetizer of cranberry-wild boar sausage.
The menagerie of cutesy “character buns” decorated to look like pandas and cartoon critters introduced by Little Italy’s Harumama is heading to a second home in downtown Carlsbad. The bao, or Chinese steamed buns with such fillings as pork, mushrooms and chicken, have found a following that restaurateurs Jenny and James Pyo hope will march through the door of their new Harumama next to Blue Ocean Robata, which they also own.
Eat your roasted Brussels sprouts and “crazy feta” dressing at Encinitas’ new CAVA, the first county location of a unique national chain specializing in simple Greek fare. Not fancy but comfortable enough, CAVA sends guests down a counter packed with edibles as servers pile bowls with greens or grains (good rice, black lentils) and then any desired garnishes, from grilled beef meatballs to a rainbow of roasted veggies, hummus and dozens of others.