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Food For Thought: A culinary adventure through San Diego

SDGLN introduces Food For Thought, a new food blog hosted by local "foodie" Seth Ellis Klonsky. Today's guest is Frank Sabatini Jr., who reviews restaurants for SDGLN.

Seth: Frank, I'm so glad to start this new culinary adventure at SDGLN and I'm glad that the first conversation is with you! I've read your columns now for a few years and am thrilled to talk about food and food culture with you here.

Frank: I’m glad to be part of the discussion. Dining out plays a large role in many of our lives, and when forking through San Diego nowadays, the question is “Where to begin?”

Seth: Forking, huh? Why don't we start with a relatively big question: How has it happened that San Diego's food scene has grown up so much in the last 10 years? I recall arriving here a decade ago and counting the number of really outstanding restaurants on one hand! And now, it seems that on every corner we have restaurants at all price points that are, well, fantastic.

It's not surprising to me that this is happening at the same time that our neighborhoods like North Park, South Park and the East Village are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. As these neighborhoods in particular have developed, the quality of the restaurants has steadily improved, too. That's not that unusual, I suppose. I think what is nice to see, though, is that this is happening in significant numbers. There are some great spots to choose from now.

Frank: I agree completely. When I moved here 20 years ago, consumers had to basically hit the steakhouses or Croce’s or the Marine Room to get a taste of fine dining, which back then usually involved chaliced shrimp cocktails and basic surf-n-turf. It really wasn’t until the mid- to late-'90s that the scene started popping with younger and more daring chefs embarking on cuisine with myriad cosmopolitan twists. Amiko Gubbins of the former Parallel 33 immediately comes to mind for introducing San Diegans to recipes and ingredients straddling the globe’s 33rd parallel.

At the same time, a host of new ethnic eateries began emerging in some of the neighborhoods you mentioned as they gentrified. We now have at our fingertip places like Café 21 for Azerbaijan cuisine; Muzita Bistro for Ethiopian meals; and Caffe Carpe Diem for food stamped with authentic Turkish influences – all unimaginable even seven years ago.

As for fine dining, we’ve made quantum leaps with the arrivals of wizard-like chefs such as Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten, Adam Bussell of Vela and Bernard Guillas of the Marine Room. They along with dozens of other toques haven’t been afraid of plating things like beef cheeks, foie gras, game meat and obscure seafood. San Diego is, at last, catching up to the culinary speed of New York and San Francisco!

Seth: Yes! I think more than just catching up; I think we're really starting to do more than simply follow the food trends from New York and are crafting a really great home-grown food scene! I have been thrilled to see this burgeoning focus on local, fresh ingredients and simple, elegant presentation. Ten years ago – outside of the few restaurants you already mentioned – diners would be served oversized portions of overly dressed-up food with underwhelming flavors. If you look at what is hitting the dining room tables of local restaurants today, you find remarkably simple but delicious dishes.

The most recent example that comes to mind is the acclaimed (by you, among others) Cucina Urbana. Tossing out the fluff that was Laurel for rustic, simple, but altogether incredible food was a perfect change, and I hope a reflection of what's to come. Of course there are already other examples of this: chef Ryan Johnston's Whisknladle in La Jolla, the Linkery in North Park and, if you're willing to make the drive, Stone Brewery up in Escondido.

The bottom line is that this is an exciting time to be a foodie in San Diego. All this talk has made me hungry! Any last suggestions?

Frank: It’s important that San Diego restaurant consumers continue stepping outside of their comfort zones and discover such revelations as the house-cured charcuteries at Whisknladle or the sea urchin at Sea Rocket Bistro, for example. The more adventurous our palates, the more leeway chefs are given for unleashing their culinary prowess on us. We are very lucky to be standing witness to a restaurant renaissance in progress, which is really no less sensational than the great strides we’ve enjoyed in computer technology over the past decade.

Seth: Talk to you soon, Frank! Happy eating, everyone.

Local foodie and Normal Heights resident Seth Klonsky was born and raised in Sonoma County surrounded by great food and wine. He currently writes about food and food culture for SDGLN and documents his own culinary creations at seklonsky.wordpress.com.