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David Nelson Toasts the Best in San Diego Dining

December 30, 1985|DAVID NELSON

SAN DIEGO — The year 1985 may come to be remembered as the year in which San Diegans learned that it can be quite chic to eat burned food. Or, it may be marked as a watershed span in which newfangled burger barns began gulping major bites out of the fast food market. Then again, 1985 may be written down as the time when humans took a cue from their bovine buddies and started grazing at mealtimes.

In terms of restaurants, 1985, was a less tumultuous year than those that preceded it. Other than in downtown San Diego, there were relatively few major openings, but at the same time, relatively few really important or interesting eateries went to that great dumpster in the sky.

What was noticeable was the speed with which national eating trends, which used to have difficulty booking passage to this county, made their ways here. The new, updated Cajun cuisine and its standard-bearing blackened redfish (the dish that made burned food fashionable) became ubiquitous. As a kind of gastronomic backlash to the depredations of the fast food chains, a number of flashy new burger palaces sprang up, including the hugely successful Fuddruckers (unfortunately, Mission Valley's Bonkers closed after a few months in operation.) And "grazing," or making a meal out of a succession of appetizers and small dishes, was introduced in a big way by such major places as Pacifica Grill and The Grand Tour. The continuing revival and re-interpretation of "American food," which is all the rage in New York, San Francisco and other major cities, so far has failed to make much of a showing here, but appears to be on the verge. Perhaps it will be one of the big San Diego food stories of 1986.

Following is a list of local restaurants that were reviewed in The Times in 1985 and were found to be especially noteworthy. This list shows the continuing maturation of the San Diego County restaurant industry, which suddenly is daring to be daring, so to speak. Certainly, many places are showing a willingness to explore new methods and ideas.

All price categories are covered, from cheap eats geared to tight budgets, to major splurges designed for very special occasions. Price quotes given refer to the cost of a dinner for two, including tax and tip and, when appropriate, wine.

Splurge

At the very top of the splurge list we find Silas St. John (4720 Kensington Drive, San Diego; 283-8343), an unabashedly extravagant restaurant that occupies a restored, historically designated house in Kensington. With a serving staff dressed in turn-of-the-century apparel, a wine list that includes more than 350 entries, and a fixed-price menu that allows guests to build their own five-course banquets, Silas St. John stands as an oasis of luxurious dining. The menu changes frequently, but always has a French theme, sometimes revolving around new interpretations of famous dishes. Memorable preparations include a salad of duck confit, a soup of red bell peppers and crayfish tails, a filet of beef doused with a sauce of Roquefort cheese and Zinfandel wine, and a dessert of berry-filled cream puffs topped with chocolate sauce and liqueur-scented whipped cream. $100 to $130.

Also on the splurge list is Mille Fleurs (6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe; 756-3085), a well-established luxury restaurant that took on a new life at the beginning of the year when it came under the stewardship of noted restaurateur Bertrand Hug. The quality of the decor and service match that of the menu, which is one of the nicest in the county. Very French, this menu also takes classic dishes in new directions; especially good are its treatments of veal and seafood. Desserts achieve a certain pinnacle by managing to be simultaneously sumptuous and light. Price for two including wine, $80 to $120.

Italian

There was not much activity on the Italian front this year; Mr. Aldo and The Blue Grotto, both places that were somewhat odd but still quite likeable, opened and closed without eliciting much more than a yawn on the part of the public. But When In Rome (828 N. Highway 101, Leucadia; 944-1771) seems destined to remain indefinitely on the hit parade. This handsome, family-run bistro serves some very fine interpretations of classics borrowed from the length of the Italian peninsula, including unusual pastas (the spaghetti alla Norma teams fresh tomato and eggplant) and several excellent veal preparations. The semifreddo, a favorite Roman dessert, is worth a visit on its own account. $30 to $60.

New-Style American

The following five restaurants can be lumped together as belonging to a "new-style American" grouping, not because they necessarily have much in common menu-wise, but because they all seem devoted to serving adventurous foods that have serious American roots. But this is food with a flair, and food that the average grandmother would not remember from her childhood.

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