Bread & Cie’s owners Charles and Dori Kaufman plan to expand the hours of their well-known Hillcrest bakery to offer specialty pizzas, salads, signature desserts and a small selection of wines.  Look for things to be in place by the end of the month.  Bread ovens make perfect pizzas and Kaufman spent months experimenting with doughs and toppings for the new menu additions.  Pizza available from 5:30pm to 9pm.  350 University Avenue, at Fourth Avenue.

Venissimo’s cheese loving customers can now get their chocolate fix with Jack Fisher’s  fabulous bon bons.   Don’t forget Valentine’s Day!

You’ll find more wine and chocolate down at the Hotel Del Coronado’s newest addition, Eno.  Buzz is partial to the property (a hotel on the ocean is pretty special) and to what Eno and its director, Ted Glennon want to achieve.  Whether it’s just a glass or one of many flights of interesting wines that go far beyond chardonnay and cabernet, this is the place to go.  Glennon’s expertise shows with the training he gives his staff as well as his desire to share his knowledge with patrons.  To pair with the wine, there are flights of cheeses, charcouterie and chocolates.  There are more than 30 wines by the glass and some of Jack Fisher’s chocolates are featured here as well.

sea urchinsIf you love sushi you’ve likely experienced uni, the roe from the spiny creature called sea urchin. These days, uni dishes go way beyond laying it on a mound of rice to be eaten in one bite. Recipes that incorporate this prized ingredient into everything from sauces and soups to savory mousses and more, appear in French, Italian, Asian and American cookbooks.

From San Diego to Ft. Bragg, California is home to sea urchin divers who bring the creatures to processors who in turn ship it to sushi bars and restaurants worldwide, mostly to Japan and the United States. Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable organized a trip to San Diego to go on the boats with the divers and see fiirst-hand the sea urchin harvesting.  Urchin packed for shippingUrchin packed for shippingThe group saw the urchin processing at San Diego’s Catalina Offshore Products, followed by dinner and no, it did not take place at a sushi bar.urchinbox1.jpgurchinbox1.jpgurchinpete.jpgurchinpete.jpg

Pete Halmay is a diver with a mission: Get these sustainably grown urchins beyond the sushi bars and into restaurants such as Tony D’Amato’s well-known Baci Ristorante on Morena Boulevard. D’Amato hails from Sicily where sea urchin, known as ricci di mare, is as much a staple as pasta.

D’Amato served a sampler of urchin dishes that began with drinks and an incredibly simple bruschetta: Bread rounds brushed with a bit of garlic infused olive oil, topped with a “tongue” of roe. At the table, an amuse bouche of roe served in the spiny test (its shell) with prosecco and eaten with a teaspoon. Note that these two presentations allow the roe to stand alone, much like it does in sushi. In dishes like these, the roe’s delicate sea taste and creamy texture meld in the mouth, unhampered by too many other flavors.

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urchinbacibisque.jpgNext came uni bisque with mussels, scallops and uni also served in the test. The sampler finished with a classic Italian dish of spaghetti mixed with a hint of olive oil, garlic and pinch of red pepper and barely warmed roe.

If you think sushi is the only way to experience this lovely delicacy, think again. Resources include http://www.calurchin.org/ and http://www.catalinaop.com/ as well as http://www.epicurious.com/.  Photos by Marcie Rothman.

If you’re looking for honest, solid food Ritual Tavern, only a few months old,  might be your place.  It’s on 30th Street, a few blocks north of Lincoln.  Buzz and pals made two visits to taste some of its small menu.  Not fancy, but homey with dishes made with mostly local, organic ingredients. You might call the place a neighborhood Slow Food eatery.  Owners Michael Flores and Staci Wilkens  (alums, along with chef Glenn Farrington, from The Linkery) strive for dishes made from sustainable and organic ingredients.  Niman Ranch provides their meats and Farrington makes his own catsup, mustard, pickles and slaw to avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other additives usually found in commercial brands.

A northern version of gumbo that adds carrots to the usual southern trio of onion, green pepper and celery is thickened with roux and the bites of spicy sausage, chicken and shrimp mix well in the bowl with organic wild rice.  It’s a zippy, hearty dish that is just terrific, as a dish, regardless of whether it can be called gumbo in the strictest sense.  A dish should be good on its own merits and this one is.  Farm-raised catfish and house-made chips are light and crunchy though the fish could have used a moment more in the fryer to give it a firmer texture.  A perfectly cooked medium-rare lamb sirloin flanked with fresh chard and potatoes du jour is the highest priced item on the menu ($19).  There’s a delectable bread pudding with homemade bourbon sauce and a seasonal fresh fruit (apple and pear one night) that hit the spot–albeit with an unexpected heavy crust.

An extensive list of beers and a small eclectic group of wines by the glass make good beverage choices.  You’ll find gluten-free dishes and the kitchen is willing to adjust a dish to meet your needs.  That said, it can impact the kitchen and service.  One night all went well, another time salad and entrees arrived together.  One could argue it’s food you’d make at home, simple and tasty, but why bother if you’ve got a neat little tavern nearby.     

Buzz did a quick roundabout of a couple of two new downtown restaurants that are worth a look.  Mind you both are barely a week old, but are a welcome alternative to the overdone pasta palaces and the Cohn’s collection of overpriced themed eateries.

In the space that was LG’s Steakhouse, at the corner of F Street and Sixth Avenue, George Katakalidis owner of Daphne’s Greek Cafe restaurants, created EXY, Chic Greek .  If you look closely, you will note that the E could be the Greek letter sigma…so call it sexy (and clever).  There is a large comfortable bar area that faces F Street (and Ivy Hotel).   The dining room features a well-priced Greek inspired menu with most entrees including braised lamb shank and a pan roasted whole fish in the mid $20 range.  The appetizers we tasted at the VIP opening party included grilled lamb chops and flat bread with grilled chicken and Greek cheese, and they were terrfic (and are on the appetizer menu.  When the dining room closes, the bar becomes a place for music and late night snacks from the bar menu.

Jade Theater is at the corner of Seventh Avenue and C Street, facing the trolley tracks.  There is valet parking for $15.  When I peeked in, there were two private parties in the bar area…if you love a noisy bar, this is your place.  The restaurant features small bites (Tease Me),  starters (Taste Me) and main courses (Eat Me).  Taste Me dishes range from $4 to $9-for yellowtail tataki with sake vinaigrette or crab kimchi with fried shiso leaf.  Asian fritto misto is $13 in the Taste Me column and a black bean ribeye with tempura vegetables is $39 under the Eat Me list.  Buzz didn’t have a chance to eat upstairs in the dining room, which is wonderfully simple in Asian decor and though open to the bar below, there are some areas that are quiet.  A server said that coming in early, before 7:30 or so, you’ll find it quieter.  

Buzz and a pal scoped out the new Pearl Hotel and its restaurant on Rosecrans in Point Loma.  Quite the urban, slightly retro chic place…tiny but fun.  The bar and restaurant blend into one and face the pool…around which are the 23 guest rooms.  The restaurant/lounge will seat about 35–a small venue, but with an interesting wine list and food at reasonable prices, look for it to be a good place to meet for breakfast or lunch…dinner if you want more of a scene.  There’s some fun seating just off the main lobby.  1410 Rosecrans, 619-226-6100.

Bankers Hill has blossomed into a neat little neighborhood area for eating and drinking.  The newest arrival, barely a few week’s old and a welcome addition is Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar on Fifth between Nutmeg and Olive. The comfortable, classy and contemporary room with simple black and white photos of the restaurant, white table linen, wood floor and an open ceiling opens to the street via a large picture window with a view of the nearby church.  A Buzz pal remarked when we walked in, “Look, a bar where adults are drinking wine and the bar chairs have backs.”  Translated,  that means there’s jazz playing in the background and the room doesn’t pulsate from music so loud you go hoarse talking. 

Food is well presented with entrees  priced in the mid $20’s. A visit with an out of town pal brought small house-made mushroom ravioli (note the tiny champagne grapes in the sauce that add texture and a subtle flavor), a light ahi tuna salad with micro greens,  a perfectly medium rare  Australian rack of lamb of  four ribs split between us with bit of deconstructed ratatouille.  Rather than the usual fine dice of eggplant, onion, zucchini cooked long and slow, chef-owner Colin MacLaggan slices and cuts the vegetables into small pieces, then lightly sautes them so each bite stays distinct, be it a piece of fennel, a sliver of carrot or a slice of zucchini or eggplant, yet all meld together to complement the lamb. 

MacLaggan appreciates classic cooking as he trained at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London and then worked for the well-known Conran Group.  Closer to home his stints included Arterra, Mille Fleurs, Bertrand’s at Mister A’s, among others.  He likes his plates composed, mostly with three main ingredients–as in the ahi salad:  pieces of ahi, arranged with the micro greens, not overdressed, on bed of thinly sliced green heirloom tomatoes.  Here you’ll not find towers, layers or dishes cluttered with so many flavors and ingredients that the food makes no sense in flavor or presentation.

Buzz has only perched on the comfortable bar chairs to drink and eat, served by bartender Curtis who was busy making mojitos his way–without the soda water. There is a small flat screen tv above the bar that on one visit had a Chargers game on, thankfully without the sound.  For some it could be distracting, especially if staff is focused on the game, rather than the diners. On the other hand, the tv lends itself to the casual, neighborhood feel of the restaurant.  General Manager Nicolais Carbonne watches over the 70-seat room a trained eye from his days at Pasquale and Tapenade.  2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-542-0394.  Closed Monday, lunch from 11:30am; dinner from 5:30pm.

Down the street, at the corner of Fourth & Ivy is Modus, a hip bar, lounge and restaurant.  Owners  Scotty and Ariana Johnson opened the place in April, 2006.  As with many new ventures, the restaurant has gone through some adjustments that recently culminated with the starting chef, Nathan Coulon, moving on.  (Buzz hears that he’s currently on the line at Ivy Hotel’s Quarter Kitchen.)

The menu has expanded with former sous chef Mike Liotta at the helm.  Small plates that focus on interesting French olives, cheese and charcuterie, salads, white bass gravlax, tempura and prime steak tartare, and entrees of pork osso bucco, Modus burger and black mussels are but a few of the choices now available.  Best of all, the prices stray no higher than $24 for rack of lamb.  On a recent Friday night visit, the bar was hopping with couples enjoying the many original cocktails created by Ariana that use fresh, seasonal organic juices with names such as Foreplay (Wokka Saki, organic strawberries, champagne and sugar, served tall) or Yellow and Green (Skyy Vodka or Miller’s Gin, basil, lemon and tonic, served tall).  2202 Fourth Ave., 619-236-8516, Closed Monday, dinner from 5pm.

Newcomers for morning coffee, a quick sandwich or glass of wine:  try Curio Caffe at Fifth and Laurel and just up the street, Cafe Bassam at Fifth and Redwood where you can support your neighborhood coffeehouse, rather than the ubiquitous Starbucks.  Curio Caffe features Illy coffee and changing art exhibits while Bassam, relocated from downtown, has coffees, teas, smokes and one morning warm just out-of-the-oven croissants and other pastries.  Both will soon have a beer and wine license and both serve light fare. Curio Caffe, (619) 696-8699, Cafe Bassam, (619) 557-0173.

At the corner of Fifth and Laurel you’ll find the well-established Gemelli Italian GrillLaurel Restaurant & Bar and Bertrand at Mr. A’s  and newcomer Curio Caffe.

Buzz loves this taco shop and market in Solana Beach.  It’s the closest thing to crossing the border without the hassle and it’s just around the corner from Fidel’s and Tony’s Jacal and up the street from the race track.   Located in a small strip mall along with a deli and pizza place, Rudy’s opens  at 7am so you can get your Mexican fix on breakfast burritos, tortas, tacos and more.  It’s a favorite of the local workers and there is a small area for seating (you order at the counter) in the small market that sells fresh tortillas and other staples.  Buzz loves the small street tacos ($1.25) and the burritos ($4.50 average) and chile rellenos ($3.50) that fill the tummy quite well also.  The carne asada, cabeza, al pastor, carnitas and lengua (yes, tongue) are all terrific.  524 Stevens Ave., Suite 1, Solana Beach, 858-755-0788.  Open daily.

A recent trip to the east coast found me asking a gentleman leaving his Oppenheimer office in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where to have a good fish dinner in a casual place where I could sit at at the bar in my flip flops and not feel out of place. He’s a regular at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe that fit the bill for me perfectly. I had a glass of Basa, one of my favorite Spanish whites while muching on fried calamari with smoked tomato and roasted chili sauce and lemon vinaigrette. My bill was $16 and it was terrific. There’s a full bar, and the place is comfortable with a slightly funky feel, but clearly a locals hangout for their raw bar with oysters, shrimp and littleneck clams and entrees including haddock piccata, fishermans’s stew and grilled or pan seared red snapper, Arctic char and others. The most expensive item is $24. 150 Congress Street, Portsmouth NH, 603-766-FISH. www.jumpinjays.com

Zensei in North Park is a favorite among the locals. Here you can sit at the sushi bar and listen to the chefs speak Spanish as they create nouveau fusion rolls (many with cream cheese–too over-the-top fusion for me). This restaurant, in 2005, was a finalist (along with winner Café Japengo) in the First Annual California State Sushi Competition where fusion reigns in the presentation and ingredients.

At this comfortable corner restaurant two of us found a menu with everything from oysters on the half shell and tempura jalapenos filled with crab and cream cheese to standard nigiri and quirky rolls such as pizza (baked smoked salmon, avocado and dynamite sauce) and yellow submarine (eel, crab, cream cheese, avocado, golden tempura and eel sauce, with a slice of jalapeno if you desire). Imitation crab is used, though the real thing can be substituted. Not your purist place.

We enjoyed crunchy roll with shrimp tempura, crab, cucumber, cream cheese (avocado substitutes for the cream cheese). Also pleasant was the crunchy salmon roll with cucumber, gobo and bonito flakes. These rolls run $ 9 to $11. If fish isn’t your thing, the kitchen produces a multitude of noodle, chicken and meat dishes with unusual twists. Service is attentive and the room is hopping most of the night. Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. is happy hour. 3396 30th St. at Upas, North Park, 619-546-6171. www.zenseisushi.com

Good fresh sushi can dent a budget so a couple of enterprising guys, grads from UCSD, Andrew Berlin and Gino Thiers, figured they could serve innovative sushi by deleting the customary sushi bar, thus saving on overhead. They created Sushi-Fix, in Carlsbad, a mostly take-out and delivery place, with a small sit-down area, in the Vons shopping center, just a few signals away from La Costa and the Forum shopping area. Thiers sold his share to Berlin and moved to San Francisco leaving Berlin solo. Their second location in Little Italy at the corner of Cedar and India Street is larger and perfect for the urban neighborhood.

A couple of things I really like about Sushi-Fix: you can order half rolls (4 pieces instead of 8) so you’re able to enjoy a greater variety of flavors; though they use surimi (imitation crab), you can substitute real crab for an additional $1.25 per roll; and they present many of the rolls a bit differently by putting some main ingredients on top instead of in the rolls. For example: the Red Head roll is shrimp tempura with crab and topped with spicy tuna and tempura shavings. The Cobra roll has spicy tuna and avocado with unagi on top and a slather of eel sauce. A salmon skin handroll is crunch with the skin, cucumber, avocado and spouts and a simple salad of peeled, seeded, halved and thinly sliced cucumbers with a light vinegar dressing makes a good counterpoint to the various rolls. Two pieces of hamachi (yellowtail) sushi are fresh and buttery…the rice under each piece is without the dab of wasabi, which is served on the side with pickled ginger so you can add your own level of heat. Most of the specialty rolls run $6.50 to $9.50 for 8 pieces, figure about half that for 4 pieces. Nigiri for 2 pieces runs $2.25 to $2.95. All the food is very fresh and made to order–just in the kitchen–not in front of you. If you do eat in, it’s on paper plates. 7720 El Camino Real, Suite B, Carlsbad, 760-632-8787, 1608 India St., Little Italy, 619-237-7878 www.sushi-fix.com.