Rancho Valencia recently became an Auberge Resort, one of a handful of prime and unique properties.  With new management also a new chef, C. Barclay Dodge who comes with twenty years of culinary experience from training at the California Culinary Academy to apprenticeships at E Bulli in Spain and Jean Georges and Daniel in New York.  He recently moved from Santa Fe where he was chef de cuisine at Terra, the restaurant at another Auberge property, Encantado Resort.  Beginning June 1, to celebrate the property’s  twentieth anniversary, Dodge will have a $19.89 three-course lunch Chef’s Inspiration menu.  Each day there will be a choice of a soup or an appetizer and only one entrée that will be the chef’s choice.  Some examples of Dodge’s “coastal ranch” cuisine: sardines grilled with argan oil and escabeche of summer carrots; chilled English pea soup with fromage blanc and chive blossoms; and Valencia orange-scented lamb shank with house cut noodles and Moroccan pickled carrots.  Buzz hasn’t tried it yet.   For reservations and information: 858-759-6216.

It’s finally official from the buzz that’s been brewing (and from the looks of the cleared tables, no cloths and no setups), Laurel Restaurant & Bar is reinventing its concept and we hope this time it will include a new name.  Possibly small plates, possibly Italian, and likely we will just have to wait and see what happens in the next few weeks when the redo should be done.

The Marine Room features a number of interesting events including a Monday night lobster dinner for $40 and the thrilling high tide dinners June 19 to 24.  The restaurant offers a Fathers Day dinner as well, and with executive chef Bernard Guillas at the helm, the food is always a treat.

New on Fifth Avenue at Laurel Street, Pizzicato a franchise operation that began in Portland, Oregon. There’s also an Encinitas location. They use fresh local ingredients when possible, and Italian Parmesan too.   Haven’t tried either….While we’re on the subject of pizza, Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill currently tops my list with its thinner, New York style crust and quality ingredients.  North Park’s Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria features thicker crust and equally good toppings along with sandwiches, sausages and pasta and opens its second location mid-June in Mission Hills–on Goldfinch– in the former home of Phil’s BBQ.

Just in time for race season and Wimbleton and the US Open, The Grand Del Mar offers five new cocktails in their Lobby Lounge and The Clubhouse Grill from June 1 to September 7.  Cleverly named for tennis and racing terms (Moonball Pimms Caipirinhi and Bearing Out Breeze, among others) you’ve just got to go try them yourself–especially if you love rum, vodka, Pimm’s Cup and tropical juices–creatively mixed, though not all together.

In Del Mar, the place that morphed from Scalini’s to Pasquales has done it again…now it’s  Flight.  Flight’s new chef is Aaron Martinez who just left Addison where he was sous chef under William Bradley.

A well-known Gaslamp hotel restaurant is hunting for a new executive chef…it’s all about personalities…

Syrah Wine Lounge opens downtown–a wine bar with more than just Syrah–and cheese and meat platters (no kitchen).  Located below the Cohn owned Dakota Grill & Spirits, we’d bet they have a interest in the place.

The building that housed The Guild, has been sold and Buzz is watching to see what will happen with the restaurant space.

And those wondering what happened to the Parallel 33 space in Hillcrest will soon have another restaurant by the same owners as Cafe Bleu at University and Fifth.  Renovations are underway.

For sale:  Twelve year-old La Vache in Hillcrest and the  La Jolla institution,  Sante on Hershel Avenue.

Up in Bankers Hill, another well-known eatery could be undergoing yet another makeover…possibly to Italian?

Down on the bay near the convention center, Vela, at the new Hilton San Diego Bayfront, conveys serenity in a warm and contemporary room with views of the bay and the docks of the Port’s Tenth Avenue Terminal.  Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you just might see a Dole freighter unloading its cargo or the lights of Coronado while you dine.  The bar doesn’t have the view, but on a quiet Monday, Buzz was able to enjoy a taste pour ($5) of Barth sparkling wine from Germany along with an appetizer of butternut squash tortellini in sage butter (the pasta needed a minute or two more in the water) and a rich wild mushroom risotto ($18). Vela is a place where you can have a quiet meal and watch the world go by.  Best yet is their Vela Society for locals that includes complimentary valet parking while dining, seasonal discounts for large parties and much more–and membership is free.

Had a chance to try the new Hane Sushi on Fifth Avenue at Olive Street.  The room exudes simplicity…some may say they wish for something more on the blank wall behind the sushi chefs with only a floral arrangement at which to gaze.  Buzz loves the lack of visual candy and the contemporary design. There is a separate small bar area, and the sleek sushi bar doesn’t allow the diner to see the fish as most places do.  Sushi Ota devotees may find a favorite chef or two working here as Hane’s owners are part of the Ota clan.  If you’re in the mood, special sushi and sashimi dishes and a good selection of cold sakes go beyond standard fare found at other places…but don’t expect bargain prices for creativity, quality, freshness and gracious service. 2760 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill, (619) 260-1411.

Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights seems to be a hit with the neighborhood, especially on a recent Sunday night.  The menu reflects simple pizzas, roughly 12 inches cut into six pieces.  It’s very casual; you order from a choice of 20 beers on tap in one line and pizzas in another line where you get a number so the pizza can be brought to you.  Plates, napkins and utensils are in the middle of the room and it’s up to you to set your table.  Pizzas are European in style with thin crusts and a lighter hand with toppings–though one with butternut squash and shitake mushrooms needed more zip. House-made sausage, chorizo and Fra Mani salami are main ingredients for three different pizzas, and vegan alternatives are available including one for pesto. Pizza prices range from $7 for marinara to $14 for the chorizo with chiles and fontina.  3416 Adams Ave., (619) 255-2491.  Dinner only from 5pm, closed Monday.

Bankers Hill:  Fifth Avenue must be a magnet for sushi.  The area already has two sushi restaurants: Azuki Sushi Lounge and Mukashi within a few blocks of each other.  Now a third, Hane Sushi & Bar on Fifth Avenue at Olive arrives in the same block as Mukashi. For the non-sushi palate,  Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar sits between the two.  Buzz hasn’t yet  tried Hane or Azuki.

Gaslamp: The Gaslamp’s latest addition is Opera Caffe for Italian with a Tuscan twist from owner Roberto Bernadoni who had restaurants in Florence before he came to be the chef at La Strada for past 16 years. EXY Restaurant & Lounge downtown is closed for remodeling.

Stu Milner, formerly the bar manager extraordinaire at Paradise Point’s Baleen took his shaker and stirrer to The Royal Hawaiian’s upscale restaurant, Azure, on Waikiki.  The recently reopened Starwood property also houses the famous Mai Tai Bar that a friend  mentioned is the first place she visits every time she arrives in Oahu.

New: Beer lovers rejoice:  A pizza and brewery is set to open at 34th and Adams in Normal Heights called Blind Lady Craft Pizza and Beer and is a venture of Lee Chase and three partners.  Chase started Stone Brewery and worked there for nine plus years.For pasta and pizzas, Pastalini a casual pasta bar is open on Miramar Road.

In Bankers HIll, Hexagone French Cuisine now occupies the corner of Fifth and Laurel in the old Gemelli spot.  Hexagone is the newest addition to French Market Grille up in Rancho Bernardo.  The new place  features everything from salad niçoise ($13.75) and onion soup grantinée ($6.50) to traditional coq au vin ($17.50) and sea bass with corn risotto and fennel-vanilla sauce ($22.50).  I haven’t eaten at either spot yet.  And if you’re wondering (as I did) what a hexagon has to do with French cuisine, it’s the term the French use  when talking about the shape of their country.  Hexagone French Cuisine, 495 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill, 619-236-0467.  Open daily from 11am.

For fabulous and very French desserts and chocolates,  Mille Feuille is your place at the corner of University and Fifth.   Executive pastry chef Thomas Gèrard,  comes from  La Valencia in La Jolla, and being French knows his pastries.  I’ve tasted a few:  Opera (light coffee sponge cake, chocolate ganache and coffee butter cream, $6.50), apricot summer (coconut-pineapple and carrot sponge cake layered with orange-apricot cream cheese filling, $5.50) and lots more including a caramelized onion and cheese quiche ($5.50) and  macaroons almost as ethereal as those found in Pierre Hermé’s Paris shop.  For lunch there are sandwiches and from 2 pm to 4pm there’s high tea for $20.  Mille Feuille, 3896 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest, 619-295-5232.

Barely two years old, Rannoosh the Middle Eastern restaurant next door to Mille Feuille, is closed.

There’s a shakeup in the kitchen at the Ivy Hotel. Executive chef Damon Gordon moves on at the end of the month for a likely gig back on the east coast at another upscale hotel.  No word who will step into Gordon’s position.

In these tough economic times, we hope it isn’t true:  Could it be that a supper club in Bankers HIll  might be on the selling block?  Readers to this blog wonder if another restaurant/club near Symphony Hall may not be faring so well.  Up in Hillcrest, a reader wonders about a wine bar that may also be on the ropes.  Stay tuned.

Jai by Wolfgang Puck (pronounced Jay and it means “heart” in Thai and “good luck dish” in Chinese) opens for dinner in the next few weeks. Located at the La Jolla Playhouse complex, the restaurant is fashioned after Puck’s West Los Angeles eatery Red Seven at the Pacific Design Center. The menu features dishes from Red Seven’s former executive chef, Yoshinori Kojima who will oversee Jai.

Had a chance to visit Mukashi with friends…very fresh sushi and other dishes. It’s a comfortable room with a wall water feature, nice sushi bar, chopsticks and black paper napkins. But…what’s the deal with a huge tv screen on the back wall of the sushi bar? Rather than enjoy the sushi chef, the eye from any part of the room can’t help but notice the sports (no sound) on tv. Has the ubiquitous tv become the new necessary “art” for a restaurant? A distraction to say the least, since not every restaurant bar needs to be a sports bar.

In the corner spot on Third and University that was Italian, then morphed to a Brazilian sports bar, then became a seasonal venture, soon goes Hawaiian as Hula’s Beach Bar & Grill moves in. And no, it is not part of the TS Restaurant Group that owns Jake’s in Del Mar and Hula Grill in Hawaii.

Gemelli Italian Grill on Laurel at Fifth Avenue closed about a month ago. Sad, since the area is picking up steam with new and familiar places all around it: Avenue 5, Mukashi, Laurel, Modus, Extraordinary Desserts and others.

Two new additions to San Diego’s restaurant scene: Mukashi in Bankers HIll at the corner of Nutmeg and Fifth finally got their door open last week. Hope to try it soon. Call for dinner reservations: 619-298-1329.

Cardamom Cafe & Bakery in North Park is the newest addition for breakfast, lunch and bakery goods. They’re located at the interesection of 30th and Upas. They serve breakfast all day–a short menu of eggs, pancakes, cardamom sour cream coffee cake along with sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. Buzz looks forward to trying both places.

Once again, chef Gavin Kaysen garnered a top culinary award.  This time it was the James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Quite an honor as it is given to a chef, under 30 years old, who “displays an impressive talent and is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in the years to come.” In case you missed Kaysen in San Diego when he cooked at the Rancho Bernardo Inn’s El Bizcocho, now you’ll find him doing his magic at Cafe Boulud in New York.

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.