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The Prettiest Restaurant in San Diego (& Some Delicious Carrots)

Finding piano ghosts and lovely things at Bird Rock’s marquee eatery, Paradisaea
Paradisaea San Diego
Courtesy of Paradisaea

Paradisaea is one of those restaurants that’s so beautiful you feel a reptile-brain rush of envy and lust, but also a touch of anger and maybe a brief mental slideshow of your own failings as a person of design. You look at this place and remember you nailed a dream catcher to your wall at home and called it a day six years ago. From the tiles to the furniture to the large format art, it all seems custom-made, and it works. (Except maybe the neon logo that looks caught somewhere between tiki font and the Def Leppard emblem.)

The caesar salad they serve here comes with jalapeños and an Al-Pacino-doing-coke-in-Scarface amount of Parmesan. It is glorious.

But back to the room. It is the friend whose shirt never has lint. Lint wouldn’t dare. Lint leaves the shirt of this place and jumps onto your shirt. The chairs are army green or martini olive green, warm yet also nontraditional—interesting enough to practice polyamory. Or maybe the color was invented specifically for this room because none of the rest of us could be trusted with this color. In our hands, it would’ve looked like an army surplus store.

The market oysters, meaning whichever are particularly thriving at that moment, are also very good. The accompanying yuzu kosho granité is the killer here. Yuzu is a tart Asian lemon, and yuzu kosho is a godly paste made from fermented chiles, salt, and yuzu zest. Mignonette, Tabasco, and grocery store lemons do fine, workmanlike work. This is the spiritual enlightenment of that idea.

“This restaurant is the friend whose shirt never has lint. Lint wouldn’t dare. Lint leaves the shirt of this place and jumps onto your shirt.”

This place used to be a piano showroom. Before Americans started buying our pianos and consumer thrills from Jeff Bezos, each American city had a glossy little piano farm. You walked in and someone was tickling the ivories beautifully, filling you with the spirit that you, too, might fancy a tickle. You sat down on one of those pianos and played the first few bars of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and stopped after a few seconds because you never learned the rest of the song (that fact has led to more than one romantic breakup in your life). 

Large humans would deliver the piano to your house, where you played it furiously for six or seven days until you could do crimes because your fingerprints were rubbed fresh off. Then, for the next six or seven years, the piano would just kinda sit there, taking up an immodest amount of space (but looking really shiny and projecting your family’s false-front of artsiness) until you eventually forced it on some gullible relative who also enjoys musical delusions of grandeur.

Now that the place is Paradisaea, there’s still a piano in the room, and every Wednesday the principal of Rancho Bernardo High School comes down to play for everyone. After long days of contouring the brilliant and terrifying minds of teenagers, I bet playing here is therapy.

But, on most nights, the music you hear in this room is the ice being rhythmically thrashed about in the bartender’s shakers—that rocky-wet siren song of loose lips. The music is the sizzle and sear of hot pans in the open kitchen. The music is the muffled cultural discussions and gentle insider trading of Bird Rock regulars.

The bartenders make a damn good martini. Drink it while eating the carrots in smoked yogurt—a dish made well in many places around town (Fort Oak famously does a great one), simultaneously smoky and tangy and creamy and carrot-sweet. It’s a dish that makes us moan, tottering on that thin threshold between eating dinner and soundtracking smut.

Courtesy of Paradisaea

Dry-aging fish is a fringe kitchen art that’s catching on (it’s honestly an ancient thing—sushi only gets its trademark silkiness by aging a bit). When you age it, it doesn’t get “fishier” in that moldy-dock sort of way; it’s just more rich and luscious. Paradisaea’s amberjack crudo comes with oro blanco (grapefruit-adjacent), shaved fennel, charred avocado, and burnt citrus oil. Fresh, bright, and burnt. That’s a good thing. 

I didn’t much care for the Ora King salmon. That was a tad fishy. But the 28-day ribeye with potato pave and morel mushrooms is an old song played well.

The steak knives are engraved with their island–Def Leppard logo on the side of the blade. That couldn’t have been cheap. You should probably just order the chefs’ tasting menu (at $105 for five courses, it has to be one of the best deals in the city)—each bite seems to come with its own custom utensil.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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