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Friday, August 26, 2005 | Sami Ladeki’s restaurants are well known from his casual Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza to his trio of upscale eateries – Roppongi, Fresh and Blackhorse Grille. The latter three restaurants feature half-priced appetizers every day from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and a selection of such can make for a varied and filling meal. Though I had not eaten at Roppongi for more than a year, the tapas menu remains the same as when Executive Chef Stephen Window created it some six years ago. Nothing has changed, which probably is good for the restaurant and likely frustrating for the chef’s creativity. And yes, it is still good.

Polynesian crab stack is a light salad that includes cucumber, avocado, red onion and peanuts in a light ginger-lime dressing and is mixed at the table. The Mongolian shredded duck quesadilla with a gently flavored guacamole hits the spot as do the four perfectly tender pan-seared scallops on mini potato pancakes with a bit of Thai basil hollandaise. The crispy buttermilk onion rings – nearly a pound per serving – are the lightly battered variety and could have been crisper. Considering that the regular tapas menu runs from $8.95 to $12.95-plus, one can see why the place is packed for the happy hour. Roppongi, 875 Prospect St. at Fay, La Jolla, (858) 551-5252. www.roppongiusa.com.

There’s been talk about downtown restaurants’ lack of patronage caused by the traffic and a Padres night game. One night a couple of us decided to see if a baseball game impacts the eating scene, particularly in the western part of the Gaslamp where Morton’s, Rama and other high-end restaurants are found. Street parking is available if your parking karma is working, otherwise, valet park. What we found is that the restaurants, while not packed, are certainly busy in this area, even on game nights.

Think Morton’s and I think steak, but you can have consistently satisfying food, that isn’t red meat, in their comfortable, clubby bar. With our drinks we talked with knowledgeable bartenders Michael and Brian and munched on the jumbo lump crab cake that is nearly all crab and no filler. Also good are the bacon wrapped scallops with a zippy apricot chutney and grilled asparagus with roasted red pepper and balsamic vinegar. For meat lovers who want just a bite, the bar has complimentary mini steak sandwiches. Morton’s, The Steakhouse, 285 J St., downtown (619) 696-3369. www.mortons.com.

Just around the corner is Alex Thao’s Rama, the sister restaurant to Celadon in Hillcrest. Here we dined on heaven rolls, a rice paper wrapped around a mix of very fresh carrots, basil and noodles, and a salad with lots of bite-size pieces of crispy duck, tomato wedges, onion and lettuce in a zippy chili and lime dressing. The tom kha soup is rich with coconut milk, chicken, mushrooms and lemon grass and is simply addictive, not like other watery versions around town. Thao’s Thai executive chef classically trained and taught in Thailand and the food reflects the subtle flavors and fresh ingredients of the cuisine.

Tidbits: For something different this month’s Gourmet magazine devotes the entire issue to music, specifically “When Music Meets Food” with such fun and informative articles as Anthony Bourdain on “After Hours” on what music chefs play in the kitchen and how it influences their craft and “Samba and Soul Food,” all about Brazil’s Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia) by Christopher Hunt. There’s even a nifty piece by Jane and Michael Stern about Elvis that includes a recipe for his favorite pound cake.

Up in Flower Hill Mall on Via de la Valle, Conor Adair, former manager at Mille Fleur and Bertrand at Mr. A’s, will have a winter opening for his Paradise Grille in the former Koo Koo Roo space. The David Robinson-designed restaurant will sport an open kitchen, seating for 260 in the restaurant, patio and bar and will serve innovative fresh food.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www.5dollarchef.com.

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