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Saturday, December 10, 2005 | The Palm Restaurant quietly opened last week as downtown’s latest addition to its plethora of chain steak houses. First in its genre and family-owned since its New York inception in the 1920s, the place buzzes in a New York kind of way with a large bar, wood paneling and high ceilings that raise the noise factor up many decibels.

I love the energy of the place.

Given that San Diego marks the 30th restaurant in their chain, one would not expect the necessity of a soft opening. There were bumps in this shakedown week; ones that the six of us hope will smooth out as time progresses.

Our 8 p.m. reservation was honored at 8:45 – while we waited, we jostled our drinks in the packed bar; the calamari fritti – while crisp and not chewy – had a coating that was too floury; five Prime New York strip steaks lacked flavor and had a grainy texture, while my three double-cut Oregon lamb chops hit the spot, perfectly cooked medium-rare.

Sides of vegetables – asparagus and leaf spinach – weren’t overcooked and fried onions and cottage fries will have you exercising double-time. They’re worth the calories, though cottage fries look like potato chips. On our Caesar salads we would have loved a few shavings of fresh Parmesan cheese rather than what tasted like the already grated bagged variety. With breadbaskets filled from our local Bread & Cie, why not make homemade croutons for those salads?

For the prices – steaks begin at $33.50 and sides and salads from $6.50 and up – one expects good service. That includes NOT removing plates before everyone has finished eating, as well as keeping water glasses filled. Servers wear white jackets embroidered with their name so the “Hi, my name is … I’ll be your waiter tonight” just isn’t necessary. Not for the faint at heart, the tab will hover close to $100 per person, depending on what you drink and eat. The Palm Restaurant, 615 J St. at Sixth, downtown, (619) 702-6500.

– Want the flavor of Tijuana without the hassle of the border crossing? Check out the Mercado on Imperial Avenue at 21st Street. There are food stalls with good seafood and carnitas meat is chopped to order at Las Morelianas. Buy the meat by the pound or have a soft taco for $1.60.

– With the New Year just weeks away, and the holiday hustle in full throttle, ring in the New Year with friends. Here’s a quick look at places around the county with New Year’s Eve dinners, with prices plus tax and tip: Terra, $59, (619) 293-7088; Asia-Vous $60 or $80 for late seating, (760) 747-5000; Jack’s Grille $75; Dining Room at Jack’s $125, (858) 456-8111; Savory, $55 and $75, (760) 634-5556; Café Sevilla for Spanish food and flamenco music, $49 to $179, (619) 233-5979; Acqua al 2, for Tuscan-inspired food (619) 230-0382.

Or party at a hotel and stay the night: Dine at Nine-Ten $65 to $125, depending on seating times, then walk upstairs and spend the night at the Colonial Grande Hotel, (888) 530-5766. In Pacific Beach, have dinner and watch fireworks on Crystal Pier from a room at JRDN with a two-night minimum stay. For information and reservations, visit www.tower23hotel.com or call (866) Tower-23.

– Looking for unusual Christmas ideas? Help New Orleans get back on its feet by supporting the local businesses. Visit www.southernfoodways.com for an online gift guide with links to businesses, including gift certificates from restaurants (Emeril’s, Bayona and others); pralines, coffee and cookbooks and spices from Paul Prudhomme.

Tidbits: Point Lomans, who for a moment thought a burger joint would replace a pizza place in the Ciao Amore restaurant location, will have to wait. The deal fell through, and there is no replacement as yet.

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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