For a palate-cleanser midway, we chose a Belgian endive salad in black truffle vinaigrette -- a twist on the traditional French bistro dish of frisée, bacon lardons, and poached egg, with aristocratic endive leaves replacing frisée. The classic version is grand except for the frisée, a vegetable I usually find as annoying as the bad hair day it resembles. ("I just like endive better," Patrick told me later. Moi too.) Here, the long oval endive leaves gently cradle the crisp bits of bacon instead of shaking them off as intruders to their frizzy majesties. We couldn't pick out the black truffle flavor in the savory vinaigrette, but this was another dish where the busser had to stand by patiently until we'd enjoyed the last bits.
Entrées were served simultaneously (unlike the appetizers), and we fell in love with every dish -- each person being especially drawn to the one tasted first. Let's start with the pork. Ponsaty was a finalist in the "Taste of Elegance" nationwide chef competition sponsored by the National Pork Council last weekend, the semifinals winner representing Southern California. His entrée, served at the restaurant, incorporates some interesting cuts of the pig: a roast loin stuffed with a forcemeat combining sweetbreads, foie gras, and pork trotter meat, alongside a chunk of long-simmered glazed pork belly (unsmoked bacon, a favorite cut for Chinese chefs) accompanied by small cippoline onions and baby carrots. The stuffing in the loin was a bit dryer than it sounds (and a tad less fabulous than we'd hoped), but the belly chunk, slow-baked for seven hours and hand-trimmed of excess fat, was ravishing, its unctuous, fatty meat so tender that it might even tempt a vegan to sin. (I found myself quietly singing Bessie Smith's "Gimme a pigfoot, and a gang of gin...") "The theme was pork, so I tried to use the maximum pork parts that I could," Patrick says. At the restaurant, the dish comes with a well-conceived polenta round seasoned with tangy dried apricots, lending the sweet acidity and neutral starch the pork wants for balance. (You don't even want to know what else the contest version came with; you'd go crazy with food-lust.)
California bouillabaisse differs from its Marseillaise model, since we are too far from the Mediterranean to replicate the typical species. Here, the soup contains sea bass, scallops, shrimps, black mussels and clams in their shells, plus tiny sweet fingerling potatoes that look like newborn manatees. They were all utterly tender, including the sea bass -- which almost melted on the spoon, making it a star and not merely a space-filler. The broth (Maine lobster stock, substituting for the unavailable Mediterranean langoustines, which don't travel), although a bit scant, was thick and sensuous. As a southern France--born chef, Patrick knows that no bouillabaisse is complete without rouille (red pepper--saffron aioli) on baguette toasts, but he takes it a step further, with a tremblingly delicate lobster rouille, with lobster stock added to the mixture. At our meal, there wasn't quite enough broth to create floating croutons -- we had to shove the croutons into the broth and let them do their magic by any means necessary. Yet it's as fine a bouillabaisse as I've ever tasted anywhere.
Saving the best for last, roasted squab arrived in small pieces, indicating a genuinely young bird, along with wild mushroom and artichoke risotto, porcini mushrooms with a truffle reduction, plus a few pleasant if superfluous potato gnocchi. (They're not world-class gnocchi, being a bit dry.) The real killer on the plate is a rich, creamy-textured sauce combining brown meat stock, Marsala, squab juices, and a touch of beurre blanc -- a flavor depth-bomb that gives and gives. Alas, the squab dish, too, has gone off-menu due to a lack of takers. (Americans think, "Squab -- ick, pigeons eating hot dog buns from the trash and crapping on the windshield." Squabs are not those dirty birds -- they're farm-raised young game birds, both cleaner in their habits and more amiable in their manners than common chickens and distinguished by a deep, game-bird flavor. The meat tastes a little like teal, the smallest and wildest of ducks.)
Ponsaty is one of the few chefs versatile enough to produce both savory courses and sweets with equal élan. His dessert list is sensibly bifurcated, with fruit desserts listed above and chocolate concoctions below. We chose one of each. A Meyer lemon tart was garnished with fresh segments of orange, grapefruit, and very sweet mandarin and accompanied by a brain-clearing mandarin sorbet. The overall effect is of sunshiny lightness. A chocolate coulant was, for chocolate, wonderfully light as well -- think chocolate lava cake without the cake, a barely solid wash of sublime bittersweet flavor set atop a "piña colada" syrup of tart diced pineapple in thickened coconut milk -- plus a scoop of superb coconut ice cream. (The sorbets and ice creams come from Bubbie's in Encinitas, while Patrick and Bernard shop for an ice cream machine -- the "instant" restaurant versions cost about $7000.)
Patrick's cooking doesn't scream, "Look at me! I'm an Artiste!" His art sneaks up on you, like that ravishing multi-layered sauce on the squab. Dish after dish, pleasure after pleasure, he makes love to your taste buds like a Casanova of the palate. When you're done, you don't even feel as though you've sinned, i.e., through over-repletion of sensations or amounts. You merely sigh and smile with (per William Blake) "the lineaments of satisfied desire." It's one of the differences between a mature chef (Patrick is 38) and a young hotshot. The striver's ego is often bound up with expressing himself and impressing you. That can be thrilling, too, but the mature chef, having nothing to prove, is more about expressing himself -- and fully satisfying you.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I'm the fifth generation of chefs in my family," says Patrick Ponsaty. "My great-grandfather was a chef, my grandfather was a chef, and my father continued it. My father had a family restaurant called Le Cochon du Lait ["the suckling pig"] in Toulouse. As a young man I had the opportunity to work with a famous chef at Darroze, a Michelin one-star in Landes. I did my apprenticeship for two years, and I continued at Alain Ducasse. Then I went to Spain to work for Martin Berasategui. I went to New York and worked for Jean-Michel Diot [now of Tapenade] for two years. He wanted to move to California. My wife also wanted to move here, and I wanted a better life. I started with Jean-Michel at Tapenade for the first months and after that moved to El Bizcocho. Jean-Michel was consulting for them, so they called me and I came.