12457 Rancho Bernardo Road, Rancho Bernardo
Exactly seven years before my recent meal at BernardO's, I ate an unforgettable dinner prepared by the restaurant's current chef, Patrick Ponsaty. The Reader had hired me to come south, where, free of local prejudices, I'd write a cover story on "The Ten Hottest Chefs in San Diego." My food-snobby San Francisco palate flunked several acclaimed chefs, due to bland, upscale tameness or hysterical con-Fusion. But Patrick Ponsaty (then at El Bizcocho) proved a shoo-in. His food was highly creative but grounded in French and Continental traditions. There was nothing disproportionate in his dishes besides their utter deliciousness.
A few years after moving here for a job on the paper, I returned to El Bizcocho to review the restaurant. The meal scored 4.8 on a scale of 5. I'd never given a five-star rating and wanted to try one more dinner to make absolutely certain of the kitchen's consistency. (Hell, I just wanted to eat more of Patrick's cooking.) I reserved for the evening of my birthday. That morning, I woke up to black skies and choking air. The Cedar Fire was raging, and the I-15 was shut down.
By the time the smoke cleared a couple of months later, Patrick and El Biz had parted ways. The new management at Rancho Bernardo Inn wanted a different direction, less French and more Californian. Patrick vanished into catering for a while, then resurfaced as opening chef at the La Bastide bistro in Scripps Ranch -- until Bernard Mouget of BernardO's made him a better offer.
BernardO's is attractively decorated in the style of rural French inns set in converted old stone farm structures or bakeries. The ceiling is high (and well soundproofed), and one wall of the dining room displays a painting of a French country scene. A bar in warm-toned wood bisects the space between the main dining room, which offers comfortable semicircular booths as well as tables, and a semiprivate room. The sound level is lively but comfortable. The service is terrific -- our waiter, Bryan, was so well versed in the menu (and so genuinely enthusiastic and articulate) that he was almost like another passionate foodie at the table to collaborate with, rather than the usual "I'd rather be surfing" local wait-dude.
But if you were a restaurant inspector for France's Michelin Guide, you'd probably never give BernardO's the top rating, no matter how tasty the food: It's not luxurious enough, not "cheffy" enough, not even a bit pretentious. They don't start your dinner with an amuse bouche or hand out mignardises (little free sweets) at the end, and they don't even offer a "chef's tasting menu" except for special occasions. But guess what? I'm not French, and I don't work for Michelin (even if I am starting to look like their logo). So I don't care. The restaurant is lovely and civilized, and the food, service, and comfort at my dinner averaged 4.7, with 11 out of 12 dishes rating four stars or better. What's the problem then? It was just one meal, if a glorious one -- made up of the most venturesome, "foodiest" items on a menu that includes an equal number of less splashy, more "comfortable" dishes. (The restaurant is far from home; worse yet, my last remaining eating buddy in Rancho Bernardo just moved downtown, so two or three more meals would be difficult.) But this time I'm not going to leave Ponsaty's work unsung. Better to perhaps cheat him of half a star than to stay silent and cheat the readers of possible feasts.
Dinner began with a warm baguette with whipped fresh-herb butter, plus a double-spouted cruet of vinegar and oil. As we ordered appetizers, we mentioned that we'd be sharing everything ("so don't worry about who gets what"). At BernardO's, when groups say they'll be sharing, something special happens: The server alerts the kitchen, and the appetizers are served one by one, in the center of the table, with small salad plates for each diner to take a portion. For this we were deeply grateful. It is a much better invention than sliced bread: We could fully savor and sigh over each dish and flavor in turn, each served at its proper temperature, with much less palate fatigue than facing everything at once. We also felt like honored guests, assured that we wouldn't be rushed through dinner to make room for the next hungry party waving greenbacks.
Our first starter was an unconventional foie gras Napoleon, with the tenderest possible liver layered with smoked eel, caramelized onion, and apple -- a creation of Martin Berasategui, a top Spanish chef who was one of Patrick's mentors. The eel was a quiet presence -- now you taste it, now you wonder if you did, because its texture mirrors the foie gras. The apples and onion (Patrick's additions to the recipe) were superbly easygoing complements -- both a bit sweet, neither one cloying. On one side of the plate was a heap of bracing wild arugula, on the other, a long pouf of delicious celery-root foam intertwined with a slick of reduced balsamic. Everything worked together. (Unfortunately, very few people were ordering this dish, perhaps fearing the combination of fish and fowl. It has now been replaced with a foie gras with red-onion marmalade and yellow peaches -- a more conventional plate, although probably no less ravishing.)
Maine lobster ravioli are a trio of large, tender pockets, stuffed not only with lobster but with white asparagus to furnish a gentle-firm textural element amidst all the swoony softness. Surrounding the pasta is a lobster bisque reduced to a thick, creamy sauce. As we mopped the last drops, the busser had to plead with us to give up the plate.
The lone flop of the meal was an appetizer of "traditional Burgundy escargots." It wasn't all that traditional: Ample ground almonds, a Spanish touch, were mixed into the standard garlic-parsley butter (all to the good), but there wasn't nearly enough garlic for my posse. Maybe that's the way they like it in Rancho Bernardo -- but certainly not in Burgundy, where my prix-fixe dinners every night for a week inevitably started with a riot of garlic attached to some snails.