17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo
“There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”
Irving Berlin wrote that at the height of the Depression, and Fred and Ginger sang and danced to it, evoking fantasies of impossibly luxurious escape for the struggling public. Now, once again, it’s hard times in the country: A meat wholesaler selling a fabled breed of heritage pork recently informed the New York Times, “We tell the chefs, you got to keep some magic on the menu, some fun, because the people are coming in to escape whatever the hell they’re facing out there.”
El Bizcocho may be a pricey escape, but it’s worth more than it costs if you love great food and want to forget your woes for a few hours. Given what goes into the cooking (labor, ingredients, care, creativity — versus other restaurants that charge more for so much less), the prices aren’t ridiculous, and what its chefs are doing is the most enchanting “magic on the menu” anywhere in San Diego, now and probably ever. Although employed and scarcely starving, I do weigh other values against cost: For the price of a three-hour escape to culinary heaven ($150 per person, including wines, tip, and tax), I could’ve bought myself round-trip airfare to Fresno, two nights in Mrs. Patel’s South Escondido motel, a Botox injection, or one more violent video game to help my stepgrandson evade the hell of high school homework. Hey, let’s face the music and dance.
The pianist at El Biz plays classic show tunes in the background. The room is beautiful, the chairs comfortable, the tables set with an almost scary array of gleaming cutlery and crystal. But more vitally, El Biz is the first San Diego restaurant to venture into the “molecular gastronomy” made famous by chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli near Barcelona and most flamboyantly embraced in the U.S. by Wylie Dufresne (at wd~50 in New York) and Grant Achatz (at Alinea) in Chicago.
You don’t have to understand the technicalities to appreciate the taste sensations it creates. “Molecular is the science behind the art, knowing how basic things work,” chef Steven Rojas told me when I called him after the meal. All food, all gastronomy, is basically chemistry (among other sciences). Molecular gastronomy addresses this issue head on, employing modern laboratory techniques and edible, nature-based chemical compounds — such as sodium alginate (made from seaweed), monosaccharide sugars, and calcium lactate (from milk) — to reshape ingredients into forms undreamed of by Mother Nature. Liquid nitrogen can flash-freeze foods, such as ice creams made tableside. Cryovac (the most common modern technique for aging beef in shrink-wrap) can be applied to fruit, breaking down cell walls to create intense concentrations of flavor. And sous vide, the widely used technique of slow-poaching sealed packages of foodstuffs at strictly controlled temperatures, is another technique in the culinary repertory. Like all science, “molecular” can be used for good, for not-so-good, or for show-off silly.
What made our meal so thrilling was not the “ooh, aah” special effects, which might become exhausting if overdone course after course, but the way effects here are applied sparingly, smartly. Chef de cuisine Steven Rojas and executive chef Judd Canepari aren’t playing mad scientists. Delicate experiments are employed in garnishes to startling effect — bursts of intense flavor and unexpected textures — a mini magic show on the plate and in the mouth. They’re not card tricks, but little miracles, making the food thrillingly delicious if you’re up for adventure. Rojas has also embraced the local farms of North County — superb veggies from Crows Pass and its neighbors, and pristine herbs and microgreens from Connelly Farms, et al. Hence, his cuisine combines “farm to table” with futuristic techniques to showcase the finest fresh ingredients in dazzling new ways.
“‘Molecular Gastronomy,’” writes Rojas on his blog, is “understanding and questioning how things work and why they do the things they do. As Chefs, we all must strive for perfection in all things food, we must embrace new ingredients and new techniques, and we must also respect the time-honored traditions while searching for new and interesting flavors, textures, and combinations to please the public. Because what good is a new technique or ingredient if nobody enjoys it?”
Rojas, born in Argentina, grew up in Culver City, his heart divided between soccer and cooking. After a serious sports injury, cooking won. Graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in L.A., he worked in Chicago at TRU restaurant and the more avant-garde Espumas, where “foams” were already in use. He returned to California and the renowned Patina, where he was mentored by executive chefs Walter Manske and Eric Greenspan, who had both done stints at Spain’s avant-garde El Bulli. They advised him to further develop his skills in Europe’s top restaurants, so he sold his ’65 Dart for passage to Spain and a stage at two-star Akelare in San Sebastián, followed by a stint at Spain’s three-star Martin Berasategui Restaurant (which also trained El Biz’s ex-chef, Patrick Ponsaty). There he learned Spanish/Basque haute cuisine enlivened with molecular gastronomy.
After a return to Patina, and once he felt ready to run his own kitchen, he hired on as executive chef at luxurious Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, California, where within two years he’d received a Michelin star, the youngest chef in L.A. to acquire this rating. Last July, at age 29, he moved to El Bizcocho as chef de cuisine. “They wanted a chef de cuisine who was savvy in the new techniques, and that was perfect for me,” he says. “The food that I do is really a balance between farm-to-table, classic, and avant-garde. That’s what really defines me.”
At my visit, all the menus at El Biz were prix fixe — but that has since changed. Face it, Rancho Bernardo Inn is a luxury golf resort for people who’d rather spend a pampered few days on the links than, say, a month enduring Third World adventure-travel for the same price. Inevitably, a lot of RBI patrons found the original tasting menus too long, too scary. By now, an à la carte menu is available, and other changes are in the works, although chef Rojas assured me that “the food isn’t changing, it’s just the menu structure.”