It was Saint Steve’s birthday, and his greatest desire was to taste this new cuisine, so we celebrated with the 5-course prix fixe menu ($85), because it offered several choices for each course. This option has now been reduced to a 4-course prix fixe ($75). The 7-course ($105) includes more luxurious items, including several that we wanted to taste, but the choices are fixed. The 12-course ($145) is “chef’s choice,” consisting of the 7-course plus bites of the kitchen’s latest whims and creations. The longer tasting meals are still offered.

Our dishes were beautifully proportioned, a leisurely meal of many miniature pleasures, not an orgy of gluttony. (Four bites of entrée meats remained for the doggie bag.) After warm, crusty rolls and pretty swirls of room-temperature butter, dinner began with “amuses,” small ramekins of fluke in yuzu glaze set over a yellow blob of some mild, strange Asian fruit. (The waiter identified it, but neither Steve nor I had heard of it, and its name didn’t stick.) A small but potent dose of dry Thai chili pepper left a long, slow afterburn. Alongside each ramekin a soup spoon cradled what looked like a tan egg yolk — chef Rojas calls it a “ravioli” — gingered sarsaparilla tea held inside a thin, transparent gelan shell, bursting into a splash of vibrant cool liquid once it hit the mouth. (Gelan? One of those molecular magics.)

My first appetizer was dayboat scallop carpaccio, translucent slices of raw, sweet shellfish with little heaps of acidulated shaved fennel (offering the strongly pickled flavor of kim chee, minus the chilies), plus soothing, anise-y fennel purée. Meyer lemon koshu (a house-made takeoff on a Japanese condiment of preserved yuzu and its peel, here made from preserved Meyer lemon with fried garlic, smoked char roe, and scallion marmalade) was part of the array, along with purple-red dots of umeboshi (sour Japanese plum purée) and gleaming emeralds of Pernod jelly to provide another variation of anise flavor. I realized why I couldn’t bring myself to give Sushi Ota five stars — it’s not just the harsh ambiance but that Ota-San is creatively coasting a bit by now. This scallop dish, in contrast, is sashimi that’s active art. A lot goes into it, but it doesn’t taste like a lot; it tastes as if it works together only to turn scallops into superstars.

Saint Steve started with exquisite hamachi sashimi. “You can tell by the bloodline in the fish,” Rojas says. “When it’s pink, the fish is fresh. When it starts turning brown, it’s getting old and we throw it out.” The meaty fresh jackfish came with a yuzu-koshu-soy glaze, accompanied by dots of yuzu gel, fresh, tangy gooseberries, and — a modest triumph of modern kitchen science — Cryovac-compressed honeydew, a narrow rectangle that tasted twice as much like honeydew as the natural melon.

Then: local baby abalone a la plancha was grilled light brown and tender enough to cut with a fork. A transparent slick of “smoked lardo,” succulent cured pig back-fat, almost imperceptibly coated the flesh. Alongside were a tart green grape compote, squash blossoms, fried lengths of crosne (aka “Chinese artichokes,” an Asian tuber from Japan, similar to sunchokes and pronounced “crone”), and violet mustard sabayon. “These are a lot of unrelated items on the dish, and it could be completely incoherent,” said Steve, “but somehow they all add up to a unity.” Clearly, the chef doesn’t have mere technical chops, he also has a palate.

Chestnut agnolotti (agnolotto, to be technical) offered a burst of intensity: a single large, silky pasta pocket filled with chestnut purée, Burgundy truffles, and ricotta salata. It came with a pillow of earthy black trumpet mushrooms and a sweet, silly debutante of a “butterscotch foam” tipped aslant on top, offering a giggly echo of the nutty-sweet chestnut purée — an edible joke that sobered up in the mouth.

If you saw the movie Ratatouille, you’ll remember how critic Anton Ego went mad for the peasanty title dish. My ratatouille here was a duck egg, larger and deeper-flavored than a chicken egg, with a custardy consistency from gentle poaching. It perched atop a mound of “bottle-poached” black French Du Puy lentils. (A double-twist on sous-vide, they’re poached in a bain marie inside a bottle — the outer water simmers, but the lentils never even bubble but slowly cook tender, soaking up vegetable broth, tomato confit, and herbs.) Completing the cast were black trumpet mushroom purée and finger-sized rectangles of perfect panisse, Provençale chick-pea fritters, earthy in flavor but airy in texture. This combination brought back the shock of my first-ever sip of a great Côte de Nuits Burgundy — like a planetary spirit-mother (not the flawed, human one) wrapping her arms around me in loving solace for everything ever suffered, or to be suffered. I realized that I was careening toward an unprecedented five-star rating.

The one dish I didn’t cotton to was its course- companion of “baby anzious artichokes,” with wild arugula, tomato confit, and somewhere (where?) artichoke mousseline. At any other restaurant it might be impressive. Here, it was an interesting warm salad.

When our server asked how we wanted our meats done, we specified “very rare” for beef rib-eye and “rosy rare” for lamb saddle. Both wishes were precisely fulfilled. In the multifaceted assiette of lamb, the modest-sized portion of saddle was perfectly roasted, but the supporting players upstaged it. “Confit sweetbreads” offered a small portion of thymus, glazed sweetly with a crisp exterior, just enough to inspire a heavy crush before it vanished down the hatch. “Lambcetta” was a thick slice of house-cured “lamb-ham,” made from odd parts (neck meat, flap, and belly, direct from a local farm) and seasoned with exotic Moroccan ras al hanout spices — delicious and clever. Romanesco sauce, succulent-sweet almonds (had to be Marcona), small semi-hot cherry peppers stuffed with puréed eggplant (ooh!), and mini-florets of cauliflower filled out the plate, a busy but engaging assemblage.

The duo of beef rib-eye pavé and 36-hour short rib was, happily, less food than we’d feared. The rare rib-eye was dainty in size, the short rib beyond tender. And to make it all ridiculously lavish, it was served with a mini “croque Monsieur,” a tiny grilled sandwich of cheese and ham encased in multi-layered buttery pastry — plus a bit of Swiss chard and a beef-Banyuls jus to moisten the meat. Our paired wines for all the courses (starting with Champagne) were universally wonderful and suitable, all in generous pours — but, like meeting too many interesting people at a party, I promptly forgot all their names.

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Comments

bee1000 April 23, 2009 @ 12:04 p.m.

Awesome to see a San Diego restaurant with the creativity and quality to deserve a 5-star review at last! El Bizcocho has always been one of the nicest, most civilized places to dine in the city. It's well worth venturing out of the more typical dining neighborhoods.

BTW: Their area code actually is 858, and it's really off of Rancho Bernardo Road, a couple miles east of I-15. Francisco Drive must be the closest road in the housing community near it.

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justpeachey April 24, 2009 @ 1:33 p.m.

Couldn't agree more! Ate here in November and was totally blown away. Did the 7 course with wine pairings. Agree (again) best food I've ever had in San Diego. Let's hope we can keep these kinds of places alive.

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