Last lap: dessert. Pomegranate cheesecake was a small, rich, jeweled sphere encased in glistening garnet pom gel with a “salted caramel crunch” crust and, alongside, intriguing graham cracker–flavored ice cream. For a lighter dessert, apple confit terrine offered several apple treatments (caramel, sorbet, crisp), exploring the flavor of the fruit every which way. My espresso was ideal, topped with its own natural foam of crema.
More yet: I’d let slip when calling to reserve that it was a milestone birthday for Steve (wanting to know what they’d do). They didn’t sing (yay!) but provided a superfluous extra dessert (strawberry-topped crème brulée). Better yet, they poured fascinating dessert wines — a Sauternes-like sweet white, and Alcyone, an amazing dessert red (from Uruguay), tasting as though the grapes shared genes with chocolate.
Service was fine as ever (although I’ve heard there’ve been some lax stretches the past few years). The decor is lovely if a bit fusty-auntie, and the clothing regime (see Need to Know) seems at best charmingly antiquated. (Is it to keep golfers from stomping into dinner in muddy golf shoes and shorts — or is El Biz still scared of hippies after all these years? Would they give me the bum’s rush if, say, Karl Lagerfeld designed my denim dinner dress and bejeweled high-heeled sneakers?) Whenever I’ve eaten here, all the male guests walk in wearing jackets and promptly drape them over their chair-backs.
It’s an odd atmosphere for ultramodern cuisine. And a good part of San Diego’s “food establishment” — not just conservative RBI guests — has reacted with open hostility. (In fact, I’d advise culinary adventurers to eat at El Biz ASAP, lest it all escape us like Houdini. We’ve lost so many fine chefs through local food-fear.) The U-T’s snarky early review wanted all the molecular stuff to go away, just stick to tried and true French food. Then there’s Oceanaire’s Brian Malarkey, an upscale chain chef cooking a nice-enough crab cake, who got famous when he lost a TV-chef contest but nonetheless picked up as many endorsement contracts as a Wheaties cover boy. Newly celebritized, he took up blogging and has taken several arbitrary swipes at El Biz, pontificating that molecular gastronomy is the enemy of natural flavor. What a load o’ malarkey!
“The food that I do is about passion and about feeding people, and I’m all about feeding people. A chef is 100 percent nurture,” says chef Rojas. “Being creative and playful with it doesn’t make me a scientist — it makes me a culinarian.”
I found the dinner a fulfillment of a long-held hope for serious creativity, imagination, technique, and thrilling tastes. I wish I’d had more meals before giving a five-star rating. Michelin and the NY Times require numerous tastings, but they also have more food money. Then, too, in SD’s fermenting food scene, I’ve learned my lesson twice over: When Patrick Ponsaty was chef at El Biz, after two meals I had five stars in mind but had to forgo the third dinner when, that very day, the Cedar Fire broke out and closed I–15. By the time the smoke cleared, RBI had fired him. Similar story with Gavin Kaysen, who ran off to the Big City just as he’d grown into possible five-star strength. So, I’ll be as daring as chef Rojas and just say it: This is the best food I’ve ever tasted in San Diego. I left my socks in Rancho Bernardo, where they got knocked off.
“Before the fiddlers have fled/ Before they ask us to pay the bill/ And while we still/ have the chance/ Let’s face the music and dance.” — Irving Berlin
Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive (off Francisco Drive, 959-675-8550, ranchobernardoinn.com).
HOURS: Tuesday–Thursday 6:00–9:00 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays until 10:00 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $16–$25; entrées, $42–$50; desserts, $10. Four-course prix fixe, $75, paired wines, $50. Seven-course tasting menu, $105; paired wines, $55. Twelve courses, $75/$145. (Prices and menus may change.)
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Inventive cooking that includes French, Asian, and “farm to table” California flavors (but not as fusion), plus intensely flavored “molecular gastronomy” garnishes. Huge wine list includes rarities; most bottles high-priced but with some bargains; paired wines for prix fixes are the best deal.
PICK HITS: Almost anything, including fluke with ginger-sarsaparilla tea (amuse, now expanded into a first course); scallop carpaccio; hamachi sashimi; chestnut agnolotti; “golden” slow duck egg with lentils; asiet of lamb; pomegranate cheesecake.
NEED TO KNOW: Menus currently in flux (website versions outdated at this writing). Reservations required. No denim, sneakers, wife-beaters; men must wear dress shirt, dress pants, dress shoes; jackets and ties recommended. New restaurant entrance about 30 feet left of hotel porte cochere, with shallow steps up to front door, then a few down to the dining room. (Wheelchair users, specify when reserving; valet parkers can help with entry, and table can be placed in stairless area.) Entire table must order same-sized prix-fixe dinner.