17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo
Stop the presses! The chef whose work is reviewed in this column abruptly departed El Bizcocho three days after this dinner. When our valiant mensch of a photographer, Alan Decker, phoned to make an appointment for a shoot, he was initially given a bureaucratic runaround. “Ryan Grant? Who’s that?” said the Tiffany or Brittany who first answered the phone. Delving further up the chain, he was told: “He’s taken personal leave.” For how long? “Indefinite.” More calls unearthed some darker gossip, unconfirmed and so unpublishable. Finally, from somebody a bit higher up: “He no longer works here.” This was verified later by the PR person. Ryan Grant had definitely left the building.
I had just delivered my review when Alan delivered the bad news — no time to eat somewhere else and write about it by deadline or to make a news report out of it by asking earlier chefs about their departures. So, a review of El Biz it is, revised to accommodate the change.
I’d started early on my end-of-the-year “Best Eats” column only to discover fewer than usual candidates, after consistently eating lower on the hog to accommodate everybody’s recession budget and my own chopped expense allowance. Face it, good pub-grub is good — not great.
But here comes Santa Claus, seasonally deleting the Sanity Clause as we try to wow our visitors or just indulge ourselves in a little holiday cheer. And I wanted more than nine candidates for an eccentric version of a top-ten list. Hence, last week’s review of Addison, and now, El Bizcocho, again, for the nth time, to check out their latest prodigy chef, Ryan Grant, who was hired early last summer, a young veteran of several of New York’s top kitchens.
Even before the latest news about the chef surfaced, I was starting to feel suckered by El Biz. They usually hire terrific chefs, but a few months later, each great culinary hope runs for his life, so I have to keep schlepping back up north to sample the creations of their latest hire. Ryan Grant was their sixth chef in six years, following culinary heavyweights Patrick Ponsaty, Gavin Kaysen, Steven Rojas, Judd Canepari, and some French dude from Frisco who was gone before I even heard he was there. I can’t say how many fled or how many were fired. Rumors are, El Biz management turned over the cooking staff before Grant’s arrival — and judging by the current shrunken wine list, it looks like they sold off most of their great bottlings. I’m sure they’d happily outsource their service staff to India, if they only could.
An email from one of El Biz’s escapees (whom I won’t name, but we’ve stayed sporadic efriends) hints at the underlying reason for the turnover: short-sighted, stingy management decisions, at least from the chefs’ point of view. “I am sad to see how El Biz turned [out], with all the chefs moving in and out…. I wish the higher-ups there had a sense for business. When Steven [Rojas] was there, his food was amazing. Sure, it was ahead of the San Diego times, but they should have embraced that, marketed that, and promoted the hell out of it to get more people to come to see what the excitement was about. Instead, they made the biggest mistake of all, they let him go….”
Following their diss-the-chef precedent, the El Biz website tells us next to nothing about Ryan Grant, except a quote from some non-local restaurant reviewer who considered him the bee’s knees. Google turned up more info, including an article in the North County Times giving his bio: “Born and raised in Carson City, Nev., Grant started cooking by his Italian father’s side at seven. He moved to New York at 19 and worked for the best of the best…Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong (where Grant was chef de partie); Alain Ducasse at the Essex, [and at] Mix, and Bouley (where he was one of the few cooks to have a dish on the menu); and Doug Psaltis, who hired Grant to open Country (which earned three stars from the New York Times and a Michelin star). He also served as sous chef at Ilili, executive chef at Frederick’s Downtown, and executive chef at Elizabeth, where New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni praised Grant’s sense of adventure and whimsy (and awarded him a coveted star).”
So that’s the latest chef lost to El Biz. Nine restaurants in ten years does indicate a certain restlessness on his part, possibly inflamed by whatever is going on at El Biz that has caused so many other chefs to leave.
Okay, let’s eat — hypothetically. After all, we don’t know who’s cooking there now and whether Grant’s sous-chef, Travis Schultz, will continue cooking the same dishes the same way, including the beautifully rare French-style duck breast that defies San Diego tastes, and the unconventional, fist-size scallops.
Like many upscale restaurants, El Biz’s menu gives a list of ingredients for each dish. What it doesn’t even hint at is how these ingredients are interwoven. This was a chef who liked to play with his food. Surprises abounded.
The amuse-bouche was a shot glass of a smoky, complex chowder of fresh, raw (not dried) popping corn and bacon, the rim coated with a softly chewy purée of the same corn, this time caramelized. The chef’s revision of fluffy Parker House rolls, but with more butter in the batter, came with room-temperature balls of butter dotted with crystals of vibrant black sea salt, probably Halen Môn’s superb smoked salt from Wales.
Each appetizer amused us with a differently shaped plate. I ordered lobster bisque with confidence because there was also a Maine lobster entrée to furnish shells and spare parts for a rich stock. The soup was full of personality: a deep, smoky flavor from fine-chopped prosciutto, bits of “sweet and sour squash,” imperceptible “crispy serrano” (no spicy flavor), and agnolotti, their pasta skin a bit thick, filled with pine nuts and lobster meat.