Steamed Santa Barbara blue prawns proved frustrating — I couldn’t make any sense of it. The prawns (in split-open shells, with long spidery legs reaching out all over the garnishes) are large, undressed, bland, and, this evening, a little overcooked. They came with cigars of black truffle ricotta cheese cannelloni, artichoke leaves, baby fennel stalks, and a slick of tasty “sauce vierge” (which seemed a salty, lemony version of extra-virgin olive oil). A lot of playful ingredients, but none seemed to work well with the others. I wished I’d opted instead for that Dungeness crab salad or the endive salad with lardons and black truffle vinaigrette or, especially, for the roasted jumbo asparagus with morels.
When we were ordering wines, Rick disclosed that the restaurant is in the midst of shedding its old wine list and replacing it; if we happened to choose a discontinued wine, the staff would find an equivalent. For our appetizers, first choice was a Paso Robles Viognier — vanished! There was no sommelier on the floor that evening...not a good sign, as it was a Friday. I advised Rick to look among the French bottlings for a substitute, and soon he brought us two to sample from open bar-bottles, a Sauvignon, and a Macon-Villages Chardonnay. The Macon had it! Like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” it was “clean as country water…wild as mountain dew.” This oak-free Chard was wonderful with our appetizers and subsequent seafood choices. For our entrées, we presented the difficult-to-match test of one meat, one fowl, two fish. Rick suggested the E. Guigal Côte du Rhône Rosé. I’ve rarely tried rosé since the rise of pink zin made that genre anathema. This, however, was pure fun, a light, picnicky quaff to go with just about anything.
An entrée of sautéed wild sea bass was also pure fun, thanks to playful garnishes, each sweet in a different way: a fizzy “orange blossom mousse,” the heavier sweetness of carrot-orange emulsion, and a garnish of braised endive sweetened with lavender honey. Not a shred of this remained after making its round of the Clean Plate Club.
We were tempted by a citrus-steamed Alaskan halibut (with black mussels and a zucchini flower in lemon verbena broth) but succumbed to the lure of another special: halibut cheeks with lentils. In Asia, fish cheeks are highly regarded for their tenderness and fine flavor, but you usually find them made from smaller species and end up chopsticking your way around a large, sharp-edged curvy bone to reach the precious morsels of flesh. Halibut, however, ranges from large to huge. Here, the cheek-meat was chopped into chunks rubbed with some flavorful form of paprika, mingling with savory lentils, chopped carrots, and seasonings — tasty, and no bones about it.
Slow-cooked Kurobuta pork loin comes stuffed with sweetbreads. Despite the stuffing (which, I felt, got lost amid the platoons of other ingredients), the pork was a tad overcooked — white all through, no blush. The sage-pork reduction imbued the surface with a delicious herbal glaze. Alongside were sausages of bacon-wrapped salsify (a parsnip-like root vegetable with a subtle, oyster-like flavor, hence its nickname “oyster plant”), an inspired combination. All around the plate were the upper thirds of thick carrots and whole white radishes still wearing their green top-knots.
I rarely order chicken, least of all breast, but wanted to see what chef Patrick would do with it. He cooks it sous-vide (slowly poached in a pouch) with a truffled chicken reduction, plated with wild-mushroom fricassee and a potato napoleon. I liked everything but the chicken, which was as dry as ever. Nobody ate much of this, once the potato and mushrooms were gone. Do-over? I’d choose the grilled Colorado double lamb chop with braised lamb shoulder moussaka.
This is where the party of hyenas comes in again. A resort restaurant must make them happy, even if not one is paying the least attention to the food. It also must make out-of-town guests happy, even food-fearing xenophobic Zonies, who want chicken breast well-done, halibut desert-dry, and medium- well beefsteaks. (Let them eat Sheriff Joe Arpaio!) It’s hard to please these people and to please me, too. There are limits to a chef’s freedom here in San Diego that they don’t have in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or other foodie towns where the chef is king and if you don’t like it, well, there’s a pizzeria down the block. So, yes, I’m being too indulgent, too forgiving of a favorite chef. I liked his food best at El Biz, but I liked it better at Bernard’O than I do here — so far. Averaging everything we ate to come up with a star rating, here it totaled a wavery 4.25; but with in-between scores, I look for other factors in the meal, and the lovely ambience and friendly, collaborative service pushed it up a quarter-point. (Oh, golly, Patrick, I’m so sorry! I know you’re still yearning for that 5 stars you nearly got at El Biz. Alas, not yet.)
Dessert lists arrive in dark-brown envelopes tied with jade-green ribbons, like greeting cards. We chose Bisou au Chocolate — a crisp praline wafer glazed with bitter chocolate, topped with brandied cherries and chocolate sorbet. Chocoholic Jim’s craving was fully sated, and the rest of us loved it too, because it’s not icky or heavy. It may have a zillion calories but tastes natural, with the cherries carrying the main thrust of sweetness. Our coffees were delivered as desired, with dessert, including my flawless espresso.
Chef Patrick had been wandering periodically through the dining room all evening. Now we spotted Rick pulling him aside and gesturing toward us. Were we busted as a reviewing party? (Maybe. If so, Ponsaty’s too much of a gentleman to embarrass me with it. Besides, we’d already eaten like anybody else.) Suddenly Rick delivered an extra dessert. “Because you’re such good eaters,” he said, “really enjoying and paying attention to the food, Chef Patrick wanted you to taste these.” The plate included five exquisite chocolate bonbons, each with a different flavor.