El Bizcocho

17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo

Down Mexico way, El Biz is pronounced "Elvis," and that's the kind of star power you'll find in El Bizcocho's dining room. Like the King, it's both charismatic and oddly elusive. To reach the restaurant, you must first locate Rancho Bernardo Inn. While waiting at the porte cochere for the Lynnester to show up, we overheard the parking valets giving directions on the phone several times (including, twice, to Lynne). Once inside the Inn's door, you pass through "a maze of mousetraps," as she put it -- sideways, downstairs, and upstairs again, along the Persian rugs, past board-game tables and antiques and ancestral portraits gracing a series of beautiful period rooms.

The restaurant itself resembles a posh French country inn, with plushy chairs, imposing vases, and a pianist tinkling ballroom tunes. The service is always legendary, but on this visit it was exceptional. Delving into the weighty tome the staff has nicknamed "the Bible," a.k.a. the wine list, I sought a bottle I expected to find here, and almost nowhere else: Château Grillet (from Condrieu, a tiny pocket of the Rhone district) is the definitive Viognier -- the wine that put this grape on the map. It was listed for the relatively reasonable price of $120. After five years of ordering from the bottom third of every list for reviews, I succumbed to temptation. The sommelier seemed initially disbelieving, then shocked, then thrilled: The wine is one of his favorites, but obscure enough that few diners plough through the 60-page list looking for it. From then on, the servers seemed to dote on our table. I can guarantee from past experience that even if you order lesser wines, or none at all, the service will still be the best in the county -- but this time it was beyond perfect. That's not to say that it was stuffy or smothering, but friendly, funny, and full of "yeses" to our every request.

How, then, is the food? A year ago, El Bizcocho was on the verge of earning my first five-star rating, but I needed one more visit to make sure. Just then, the management and French-born chef Patrick Ponsaty parted ways. (Ponsaty is now at La Bastide in Scripps Ranch.) "El Biz has left the building," I moped for a while. Then I started hearing raves about his former sous chef, Gavin Kaysen, who became his replacement. I decided to give the restaurant a fresh try.

The menu begins with appetizers, goes on to second-course soups and salads, followed by entrées, and then desserts (by pastry chef Taylor Costa). It changes seasonally, but odds are you'll find many of the same autumn dishes that I tried still on the list through the winter.

A perfect "amuse" of tiny heirloom tomatoes and microgreens on a crostata awakened our mouths for the appetizers. The sautéed dayboat scallops were a knockout -- not only perfectly cooked, but enhanced by a newfangled technique that produces a "foam" rather than a sauce. Golden in color, the bubbles had a mysterious sweet-tart flavor that turned out to be gooseberries blended with verjus (sour grape juice, currently enjoying a culinary revival 500 years after it last graced the cupboard). English peas and tiny diced carrots floated on an ivory-white sauce, a creamy cauliflower purée studded with diced Virginia ham crisped to a baconlike consistency. The flavors were startlingly good, the combination a triumph.

A halved tail of Maine lobster, the size of a slipper lobster, was festooned with microgreens and perched on toasted house-made brioche, a crouton that soon dissolved under the sandwiched layer of mashed Haas avocado. The kicker was a Tahitian vanilla-orange vinaigrette, making pointed use of comforting vanilla to smooth out a tangy dressing.

Last and least of our appetizers was a red-wine risotto with rabbit loin cooked sous-vide, a technique of marinating and/or gently poaching foodstuffs inside airtight wrappers -- nowadays, plastic heat-sealed by a Cryovac machine. The bunny was tender but needed something more to liven up its bland meat. The risotto was heavy and, to our tastes, rather dull, the red wine giving it the look (and even the texture) of hippie-era brown rice. Overall, the dish was good but less thrilling than we'd hoped.

Our second-course choices brought a return to excitement. A roasted chestnut soup with duck-confit crostini flaunted bits and shreds of duck meat and diced croutons in a velvety cream soup flavored by puréed chestnuts that had been precooked sous-vide. The waiter delivered the soup in a tall, narrow glass tube planted in a soup bowl. "I hope I have a small enough spoon," said my boyfriend. Then the waiter slowly lifted the tube straight up, unleashing the liquid into the bowl. It doesn't add to the flavors (which were good already), but it's great showmanship.

A lobster bisque with not too much cream was smoky and powerful, scented with aged Armagnac. Lynne and I loved it, but my partner found the liquor flavor too strong. Belgian endive salad, stacked like a Napoleon, offered a multitude of flavors in every mouthful -- from a winey, vibrant sherry vinaigrette to a lively Spanish blue cheese, queso de Valdeon. The garnishes included walnuts and spheres of port-poached pear. Although the combination isn't novel, the presentation and choice of cheese were fresh and full of fun.

As is often true in restaurants, the entrées weren't quite up to the opening act. The sous-vide technique reappeared with lamb, browned on the surface and then slow-poached. "Love Me Tender" was its theme song -- the meat was toothsome, moist, and so lacking in sheepishness, it could have passed for beef tenderloin. It was plated atop wilted spinach, and on the side pearl onions sat atop a thick porcini cream mousseline. Yet these separate elements, each tasty in itself, never seemed to talk with each other, like neighboring tables at a Vegas nightclub.

Kobe beef short ribs were very tender and nearly free of fat. The "natural braising juice" noted on the menu was a combination of port, dry red wine, and veal stock. Lynne and I felt that the rich sauce somewhat masked the superior flavor of the premium beef, while my partner was happy that it cloaked the taste of cow meat -- he's not a big beef fan. The accompaniments were braised cipollini onions (flatter and larger than pearl onions) and a creamy mousseline of celeriac (celery root) that highlighted the sophisticated flavor of this vegetable, which looks like plain mashed potatoes but reveals, within a few mouthfuls, its earthy, rooty undertones.

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cantab Jan. 14, 2009 @ 2:21 p.m.

Gavin Kaysen is long gone, to be a celebrity in New York now. Justification for five stars may be long gone also.

El Bizcocho now has a new chef who is a fervent proponent of molecular gastronomy. We went for restaurant week in January 2009. The outcome is underwhelming. One dish supposedly had "foie gras powder" but this was undetectable. In Bananas Foster, the bananas are converted into a thin syrup. This tasted vaguely of caramel and that's all.

On a nonmolecular level, the menu tries hard to be original, but without much point. For example, one main dish is "duck chop." Gee, yes, you won't get see that on a menu anywhere else. But what is it in reality? Just a duck breast with some bone attached. The downside of including the bone is that the traditional presentation of contrasting crispy skin, melt-in-your mouth fat, and rare flesh goes missing.

The kitchen is no doubt excellent at technique, classical and modern, but the basics are sometimes forgotten. Butter was at the right temperature, but tasted stale. Cured sashimi had interesting flavors, but all were overpowered by salt.

All in all, the molecular tricks come at the expense of sensuousness, and the elaborate preparations obscure the true nature of the ingredients.

Portions were tiny, appropriate for a tasting menu but not for a three course dinner.

Service was friendly and welcoming, but not sensitive. After telling us that we could continue talking as long as we wanted (not so directly!) the waiter came for the bill before we had laid down our credit card.


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