12457 Rancho Bernardo Road, San Diego
Exactly seven years before my recent meal at BernardO's, I ate an unforgettable dinner prepared by the restaurant's current chef, Patrick Ponsaty. The Reader had hired me to come south, where, free of local prejudices, I'd write a cover story on "The Ten Hottest Chefs in San Diego." My food-snobby San Francisco palate flunked several acclaimed chefs, due to bland, upscale tameness or hysterical con-Fusion. But Patrick Ponsaty (then at El Bizcocho) proved a shoo-in. His food was highly creative but grounded in French and Continental traditions. There was nothing disproportionate in his dishes besides their utter deliciousness.
A few years after moving here for a job on the paper, I returned to El Bizcocho to review the restaurant. The meal scored 4.8 on a scale of 5. I'd never given a five-star rating and wanted to try one more dinner to make absolutely certain of the kitchen's consistency. (Hell, I just wanted to eat more of Patrick's cooking.) I reserved for the evening of my birthday. That morning, I woke up to black skies and choking air. The Cedar Fire was raging, and the I-15 was shut down.
By the time the smoke cleared a couple of months later, Patrick and El Biz had parted ways. The new management at Rancho Bernardo Inn wanted a different direction, less French and more Californian. Patrick vanished into catering for a while, then resurfaced as opening chef at the La Bastide bistro in Scripps Ranch -- until Bernard Mouget of BernardO's made him a better offer.
BernardO's is attractively decorated in the style of rural French inns set in converted old stone farm structures or bakeries. The ceiling is high (and well soundproofed), and one wall of the dining room displays a painting of a French country scene. A bar in warm-toned wood bisects the space between the main dining room, which offers comfortable semicircular booths as well as tables, and a semiprivate room. The sound level is lively but comfortable. The service is terrific -- our waiter, Bryan, was so well versed in the menu (and so genuinely enthusiastic and articulate) that he was almost like another passionate foodie at the table to collaborate with, rather than the usual "I'd rather be surfing" local wait-dude.
But if you were a restaurant inspector for France's Michelin Guide, you'd probably never give BernardO's the top rating, no matter how tasty the food: It's not luxurious enough, not "cheffy" enough, not even a bit pretentious. They don't start your dinner with an amuse bouche or hand out mignardises (little free sweets) at the end, and they don't even offer a "chef's tasting menu" except for special occasions. But guess what? I'm not French, and I don't work for Michelin (even if I am starting to look like their logo). So I don't care. The restaurant is lovely and civilized, and the food, service, and comfort at my dinner averaged 4.7, with 11 out of 12 dishes rating four stars or better. What's the problem then? It was just one meal, if a glorious one -- made up of the most venturesome, "foodiest" items on a menu that includes an equal number of less splashy, more "comfortable" dishes. (The restaurant is far from home; worse yet, my last remaining eating buddy in Rancho Bernardo just moved downtown, so two or three more meals would be difficult.) But this time I'm not going to leave Ponsaty's work unsung. Better to perhaps cheat him of half a star than to stay silent and cheat the readers of possible feasts.
Dinner began with a warm baguette with whipped fresh-herb butter, plus a double-spouted cruet of vinegar and oil. As we ordered appetizers, we mentioned that we'd be sharing everything ("so don't worry about who gets what"). At BernardO's, when groups say they'll be sharing, something special happens: The server alerts the kitchen, and the appetizers are served one by one, in the center of the table, with small salad plates for each diner to take a portion. For this we were deeply grateful. It is a much better invention than sliced bread: We could fully savor and sigh over each dish and flavor in turn, each served at its proper temperature, with much less palate fatigue than facing everything at once. We also felt like honored guests, assured that we wouldn't be rushed through dinner to make room for the next hungry party waving greenbacks.
Our first starter was an unconventional foie gras Napoleon, with the tenderest possible liver layered with smoked eel, caramelized onion, and apple -- a creation of Martin Berasategui, a top Spanish chef who was one of Patrick's mentors. The eel was a quiet presence -- now you taste it, now you wonder if you did, because its texture mirrors the foie gras. The apples and onion (Patrick's additions to the recipe) were superbly easygoing complements -- both a bit sweet, neither one cloying. On one side of the plate was a heap of bracing wild arugula, on the other, a long pouf of delicious celery-root foam intertwined with a slick of reduced balsamic. Everything worked together. (Unfortunately, very few people were ordering this dish, perhaps fearing the combination of fish and fowl. It has now been replaced with a foie gras with red-onion marmalade and yellow peaches -- a more conventional plate, although probably no less ravishing.)
Maine lobster ravioli are a trio of large, tender pockets, stuffed not only with lobster but with white asparagus to furnish a gentle-firm textural element amidst all the swoony softness. Surrounding the pasta is a lobster bisque reduced to a thick, creamy sauce. As we mopped the last drops, the busser had to plead with us to give up the plate.
The lone flop of the meal was an appetizer of "traditional Burgundy escargots." It wasn't all that traditional: Ample ground almonds, a Spanish touch, were mixed into the standard garlic-parsley butter (all to the good), but there wasn't nearly enough garlic for my posse. Maybe that's the way they like it in Rancho Bernardo -- but certainly not in Burgundy, where my prix-fixe dinners every night for a week inevitably started with a riot of garlic attached to some snails.
For a palate-cleanser midway, we chose a Belgian endive salad in black truffle vinaigrette -- a twist on the traditional French bistro dish of frisée, bacon lardons, and poached egg, with aristocratic endive leaves replacing frisée. The classic version is grand except for the frisée, a vegetable I usually find as annoying as the bad hair day it resembles. ("I just like endive better," Patrick told me later. Moi too.) Here, the long oval endive leaves gently cradle the crisp bits of bacon instead of shaking them off as intruders to their frizzy majesties. We couldn't pick out the black truffle flavor in the savory vinaigrette, but this was another dish where the busser had to stand by patiently until we'd enjoyed the last bits.
Entrées were served simultaneously (unlike the appetizers), and we fell in love with every dish -- each person being especially drawn to the one tasted first. Let's start with the pork. Ponsaty was a finalist in the "Taste of Elegance" nationwide chef competition sponsored by the National Pork Council last weekend, the semifinals winner representing Southern California. His entrée, served at the restaurant, incorporates some interesting cuts of the pig: a roast loin stuffed with a forcemeat combining sweetbreads, foie gras, and pork trotter meat, alongside a chunk of long-simmered glazed pork belly (unsmoked bacon, a favorite cut for Chinese chefs) accompanied by small cippoline onions and baby carrots. The stuffing in the loin was a bit dryer than it sounds (and a tad less fabulous than we'd hoped), but the belly chunk, slow-baked for seven hours and hand-trimmed of excess fat, was ravishing, its unctuous, fatty meat so tender that it might even tempt a vegan to sin. (I found myself quietly singing Bessie Smith's "Gimme a pigfoot, and a gang of gin...") "The theme was pork, so I tried to use the maximum pork parts that I could," Patrick says. At the restaurant, the dish comes with a well-conceived polenta round seasoned with tangy dried apricots, lending the sweet acidity and neutral starch the pork wants for balance. (You don't even want to know what else the contest version came with; you'd go crazy with food-lust.)
California bouillabaisse differs from its Marseillaise model, since we are too far from the Mediterranean to replicate the typical species. Here, the soup contains sea bass, scallops, shrimps, black mussels and clams in their shells, plus tiny sweet fingerling potatoes that look like newborn manatees. They were all utterly tender, including the sea bass -- which almost melted on the spoon, making it a star and not merely a space-filler. The broth (Maine lobster stock, substituting for the unavailable Mediterranean langoustines, which don't travel), although a bit scant, was thick and sensuous. As a southern France--born chef, Patrick knows that no bouillabaisse is complete without rouille (red pepper--saffron aioli) on baguette toasts, but he takes it a step further, with a tremblingly delicate lobster rouille, with lobster stock added to the mixture. At our meal, there wasn't quite enough broth to create floating croutons -- we had to shove the croutons into the broth and let them do their magic by any means necessary. Yet it's as fine a bouillabaisse as I've ever tasted anywhere.
Saving the best for last, roasted squab arrived in small pieces, indicating a genuinely young bird, along with wild mushroom and artichoke risotto, porcini mushrooms with a truffle reduction, plus a few pleasant if superfluous potato gnocchi. (They're not world-class gnocchi, being a bit dry.) The real killer on the plate is a rich, creamy-textured sauce combining brown meat stock, Marsala, squab juices, and a touch of beurre blanc -- a flavor depth-bomb that gives and gives. Alas, the squab dish, too, has gone off-menu due to a lack of takers. (Americans think, "Squab -- ick, pigeons eating hot dog buns from the trash and crapping on the windshield." Squabs are not those dirty birds -- they're farm-raised young game birds, both cleaner in their habits and more amiable in their manners than common chickens and distinguished by a deep, game-bird flavor. The meat tastes a little like teal, the smallest and wildest of ducks.)
Ponsaty is one of the few chefs versatile enough to produce both savory courses and sweets with equal élan. His dessert list is sensibly bifurcated, with fruit desserts listed above and chocolate concoctions below. We chose one of each. A Meyer lemon tart was garnished with fresh segments of orange, grapefruit, and very sweet mandarin and accompanied by a brain-clearing mandarin sorbet. The overall effect is of sunshiny lightness. A chocolate coulant was, for chocolate, wonderfully light as well -- think chocolate lava cake without the cake, a barely solid wash of sublime bittersweet flavor set atop a "piña colada" syrup of tart diced pineapple in thickened coconut milk -- plus a scoop of superb coconut ice cream. (The sorbets and ice creams come from Bubbie's in Encinitas, while Patrick and Bernard shop for an ice cream machine -- the "instant" restaurant versions cost about $7000.)
Patrick's cooking doesn't scream, "Look at me! I'm an Artiste!" His art sneaks up on you, like that ravishing multi-layered sauce on the squab. Dish after dish, pleasure after pleasure, he makes love to your taste buds like a Casanova of the palate. When you're done, you don't even feel as though you've sinned, i.e., through over-repletion of sensations or amounts. You merely sigh and smile with (per William Blake) "the lineaments of satisfied desire." It's one of the differences between a mature chef (Patrick is 38) and a young hotshot. The striver's ego is often bound up with expressing himself and impressing you. That can be thrilling, too, but the mature chef, having nothing to prove, is more about expressing himself -- and fully satisfying you.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I'm the fifth generation of chefs in my family," says Patrick Ponsaty. "My great-grandfather was a chef, my grandfather was a chef, and my father continued it. My father had a family restaurant called Le Cochon du Lait ["the suckling pig"] in Toulouse. As a young man I had the opportunity to work with a famous chef at Darroze, a Michelin one-star in Landes. I did my apprenticeship for two years, and I continued at Alain Ducasse. Then I went to Spain to work for Martin Berasategui. I went to New York and worked for Jean-Michel Diot [now of Tapenade] for two years. He wanted to move to California. My wife also wanted to move here, and I wanted a better life. I started with Jean-Michel at Tapenade for the first months and after that moved to El Bizcocho. Jean-Michel was consulting for them, so they called me and I came.
"I left because they changed the general manager, and they wanted to take a new direction. After that, for one year I worked to create my catering company. (I've continued it with Bernard.) Then I met the owner of La Bastide, who wanted me to help him open the restaurant as a consultant chef, and he asked me to stay, so I stayed there as chef for 14 months. Then I heard from Bernard Mougin. I've known him for 12 years now. He's very nice, very honest, very professional, and we work very well together. So I went to work for him. I'm very happy."
I asked Ponsaty if the lower price point of BernardO's, compared to El Bizcocho, had placed any limits on the ingredients he could use. "No, no, no. Bernard trusts me 100 percent, and I've reduced his ingredients costs 8 percent and buy better products. He's very happy, too. I can buy everything I want."
The future? "When Bernard retires in maybe four years, we'll be talking about my taking over the restaurant."