17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego
“There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”
Irving Berlin wrote that at the height of the Depression, and Fred and Ginger sang and danced to it, evoking fantasies of impossibly luxurious escape for the struggling public. Now, once again, it’s hard times in the country: A meat wholesaler selling a fabled breed of heritage pork recently informed the New York Times, “We tell the chefs, you got to keep some magic on the menu, some fun, because the people are coming in to escape whatever the hell they’re facing out there.”
El Bizcocho may be a pricey escape, but it’s worth more than it costs if you love great food and want to forget your woes for a few hours. Given what goes into the cooking (labor, ingredients, care, creativity — versus other restaurants that charge more for so much less), the prices aren’t ridiculous, and what its chefs are doing is the most enchanting “magic on the menu” anywhere in San Diego, now and probably ever. Although employed and scarcely starving, I do weigh other values against cost: For the price of a three-hour escape to culinary heaven ($150 per person, including wines, tip, and tax), I could’ve bought myself round-trip airfare to Fresno, two nights in Mrs. Patel’s South Escondido motel, a Botox injection, or one more violent video game to help my stepgrandson evade the hell of high school homework. Hey, let’s face the music and dance.
The pianist at El Biz plays classic show tunes in the background. The room is beautiful, the chairs comfortable, the tables set with an almost scary array of gleaming cutlery and crystal. But more vitally, El Biz is the first San Diego restaurant to venture into the “molecular gastronomy” made famous by chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli near Barcelona and most flamboyantly embraced in the U.S. by Wylie Dufresne (at wd~50 in New York) and Grant Achatz (at Alinea) in Chicago.
You don’t have to understand the technicalities to appreciate the taste sensations it creates. “Molecular is the science behind the art, knowing how basic things work,” chef Steven Rojas told me when I called him after the meal. All food, all gastronomy, is basically chemistry (among other sciences). Molecular gastronomy addresses this issue head on, employing modern laboratory techniques and edible, nature-based chemical compounds — such as sodium alginate (made from seaweed), monosaccharide sugars, and calcium lactate (from milk) — to reshape ingredients into forms undreamed of by Mother Nature. Liquid nitrogen can flash-freeze foods, such as ice creams made tableside. Cryovac (the most common modern technique for aging beef in shrink-wrap) can be applied to fruit, breaking down cell walls to create intense concentrations of flavor. And sous vide, the widely used technique of slow-poaching sealed packages of foodstuffs at strictly controlled temperatures, is another technique in the culinary repertory. Like all science, “molecular” can be used for good, for not-so-good, or for show-off silly.
What made our meal so thrilling was not the “ooh, aah” special effects, which might become exhausting if overdone course after course, but the way effects here are applied sparingly, smartly. Chef de cuisine Steven Rojas and executive chef Judd Canepari aren’t playing mad scientists. Delicate experiments are employed in garnishes to startling effect — bursts of intense flavor and unexpected textures — a mini magic show on the plate and in the mouth. They’re not card tricks, but little miracles, making the food thrillingly delicious if you’re up for adventure. Rojas has also embraced the local farms of North County — superb veggies from Crows Pass and its neighbors, and pristine herbs and microgreens from Connelly Farms, et al. Hence, his cuisine combines “farm to table” with futuristic techniques to showcase the finest fresh ingredients in dazzling new ways.
“‘Molecular Gastronomy,’” writes Rojas on his blog, is “understanding and questioning how things work and why they do the things they do. As Chefs, we all must strive for perfection in all things food, we must embrace new ingredients and new techniques, and we must also respect the time-honored traditions while searching for new and interesting flavors, textures, and combinations to please the public. Because what good is a new technique or ingredient if nobody enjoys it?”
Rojas, born in Argentina, grew up in Culver City, his heart divided between soccer and cooking. After a serious sports injury, cooking won. Graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in L.A., he worked in Chicago at TRU restaurant and the more avant-garde Espumas, where “foams” were already in use. He returned to California and the renowned Patina, where he was mentored by executive chefs Walter Manske and Eric Greenspan, who had both done stints at Spain’s avant-garde El Bulli. They advised him to further develop his skills in Europe’s top restaurants, so he sold his ’65 Dart for passage to Spain and a stage at two-star Akelare in San Sebastián, followed by a stint at Spain’s three-star Martin Berasategui Restaurant (which also trained El Biz’s ex-chef, Patrick Ponsaty). There he learned Spanish/Basque haute cuisine enlivened with molecular gastronomy.
After a return to Patina, and once he felt ready to run his own kitchen, he hired on as executive chef at luxurious Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, California, where within two years he’d received a Michelin star, the youngest chef in L.A. to acquire this rating. Last July, at age 29, he moved to El Bizcocho as chef de cuisine. “They wanted a chef de cuisine who was savvy in the new techniques, and that was perfect for me,” he says. “The food that I do is really a balance between farm-to-table, classic, and avant-garde. That’s what really defines me.”
At my visit, all the menus at El Biz were prix fixe — but that has since changed. Face it, Rancho Bernardo Inn is a luxury golf resort for people who’d rather spend a pampered few days on the links than, say, a month enduring Third World adventure-travel for the same price. Inevitably, a lot of RBI patrons found the original tasting menus too long, too scary. By now, an à la carte menu is available, and other changes are in the works, although chef Rojas assured me that “the food isn’t changing, it’s just the menu structure.”
It was Saint Steve’s birthday, and his greatest desire was to taste this new cuisine, so we celebrated with the 5-course prix fixe menu ($85), because it offered several choices for each course. This option has now been reduced to a 4-course prix fixe ($75). The 7-course ($105) includes more luxurious items, including several that we wanted to taste, but the choices are fixed. The 12-course ($145) is “chef’s choice,” consisting of the 7-course plus bites of the kitchen’s latest whims and creations. The longer tasting meals are still offered.
Our dishes were beautifully proportioned, a leisurely meal of many miniature pleasures, not an orgy of gluttony. (Four bites of entrée meats remained for the doggie bag.) After warm, crusty rolls and pretty swirls of room-temperature butter, dinner began with “amuses,” small ramekins of fluke in yuzu glaze set over a yellow blob of some mild, strange Asian fruit. (The waiter identified it, but neither Steve nor I had heard of it, and its name didn’t stick.) A small but potent dose of dry Thai chili pepper left a long, slow afterburn. Alongside each ramekin a soup spoon cradled what looked like a tan egg yolk — chef Rojas calls it a “ravioli” — gingered sarsaparilla tea held inside a thin, transparent gelan shell, bursting into a splash of vibrant cool liquid once it hit the mouth. (Gelan? One of those molecular magics.)
My first appetizer was dayboat scallop carpaccio, translucent slices of raw, sweet shellfish with little heaps of acidulated shaved fennel (offering the strongly pickled flavor of kim chee, minus the chilies), plus soothing, anise-y fennel purée. Meyer lemon koshu (a house-made takeoff on a Japanese condiment of preserved yuzu and its peel, here made from preserved Meyer lemon with fried garlic, smoked char roe, and scallion marmalade) was part of the array, along with purple-red dots of umeboshi (sour Japanese plum purée) and gleaming emeralds of Pernod jelly to provide another variation of anise flavor. I realized why I couldn’t bring myself to give Sushi Ota five stars — it’s not just the harsh ambiance but that Ota-San is creatively coasting a bit by now. This scallop dish, in contrast, is sashimi that’s active art. A lot goes into it, but it doesn’t taste like a lot; it tastes as if it works together only to turn scallops into superstars.
Saint Steve started with exquisite hamachi sashimi. “You can tell by the bloodline in the fish,” Rojas says. “When it’s pink, the fish is fresh. When it starts turning brown, it’s getting old and we throw it out.” The meaty fresh jackfish came with a yuzu-koshu-soy glaze, accompanied by dots of yuzu gel, fresh, tangy gooseberries, and — a modest triumph of modern kitchen science — Cryovac-compressed honeydew, a narrow rectangle that tasted twice as much like honeydew as the natural melon.
Then: local baby abalone a la plancha was grilled light brown and tender enough to cut with a fork. A transparent slick of “smoked lardo,” succulent cured pig back-fat, almost imperceptibly coated the flesh. Alongside were a tart green grape compote, squash blossoms, fried lengths of crosne (aka “Chinese artichokes,” an Asian tuber from Japan, similar to sunchokes and pronounced “crone”), and violet mustard sabayon. “These are a lot of unrelated items on the dish, and it could be completely incoherent,” said Steve, “but somehow they all add up to a unity.” Clearly, the chef doesn’t have mere technical chops, he also has a palate.
Chestnut agnolotti (agnolotto, to be technical) offered a burst of intensity: a single large, silky pasta pocket filled with chestnut purée, Burgundy truffles, and ricotta salata. It came with a pillow of earthy black trumpet mushrooms and a sweet, silly debutante of a “butterscotch foam” tipped aslant on top, offering a giggly echo of the nutty-sweet chestnut purée — an edible joke that sobered up in the mouth.
If you saw the movie Ratatouille, you’ll remember how critic Anton Ego went mad for the peasanty title dish. My ratatouille here was a duck egg, larger and deeper-flavored than a chicken egg, with a custardy consistency from gentle poaching. It perched atop a mound of “bottle-poached” black French Du Puy lentils. (A double-twist on sous-vide, they’re poached in a bain marie inside a bottle — the outer water simmers, but the lentils never even bubble but slowly cook tender, soaking up vegetable broth, tomato confit, and herbs.) Completing the cast were black trumpet mushroom purée and finger-sized rectangles of perfect panisse, Provençale chick-pea fritters, earthy in flavor but airy in texture. This combination brought back the shock of my first-ever sip of a great Côte de Nuits Burgundy — like a planetary spirit-mother (not the flawed, human one) wrapping her arms around me in loving solace for everything ever suffered, or to be suffered. I realized that I was careening toward an unprecedented five-star rating.
The one dish I didn’t cotton to was its course- companion of “baby anzious artichokes,” with wild arugula, tomato confit, and somewhere (where?) artichoke mousseline. At any other restaurant it might be impressive. Here, it was an interesting warm salad.
When our server asked how we wanted our meats done, we specified “very rare” for beef rib-eye and “rosy rare” for lamb saddle. Both wishes were precisely fulfilled. In the multifaceted assiette of lamb, the modest-sized portion of saddle was perfectly roasted, but the supporting players upstaged it. “Confit sweetbreads” offered a small portion of thymus, glazed sweetly with a crisp exterior, just enough to inspire a heavy crush before it vanished down the hatch. “Lambcetta” was a thick slice of house-cured “lamb-ham,” made from odd parts (neck meat, flap, and belly, direct from a local farm) and seasoned with exotic Moroccan ras al hanout spices — delicious and clever. Romanesco sauce, succulent-sweet almonds (had to be Marcona), small semi-hot cherry peppers stuffed with puréed eggplant (ooh!), and mini-florets of cauliflower filled out the plate, a busy but engaging assemblage.
The duo of beef rib-eye pavé and 36-hour short rib was, happily, less food than we’d feared. The rare rib-eye was dainty in size, the short rib beyond tender. And to make it all ridiculously lavish, it was served with a mini “croque Monsieur,” a tiny grilled sandwich of cheese and ham encased in multi-layered buttery pastry — plus a bit of Swiss chard and a beef-Banyuls jus to moisten the meat. Our paired wines for all the courses (starting with Champagne) were universally wonderful and suitable, all in generous pours — but, like meeting too many interesting people at a party, I promptly forgot all their names.
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.