The diver scallops were almost fist-sized but tender all through, accompanied by purple plum, chanterelles, and "face bacon."
17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego
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.
Origami of Sashimi was even more intricate: a wreath of long strips of raw red ahi and white hamachi, persimmon strips, miso-cider noodles, firm unidentified fruit chunks, and celery root, all lightly dressed with yuzu. The ingredients encircled a central pool of lightly sweetened puréed Asian pear, bearing two tiny, toasted anchovy sandwiches and a melting couple of cloves of caramel-like black garlic (regular garlic that is aged and fermented, turning very sweet — the latest rage among the gastronomes, and one taste tells you why).
Everybody’s doing pork belly, but not like this. Small chunks of tender meat showcased a “tasting of corn, pineapple, miso” — three dark, intense sauces, at least one of them achingly sweet. Unfortunately, on this plate (a shallow bowl, if memory serves) the sauces congregated at the center and the sweetest one usurped the other flavors — an omen of the entrées.
Main courses revealed superb technical know-how, along with a tendency to throw too many unrelated elements onto each plate at the expense of coherence. Usually, restaurant scallops are halved crosswise into modest coins about an inch thick, a strategy that’s both thrifty and easier on the cook. Here, a pair of lightly bronzed New England diver scallops were almost fist-sized, but tender all through, accompanied by stuffed figs, purple plum, chanterelles, guanciale (smoked hog jaw, aka “face bacon”). But the plum was transformed into a powerful sweet-tart sauce that swamped all in its path. Why are so many chefs (Searsucker, Addison, El Biz) stubbing their toes on the sugar bowl lately? Is this a recessionary reach for comfort and joy? Will it go away soon?
Butter-poached Maine lobster offered a silky section of a small tail, sliced in one-inch increments, and the buttery meat of a small claw, plated over lobster jus. The rest was crazy, in a good way. “Eucalyptus lime pudding” proved a streak of an olive-green colloid, its flavor elusive, less powerful than you might guess. There were pieces of “pimento-smoked” plantains and a small “Kaffir butter balloon,” but I got this dish second and the balloon had already burst, leaving only a trace of lime-butter on the plate.
Duck Vinoise focused on a thick slab of duck breast, lightly roasted in fearless French-style to a perfect garnet-colored, moist interior that chewed like the best filet mignon. “Before I tasted this, I thought I didn’t like duck,” said Jim, “because at most local restaurants it’s dry and stringy.” The accompaniments tended to the sweet side again — roasted pumpkin, “chamomile banana” with plum sauce — but also, ruby chard for needed contrast. At the edge of the plate were a pair of “duck confit farenette” — little square pillows of a sort of bread pudding containing chopped confit of duck legs and duck foie gras. Yes to those!
The wine list is much briefer than the tome it used to be, although there are still plenty of enviable, unaffordable bottles and some secret high-end bottles hidden away, unlisted. There are, however, more bottles under $50. Our Joel Gott ($40) Sauvignon Blanc was a bit sweet, a potentially nice complement to lobster and scallops, if only the latter hadn’t been swamped in plum sauce; a dry Chardonnay might have been a better option for our food choices.
The previous week, Chef Grant had featured a “white truffle celebration” with the precious garlic-scented autumn fungi from Italy. The truffle menu was still enclosed in our menu booklet, every dish exceeding the Sanity Clause financially — except one, a $30 truffled “Banana Split.” That turned out to be the sole remaining white truffle dish that hadn’t sold out.
We shared the very last one. Served in an exquisite glass cornet vase, it was over the top: chopped bananas, firm house-made marshmallows, caramel syrup, whipped cream, and bits of, yes, white truffle — too much going on to remember every ingredient, only to delight at this combination of childish indulgence and sophisticated culinary mirth.
When Chef Ryan, age 30-going-on-17, came out from the kitchen, he literally bounced around the room with his shoulders jiggling and his head bobbing under his signature white Kangol hat, shaped like a bouffant shower cap. He volunteered that he suffers from ADD, which is believable, given his hyperactive food and his body language, and he says he doesn’t like to taste his dishes in the kitchen before they go out to the diners because then he always wants to play with them some more. He said he expected to stay at El Biz a long while. I hoped so because his exuberant food seemed a good fit for El Biz’s combination of golf duffers and metropolitan foodies.
Service, ambience, etc, constitute a separate chapter titled “Why I’d Rather Eat at El Biz than Addison.” Yeah, when we arrived ten minutes early, we had to wait in the bar for our “table to be ready,” even though half the tables were fully dressed but empty. (That’s $34 extra profit on drinks to them — although I really loved my pure, classic Margarita made without icky bar mix.) And, yeah, you have the management’s moronic Victorian dress rules, as though they’re still terrified of a ravenous horde in ragged jeans and dirty tees invading on the Night of the Living Hippies. Metrosexual Samurai Jim dressed by all the rules, but Michelle violated the no-denim dictate with a spangly black top over clean jeans — while after suffering in new patent leather at Addison, I’d reverted to my favorite martial-arts Mary Janes. Not exactly tennies, so no prob. But here, unlike Addison’s zombie-stiff servers, our waiter, Emerson, was cheerful and relaxed, his warmth and gusto reflecting the chef’s playfulness. The room is pretty, and the Spanish-style chairs are comfortable with those stick-up wooden tips at the shoulders where you can hang your hat and/or purse.
I’ve always enjoyed eating at El Biz, but I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, at least for review. Most four-star restaurants hold on to talented chefs for years. Chef turnover like this tells me that the management at El Biz must be doing something wrong, and until they figure out how to correct that, the kitchen will suffer a whirlwind revolving door. (If you’re a kitchen escapee from El Biz and willing to talk about why you left, please email me. I’d love to hear from those who know, for a future report.)
More Diss-the-Chef at Cosmopolitan Restaurant: If you read the print edition rather than online, you may not have heard all the scandalous tales. Jeff Thurston (formerly of the Prado) was hired as opening chef there and worked for several weeks. Then, owner Joseph Melluso (who also owns Tin Fish) says he fired Jeff for “buying too-expensive ingredients.” Thurston told the U-T that he wasn’t fired but that he quit because Melluso neglected to pay him for several weeks’ work. Amy DiBiase replaced Thurston, and her cooking resulted in our very warm review of the restaurant in September. And then Melluso fired her, too, for “too expensive ingredients,” and says he’ll become the chef himself. Frankly, I feel like I’ve been conned: Melluso got his good review, even thanked me by email, and then pulled out the rug. So, if you’ve been planning a meal at Cosmopolitan, perhaps you should think again. The food won’t be the same. Skimping on ingredients? Sounds like the owner wants to turn it into a cheap tourist trap — just what the new Old Town needs, right? ■
Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive (off Francisco Drive), 858-675-8550; ranchobernardoinn.com/bizcocho/
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday 6:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters $12–$18; Entrées $32–$40; Desserts $6–$9. Chef tasting menus, five courses for $85, seven courses $120, luxury tasting $175, “Ex Nihilo Omakase” $250.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Playful American-French cooking with global flavors, local produce, complex flavor combinations. Recently downsized wine list is mainly Californian with fine choices at price ranges from $30 and up, a fair number by the glass. Full bar (serving a classic, from-scratch Margarita).
PICK HITS: May or may not still be available (see “Need to Know”): Lobster bisque; origami of sashimi; butter-poached Maine lobster; Duck Vinoise; diver scallops. Also consider slow-roasted lamb loin, dessert soufflé.
NEED TO KNOW: Star rating can’t be determined — chef departed three days after this meal. Marginal disability access: a few shallow stairs to dining room (wheelchair users eat in lounge) and a long roll to wheelchair bathroom. Specify wheelchair use when reserving. Official dress rules (not 100 percent enforced) prohibit denim and tennis shoes, prescribing dress shirts, shoes, pants, with jacket recommended (i.e., don’t dress like a surfer — but dressy-casual passes muster). Comfortable, quiet, with friendly, expert service.