Holiday Inn

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.

New Zealand John Dory, by nature a "fishy" fish, was fresh and perfectly grilled, but none of us cottoned to the bland "saffron pearl pasta" served alongside, nor could we detect the note of anise in a "tomato Ricard" juice that dressed the fish. Zucchini was present, too.

Desserts were the meal's downfall. Those we tried all tried too hard. For example, pear clafoutis, normally a simple French fruit-studded custard, was gussied up like a Parisian tart. Resembling upside-down cake more than pudding, its batter was so sweet it overwhelmed the pear; superfluous garnishes included pear sorbet, whipped cream, slivered almonds, and bourbon caramel sauce. A goat cheese mille-feuilles piled on a similar excess of ingredients, while the "soufflé du jour" -- blueberry with Meyer lemon -- suffered from second-rate berries and too much cream.

But that's all right, mama, because El Biz is nothing like a hound dog, and the Inn will never be Heartbreak Hotel. Just a couple of weeks ago (after I'd already eaten there, darn it!), the bill of fare got all shook up when chef Kaysen devised five new "tasting menus" to entice every taste bud -- these range from four courses of veggies or seafood up to an eight-course "Grand Tasting" of luxury grub. If you've got the money, honey, and want to dress up and celebrate with a special meal in a country setting, you'll find much brilliant cooking here, and service fit for a king.


Gavin Kaysen, now 26, got into cooking early: "When I was six I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven, and my mother thought two things at that point -- 'Either he's gonna be a great baker, or he's gonna want to go to school.' I'd bake with my grandma all the time. We used to do traditional Norwegian and Swedish Christmas cookies. Even at a young age, cooking was something I always knew I wanted to do. My father's business involved a lot of travel, and I thought to myself, 'I want to be able to travel around the world, too,' and I realized that cooking was going to be the thing that allowed me to do that.

"And when I was 15, I met the right guy to make it happen -- named George Serra. He was born and raised in France, and he did a lot of Italian cooking, Mediterranean cooking. I met him when I was working at a Subway in Minnesota, where I'm from. I don't know what he saw in me -- maybe that whenever I saw a regular customer coming in, I'd have his favorite sandwich ready before he reached the counter. Every Saturday, George would come in and order a tuna fish sandwich -- and he hates tuna fish. He would buy the sandwich, walk out of the store, and throw the tuna fish in the garbage. I finally asked him, 'Why do you always come in and buy that sandwich if you're never gonna eat it?' And he said, 'I'm trying to get you to come over and work with me. But you always wear your hat backwards. You need to turn your hat around before I can hire you.' So he came in the next day, and my hat was turned around frontwards, because I thought it would be a lot more fun to work with him. He was opening up a new Italian restaurant next door, and I thought it would be really cool to learn to cook pasta and Mediterranean food.

"So I took the job for a dollar more an hour, and I was the dishwasher. I didn't do anything I thought I was going to do. He said, 'You can't cut until you're 16.' So two weeks later I lied and said it was my birthday. He knew it wasn't, but then he started to let me cook...George taught me about passion. He didn't teach me techniques, he didn't teach me the proper way to dice an onion or a carrot, what he taught me was to love food, love the people who come in and eat, love the job for what it is...Because you may have seen a dish a thousand times, but for that guest, it may be the first time, the only time, they ever see that dish. When I asked him for my pay, he'd say, 'First, you must learn to have it in your heart before you have it in your pocketbook.' I thought that was intriguing. After three years, when I graduated from high school, he finally paid me everything he owed me in a lump sum.

"I'd promised myself to at least try college, to make sure that cooking was what I really wanted to do. I went to University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, for a year. After that year, I knew that I wanted to be a chef -- a cook, that is, because a chef is what you get to be after years and years.

"I went to the New England Culinary Academy in Montpelier, Vermont, where you have six months of class alternating with six months of internship; the first internship is national and the second international. My first one, I went to Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley under chef Robert Curry...The second externship I did at L'Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, working under chef Jacky Vuillet, a protégé of Freddy Girardet [ed. note: the legendary Swiss chef, now retired, regarded by many as the world's best]. ...That was tough, because he doesn't have a set menu, he cooks different things for each group. The workday was both lunch and dinner, starting at 8 in the morning, with a break from 4 to 5, and then until 11 at night...But I lived right on Lake Geneva, and on my days off I'd travel around Switzerland.

"I'd do stages -- which means, working for free for a few days or months in order to learn -- at Freddy Girardet's restaurant. I think it's very important to stage...This past year, I did a stage at Alinea in Chicago...Grant [Atchaz, the chef] has picked up, from El Bulli in Spain, doing a completely new type of cooking, serving tasting menus with up to 22 courses. I did pick up the foam-making technique there...And I just got back from doing another stage in New York City with Daniel Boulud. That was incredible -- he has 220 people in the kitchen. It's like a machine, a theater. I love to learn, and to train my cooks."

After Switzerland, Kaysen continued learning in London at the Michelin-starred L'Escargot under Marco Pierre White. In 2002, he returned to the United States and began working under chef Patrick Ponsaty at El Bizcocho. The following year he represented the United States at the International Trophy of Cuisine and Pastry in Paris, finishing first in the fish category and third overall. When Ponsaty departed about a year ago, Kaysen was promoted to executive chef.

"But I'm still on the line every night," he says, "sweating it out with my guys. I do it because I love to cook, and when I'm there it's easier for them to produce the dishes that I have in my mind."

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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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