An heir to French culinary greatness splashes down in Escondido
Hikes around Coronado can inspire the impression that it’s the largest battleship afloat in the United States Navy, distinguished by better chow than served on other vessels. One of its biggest guns recently fired himself from Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort, landing as targeted on downtown Escondido’s Grand Avenue.
Patrick Ponsaty — whose French military service on a South Pacific island consisted of cooking lobster lunches for an admiral and then surfing — hit this inland city with a big splash that roiled downtown with a tsunami of moulard duck in honey sauce, snails braised with chestnuts and other recipes inherited from his family’s five generations of chefs. Ponsaty directs the cuisine at Bellamy’s Restaurant, a stylish new place whose gloriously Gallic gastronomy rivals the fine fare at Vincent Grumel’s nearby and nearly perfect Vincent’s on Grand.
He also rules the menus at The Ranch at Bandy Canyon, a historic San Pasqual Valley property — owned by Bellamy’s proprietors — that hosts deluxe weddings. The ranch shelters goats, horses and chickens. Ponsaty, from a village near the Pyrenees, occasionally gathers eggs so fresh the golden yolksalmost glow. Such moments are rare breaks in a hardworking life that commenced at age 8 at his father’s restaurant in Cazeres.
“It was peel potatoes, peel onions, peel garlic, make french fries,” he grumbles politely, conceding that the chores prepared him to cook at Alain Ducasse’s stellar Louis XV in Monte Carlo and then locally at the now-closed El Bizcocho and Bernard Mougel’s charming Bernard’O.
Just down the street at Vincent’s on Grand, patrons enjoy doing it by the numbers at Tuesday-Thursday “Trois et Trois” dinners, which offer three courses (each with three options) for thirty bucks.
MUSCLING MUSSELS until you can't lift one more is the Wednesday night challenge at downtown San Diego’s Saltbox, the peppery second-floor domain of bright young chef Simon Dolinky. In Fifth Avenue’s swank Hotel Palomar, Saltbox is an ultimately trendoid room irresistible to all ultimate trendoids in the local trendosphere. Dolinky decorates his solidly attractive menu of house-made charcuterie (creamy pork rillettes, lavender-cured pork loin) and vibrant salads with well-priced specials like Wednesday’s all-you-can-eat mussel fests. Priced at $19, the bottomless iron kettles of Belgian ale-steamed mussels do indeed allow you to stuff yourself silly with exceptionally plump, tender and succulent bivalves swimming in a broth seasoned with fennel, ginger and orange. Eat a mussel, dip a piece of sourdough in the broth, eat another mussel …. Quit in time and enjoy stylish lemon thyme crème brûlée with red currant jelly and a lemon-poppyseed cookie.
CAN A PLACE NAMED HEAT chill sufficiently to serve sweets? It does, and they’re cool, like a smoked, 70 percent cacao dark chocolate dessert with baked “mallow fluff” and crumbled grahams. Creamy and bold, it’s the pride of Park Boulevard just below University Avenue, where Heat Bar & Kitchen offers cuisine, service and décor way above the neighborhood norm. Atop a row of banquettes, circular cutouts glow in a palette that gradually intensifies from faint yellow to yolk, lemon and on to tangerine and orange. The lights express the “heat” theme, echoed by dishes like spicy tomato soup crowned with julienned basil and a savory Duroc pork chop draped with broccolini and sided with lovely grain mustard sauce.
MAYBE THIS ONE will stick around: In a Hillcrest space that frequently changes hands, Parma Cucina Italiana serves swoon-inducing brasato (pot roast braised in red wine and sided with polenta), meat-balls in tomato cream sauce and handsome pastas in an enchantingly intimate environment. … Meanwhile, at age 23, Cafe Japengo under-stands sustainability. The venerable Golden Triangle hot spot in the Aventine’s restaurant row has updated the menu to satisfy San Diego’s escalating local, organic and sustainable requirements with pleasantries like a stir-fry of organic chicken and roasted cashews with Suzie’s Farm vegetables and super-succulent butterfish presented in sublime truffled broth. Don’t forget the sushi — Japengo’s eternal strong suit.
LIKE THE LITTLE ENGINE that could, Supannee House of Thai did — by morphing from a cramped space to a large, gracious room that allows many to simultaneously enjoy killer tom yum, a ravishingly tart, hot-sour soup spiced wowingly with roasted chili paste, and specialties like the Screaming Tiger marinated flank steak salad, a true culinary departure for the formerly sheltered Shelter Island neighborhood. Curries marry flair and imagination. … There might seem an impassable culinary crevasse between bobotie, a flavorful South African specialty of spiced ground lamb and beef, vegetables, sauce bechamel and house-made mango chutney and a brazenly seductive dessert like chocolate French toast sandwich with maple-bourbon bacon sauce, but it all harmonizes at Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar. In a cute courtyard set back from La Jolla’s Girard Avenue, Finch’s is one of those charming hideaways that you hope to stumble across when traveling — but it’s here.
Dish: By David Nelson • Photographt by Martin Mann