Grand Cuisine at Bellamy's
Troy Johnson reviews Bellamy's in Escondido
In Escondido, watchmakers can still afford rent on Main Street. A prominent CPA’s signage dominates Grand Avenue. Most businesses start with a first name—Lupita’s Mexican, Cathy’s Canine, Mart’s Small Appliance.
There are no siliconed hostess-mermaids on the street, luring tourists to dinner. Bartenders may sport suspenders and moustaches—but only because that’s what they’ve done for decades. Here, classic cars bring people together. Bored teenagers at mall food courts look cranky with jewelry in their faces, just like in every other part of the city. Only difference here is that grandfatherly police still view such behavior with suspicion.
If San Diego County were all ultra-modern trendiness, it’d be an insufferable art project. Escondido is what it is—an old-fashioned basin of retail where San Diego’s agricultural elite go to town. Where retaining provincialism is a form of hard-fought progress.
All this makes it a peculiar place for one of the country’s best cooks. But Patrick Ponsaty loves far-out worlds. The Master Chef of France—one of only two to earn this prestigious designation in San Diego (Marine Room’s Bernard Guillas is the other)—made his name at the secluded Rancho Bernardo Inn, helping Gavin Kaysen become a star. Later he joined Loews, over on planet Coronado.
When Scottish entrepreneur Brian Bonar decided to build a restaurant mini-empire in North County, he started with this bistro, Bellamy’s, Ponsaty’s current home. It had once been Tango, where a Charlie Trotter protégé tried to bring progressive dining to Escondido.
Renaming it Bellamy’s, Bonar looked for staff at one of his favorite restaurants—El Bizcocho at Rancho Bernardo Inn. El Biz had announced a total overhaul—a good move, with one misstep: jettisoning the soul of the place (fine-dining pros who’d been there for decades). Bellamy’s was able to land front-of-the-house man Trevor Da Costa. Bonar also hired young El Biz cook Mike Reidy as exec chef.
The bigger piece of Bonar’s restaurant mini-empire is the nearby Ranch at Bandy Canyon. Bonar aims to turn the grassy 144-acre property into a four-star event space with a signature restaurant. To pull that off, he needs a marquee chef.
He got Ponsaty. A Master Chef of France in Escondido! The “Hidden City” had arrived! Expectations ran wild!
Which is why it was a surprise to see the signage for Bellamy’s is… a tarp. The sort you print with a giant photo of your child and hang at the park for their birthday. Inside, it’s still Tango. Plush seats, smooth-jazz paintings, Coppertone-brown walls. The aesthetic could be called model-home chic.
Had I made a mistake? I’d expected big changes. Something befitting a rising restaurateur and a Master Chef of France.
Then the corn soup arrives, and expectations meet their match. Blended with cream and given a Basque treatment with espelette peppers, the liquid silk is served cold over a scallop ceviche with ginger, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. The parsley-cream risotto is just as fantastic, with a perfectly poached salmon and shaved summer truffle, crunchy with sea salt.
Very few bistros serve a mille-feuille. Ponsaty and Reidy’s is topped with bruléed apple slices over layers of smoked eel and liver confit in pork fat. The Granny Smiths put just the right pucker through the heart of the fatty proteins.
There was a time at Loews when Ponsaty was cooking light French in the tradition of cuisine minceur. At Bellamy’s, he and Reidy aren’t coy with France’s guiltier treats.
A drop-dead composed beet salad comes with golden and red bulbs over a “soil” of dried porcini mushroom powder, pistachios, and cocoa nibs. Even food porn haters will snap a photo. Beets crave sugar, which most chefs accomplish with candied nuts. But Ponsaty opts for a deep-red beet ice cream and contrasts it with a warm goat cheese tart. It’ll change you. For a lighter salad, try the slightly less impressive heirloom tomato with fresh mozzarella. It’s tossed in golden balsamic vinegar and Moroccan olive oil, and covered with a thin tomato-basil gel.
There’s nothing light about the excellent mushroom ravioli, filled with a duxelle of local mushrooms (chopped, cooked with tawny port and cream) and topped with a veal-based port wine sauce.
Our server, Kyle, describes each dish like an engineer, detailing the parts of an intricate new toy. He’s got a tattoo of Thomas Keller’s iconic laundry pin. He instructs a nearby table on how to perfectly eat a composed dessert without sounding pretentious or annoying. Pair him with the classic, saloon-era formalism of Da Costa, and Bellamy’s staff is one of the best I’ve come across.
The only food misstep we found was a local halibut. Smaller halibut have a softer flesh, but this was mushy. Could have been a natural disaster. Seems anglers from Alaska to Virginia have complained recently about “Mushy Halibut Syndrome,” which turns the firm-fleshed wonder into a sort of hash.
Frenchmen know duck, as proven by Ponsaty and Reidy’s pan-seared magret served in a peach-onion marmalade that gets a little heat from a Szechuan gastrique. On the side, polenta with Parmesan is crispy, creamy, mind-blowing.
For dessert, get the saffron panna cotta, but ask the server to leave the strawberry-hibiscus consommé for dipping only (automatically poured atop, it hides the fantastic panna cotta). It also comes with a madeleine, warm with orange zest and sugar dust.
Bellamy’s is some of the best food in San Diego, served by a top-notch staff. If they overhaul the environment to match the food, it’d be an unqualified winner.
Ponsaty is currently designing his dream kitchen at The Ranch at Bandy Canyon. When it’s completed, he won’t be on the line at this bistro very often. But right now, Bellamy’s is where Ponsaty is showing off. It’s no slag on his young apprentice, Reidy, to say: Take advantage of a Master Chef of France’s undivided attention while you can.