location: 10006 Scripps Ranch Blvd., Suite 104, Scripps Ranch
chef: Patrick Ponsaty
WHEN A FRENCHMAN wants to play hooky—or just take a break from daily life—his eyes mist over as he utters the phrase “un jour ailleurs.” It translates as “a day elsewhere” but expresses the desire to retreat to a restful, charming place—and since this is a French longing, it assumes a good restaurant will be nearby.
That good restaurant might be a place like La Bastide, which, while not precisely in a bucolic setting (it’s in a Scripps Ranch shopping center, and the terrace surveys a parking lot), does seem very much apart. Owner Gilles Fougeres is a former Parisian (if one ever can be a former Parisian) and gifted restaurateur who, in a vastly different industry role, helped bring 41 McDonald’s outlets to France. The T.G.I. Friday’s chain brought him to Chicago a decade ago, and, like so many Chicagoans, he eventually found his way to San Diego.
A social dinner for area Frenchmen led to Fougeres meeting Patrick Ponsaty, who for several years was chef at the Rancho Bernardo Inn’s top-rated El Bizcocho before leaving in early 2004 to start a catering business. Fougeres mentioned plans to open La Bastide, Ponsaty signed on as chef, and the result is one of the sweetest new eateries of the year.
“Between him and me, it is a very good combination,” says Ponsaty, the fifth generation of his family to earn the title of chef.
For his part, Fougeres says, “I own the restaurant, but Patrick and I are partners in that we agree on what a French bistro should be.”
That agreement is evident in smooth service, a comfortable environment and cooking that is deceptively simple-looking and utterly flawless. The menu offers true value: Many bistro classics weigh in under $20 (the lovely coq au vin costs $15), and at its most extravagant, the entrée list climbs to $25 for parsley-crusted lamb rack with a Provençale- style sauté of vegetables and a slab of creamy, garlicky potato gratin.
First courses, conversely, are relatively expensive, but as in France, these are meant to be gastronomic delights, and become so in Ponsaty’s hands. The chef always injects a dish with unexpected soupçons of flavor and color, and his escargot de Borgogne ($9) varies from the usual snails baked in parsley-garlic butter thanks to a splash of anis liqueur. No detail seems insignificant; the butter that accompanies the basket of sliced baguette is sprinkled with snipped herbs and whipped to spreading consistency.
Fougeres used a few architectural tricks to soften the starkly rectangular outline of the dining room. Short partitions jut from the walls, and an alcove contains the bar, which can be rather lively some evenings. A few tasteful paintings and mirrors, and tables set with black cloths topped with squares of white paper, create the pleasantly informal setting expected of a bistro. The music can be fun: Edith Piaf sings, of course—as do some American torch singers of another era.
But there are surprises, such as the concert- style album of French military music that trumpeted through the lunch hour one day.
Servers know what they’re doing, bless them, and all necessary silver is on the table before the course in question arrives.
Needless to say, hot preparations arrive hot—so blazing, in fact, that you may regret digging in too soon. It’s a nice change for a city that takes lukewarm food for granted.
The menu approximates a French roll call of good things to eat. Some dishes are relatively sophisticated; others belong to the category of les plats qui mijotent au coin de feu (dishes that simmer all day at the corner of the fire), meaning the savory home cooking that the French formerly took as their birthright. Among items that take a contemporary approach is a Thai-influenced appetizer that adds sautéed shrimp to risotto perfumed with vanilla and finished with a creamy, lemongrass-infused butter sauce ($12).
Mostly, though, tradition reigns, as with a deep vessel of mussels marinieres cooked with Chardonnay ($10) and a satisfying plate of country pâté and Brie ($10). An edible alternative to a quick trip to Provence starts with a succulent pile of baby squid sautéed with garlic, herbs and tomato, to which Ponsaty adds a square of pissaladiere—the onion and anchovy pizza of Nice—and a tangy arugula salad ($11).
ON THE DINNER MENU, La Bastide offers a trio of entrée-sized salads. They’re beauties, from an arrangement of fruits, baby greens and warm goat cheese with a sweetish, fresh raspberry vinaigrette ($11) to an elegant salade Niçoise made with grilled tuna ($13), and a truly luscious jumble of endive and frisée lettuces dressed with a poached egg, some duck confit and crisp bacon and a fancy Banyuls vinegar dressing ($12). In France, the latter would be a starter; here, it’s a meal.
Ponsaty devises big flavors for such seafood entrées as sea bass sautéed Catalan- style with red bell pepper, chorizo sausage and preserved garlic ($20), and a lobster-based “bouillabaisse sauce” makes a suave wonder of the “marmite du pecheur,” a fisherman’s stew of mussels, shrimp, salmon and sea bass ($21). His simple combination of fresh-from-thefryer frites (French fries) and steamed mussels ($13) is bistro at its best.
Those frites see a lot of action alongside fork-tender duck confit ($17), luscious coq au vin, chicken and bacon simmered in red wine ($15), center-cut New York steak in fragrant garlic butter ($20) and an irresistible occasional special of veal shoulder and sweetbreads with white wine and brandy ($12 at lunch). Ponsaty says it’s his father’s recipe; clearly, good cooking runs in the family.
At lunch, a crowd comes by for a pleasant menu that includes many of the above offerings, along with a quiche du jour, several elegant sandwiches such as chicken breast with tomato, salad and curry mayonnaise on a croissant ($8) and truly handsome crêpes ($7 to $9) accompanied by piled-high salad. Day and night, the dessert list (mostly $6) delights with such carefully crafted sweets as walnut- apple clafoutis (baked to order, it’s a cross between a cake and a soufflé) and delicate, vanilla-lavender crème brûlée.
La Bastide serves lunch and dinner daily except Sunday at 10006 Scripps Ranch Boulevard, Suite 104, in Scripps Ranch. Reservations are accepted at 858- 577-0033.