Troy Johnson Reviews Avant
The mercy killing of El Bizcocho clears the way for a new era at Avant
I know an older woman. She’s always been beautiful. At some point she decided age had vandalized her, so she hired a surgeon to clean up its mess. She emerged looking younger. Her skin taut like army barracks bedsheets, nose a dainty piece of geometry. But something was lost. Her character—that indefinable sum of stock parts that made her uniquely attractive—had been replaced by a template of beauty modeled on Us Weekly and Playboy. Instead of letting her beauty gracefully uncoil, she had it stuffed and mounted atop her shoulders before it started looking too old.
When Rancho Bernardo Inn announced it was rethinking El Bizcocho, I worried it would meet the same fate. Americans are addicted to renewal. We used to take comfort in places that never changed. Constants, we called them. Now our only constant is hasty, habitual reinvention.
El Biz had so many memorable parts. The white stucco fireplace painted with a croquembouche, that gleaming pleasure pyramid of cream puffs that set expectations at “opulence.” The framed portrait of “The Captain,” a Spanish conquistador of sorts who became the restaurant’s dapper god (he wasn’t painted on velvet, but I like to remember him that way). The drapes—what were they, 1,000 pounds? The dining room chairs were bulky, wooden dinner thrones. The staff had finishing-school posture, wore vests and ties.
Since its opening in 1968, El Biz was a place for epaulettes and pomp. You made a reservation, circled the date, started saving, and arrived steamed and pressed for Your Big Life Happening.
How do you “refresh” a classic like that? You don’t. It’s impossible to move forward when so many people have tied their keepsakes around your ankles. So it had to die.
Compassionate killing wasn’t a hard decision. El Biz peaked with the mid-2000s economy under two chefs, Patrick Ponsaty and Gavin Kaysen. In its final days in 2012, a Saturday night here looked like a wake for an unloved man. The cuisine and service was still world-class—raved the crickets.
Which is why it’s a shock to the system to walk into Avant on a Wednesday night and hear voices. Lots of them. They’re almost loud, liberated from the E.F. Hutton hush that oppressed El Biz. “I’ve been coming to this very spot for 30 years,” an older man tells the bartender, surveying the room in a deeply analytic way. “And man, do I love what you’ve done to the place.” Regulars come in wanting to mourn El Biz, but Avant makes like a brass band crashing the funeral.
The place is jammed. An acoustic musician even manages not to butcher Jack Johnson to a full patio, with well-dressed kids running amok and parents drinking because their kids are amok-ing.
This is what $2.5 million will get you: A new life.
Hatch Design Group essentially took El Biz’s one giant room and created six distinct experiences—a bar area (seating for 139 with wine and housemade mustards on tap, cheese and charcuterie), two private dining rooms (one with a performance kitchen), a fireside “living room,” a modern dining room (rich woods, richer leather, retractable windows overlooking the golf course), and a covered patio (fireplace, wicker resort furniture, wrought-iron rails overlooking a café below).
Near the end, the prevailing response when walking into El Biz was, “Someone crack a window.” So they did. And walls. The outside came in, the inside went out. It’s an unmitigated success.
There’s an $8,000 ice machine for perfect cocktails (a barrel-aged Negroni with aperol; a Dutch mule made with gin, not vodka). There’s an $8,000 Berkel charcuterie slicer yielding shavings of sopressata, La Quercia Berkshire prosciutto, wild boar salami, jamón serrano, chorizo, and speck. No detail was underfunded.
Executive chef Nicolas Bour oversees all, hiring Charlie Trotter alum James Kozak as his chef de cuisine. Rather than big proteins with green sides, they’ve flipped the script and spotlighted the bright, shiny stars from California’s prolific soil (not to mention the Inn’s private garden).
Quality bread arrives in a paper sleeve with a singular, sea-salted pat of butter. As a “salad,” red quinoa is perfectly cooked and stacked into a soft brick, topped with diced avocado, stone fruits (plum, nectarine, peach, etc.), and an elderflower vinaigrette. It’s beyond light, worlds away from the huge flavor bomb of, say, roasted beets with cheese and candied nuts. Also light is Kozak’s Dungeness crab, shredded and blended with citrus vinaigrette, rolled in a thin cucumber membrane, next to melon that’s compressed (pressurized to remove air, concentrate flavor), yuzu pearls, and a purée of Marcona almonds.
Both of these dishes express Kozak’s style: delicate and subtle, with accents of modern, molecular cooking. He seems to refuse on principle the flamboyant usual suspects (browned butter, Roquefort, heavy reductions). Sometimes it works wonders, sometimes it doesn’t. Heavy smokers or those with palate injuries should avoid this place altogether.
His duck confit shepherd’s pie goes a bit too far. It’s a riff on hachis parmentier—a classic French leftovers dish topped with mashed potatoes. Despite using oxtail and duck stock, it lacks identity, and I find myself craving a cheese like Comté or Gruyère, or just a bit of crème fraîche. The sweet corn risotto under his bobwhite quail is delicious and perfectly cooked. The quail’s skin—confit in duck fat, pan-seared crisp—is an alternative to mood-elevating drugs. The meat, however, has been cooked sous vide into a consistency nearing baby food. (My love-hate relationship with sous vide will apparently never end. Sorry, Keller.)
Then—holy Jesus, that’s a perfectly cooked scallop. The Georges Bay mollusk foot is pan-fried with a nice sunchoke purée, but diced apples roasted in maple syrup really add the bolt of flavor to make this dish a winner. If I have any complaint here, it’s Kozak’s dicing habit (the apples are only insanely good if you can get them on the fork).
His two meat entrees—Sonoma duck breast and lamb sirloin—get almost identical treatment. Slow-cooked and served simply sliced, the lamb is lit up by a tahini-specked chickpea purée and harissa aioli. But it’s a distant second to what accompanies the skin-on slices of duck: a terrine of duck confit with a pomegranate-blueberry reduction and pomegranate seeds, wrapped in house-smoked bacon. Duck two very good ways.
Despite a perfect sear, I won’t lie awake dreaming of the halibut in a clam-saffron sauce over beluga lentils. The dish, again, depends too much on main ingredients for flavor (and beluga, while caviar-like and pretty, is notoriously neutral). The New Caledonia blue prawns, on the other hand, are served over some of the most perfectly executed squid-ink linguine I’ve tasted, next to seared sweetbreads in Madeira jus. Diced preserved lemon, along with olives, is the X factor that really takes the dish to a special Mediterranean place.
All desserts at Avant are good. Like the salted caramel semifreddo with espresso sauce, maple sugar, apples, and crispy sesame wafers made with fillo (not good—excellent). Or the handmade tart with frangipane (almond filling), blackberries and strawberries, pickled strawberries (for a nice savory counterpunch), and housemade ice cream. The only problem with the chocolate bar—like a Kit Kat with Valrhona ganache and cocoa nib crispy wafer—is, again, construction. The raspberry pearls on the side add a kirsch-like brightness, but are too small to fork. (Solution: Turn chocolate bar on side, partially top with pearls.)
Kozak’s execution is near flawless. Everything, save for maybe the Gerbered quail, is cooked perfectly. I do wonder if his palate might be super-powered, tasting big flavor where lesser humans like myself are searching for it. I’d like to maybe reconcile his distant relationship with the spice rack. But on the whole, there are enough excellent options (and, weirdly and awesomely, housemade mustard on tap) to live up to the quite phenomenal new destination that is Avant.