Ponsaty's Brings Master French Fare to Rancho Santa Fe
Master chef Patrick Ponsaty gets his own restaurant
The dining room of Ponsaty’s
Rancho Santa Fe is where you go to rest after you’ve won the world. Only about 3,000 people live here, among the eucalyptus trees and sprawling estates just east of Encinitas. It’s drop-dead country living, with none of the chew-spit yokel charm but plenty of horses and open land.
The community was designed by Lilian Rice in the 1920s. Bing Crosby’s name gets thrown onto a lot of plaques around here. He used to host a golf tourney called the Crosby Clambake with Hollywood types. Horses have accommodations most of us would envy. Polo is actually still a sport here and not just a cologne. The neighborhood is 93.4-percent white, and highly Republican.
The list of icons who’ve called RSF home is long and biopic. Bill Gates has a house here. Diet queen Jenny Craig, too. Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge. Geena Davis. Joseph Coors of the beer family. Sidney Frank, who made billions marketing Grey Goose and Jaegermeister.
With so few residents, there’s not a huge market for restaurants. Mille Fleurs, owned by classic restaurateur Bertrand Hug (who also owns Mister A’s), has been here since the Ice Age. And pretty much the only other standalone restaurant was Delicias. It was the livelier spot of the two, owned and operated by Mexican resort developer Owen Perry. When Perry closed it up after 19 years, it transferred to another highly successful finance executive, Brian Bonar.
Bonar started his restaurant group the right way, hiring one of the city’s top chefs—and one of San Diego’s only two French master chefs—Patrick Ponsaty. Ponsaty had been pretty high-profile with gigs at El Bizcocho and Loews Coronado. But when Bonar hired him, he dropped off the radar, helping Bonar develop The Ranch at Bandy Canyon, and Escondido’s tiny bistro, Bellamy’s.
But finally, with Ponsaty’s, Patrick gets his own restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe. My problem with chefs going to RSF is largely a selfish one. Being so isolated, it denies the rest of San Diego frequent access to their talents. Unselfishly, it puts great chefs on a very elite stage, cooking for business tycoons and rock stars and pro athletes. Those people then often hire the chefs to cook for them personally, or to cater their parties.
Ponsaty’s is sturdy and opulent. There’s a chandelier in the middle of the room dangling with large glass fixtures that look like fossilized bananas. The dining room has tufts everywhere, so surfaces look soft, luxurious, and elegantly puckered in a sort of textile kissy face. There are polished driftwood tables with wooden chairs covered in snakeskin-black leather seats that remind me of stripper pants. There’s a giant rug in the middle of the room that’s ornate and looks expensive—possibly Persian.
In one corner, a single table for two is surrounded by blue, padded, tufted walls, and has its own chandelier. This is the marriage proposal seat. The Cialis two-top. There’s a stone fireplace in the middle of the dining room. The whole place is lavish and warm. The kind of room that manifests when American designers are given the financial resources to make special things.
Ponsaty is a master, and has cooked some of the most memorable meals I’ve eaten. So my expectations are extremely high, and over two nights, they’re met and frustratingly not met.
The first night is a total hit-and-miss. Service is textbook professional, and not overbearing. We order the mushroom ravioli (using local Mountain Meadow mushrooms) in a ruby port wine sauce with Parmesan cheese, and it’s everything that dish should be—a supernova of umami, deeply rich with mushroom funk, and silky al dente pasta. The charred local octopus with Spanish chorizo and squid ink, however, is abusively salty. So salty it makes me walk past the open kitchen to see if Ponsaty is in the house that night. He’s not.
Our entrées are also a split decision. The pork cheeks Basque kintoa with Brussels sprouts, pancetta, Irouléguy wine, and trumpet mushrooms are unremarkable. Everything is underseasoned. The “Lacquered Milk-Fed Rack of Lamb” with basil broth, however, is excellent, the broth the perfect nature’s licorice and the meat cooked to temp.
The second night we attempt to go, the restaurant is closed. I had checked their website, and it said it was open. There was a post on their Facebook page that said “Sunday Funday!” with a photo of their awesome wine selection. So we made the 45-minute drive, and they were closed. We angrily drove home and ate Thai takeout.
And so we return for the final night, and Ponsaty is in house. He explains that there was a company party that night, and they’d forgotten to post it on their website.
Ponsaty’s has a prix fixe menu offer every night, so we do it. We start with a caviar tasting. You should always do this. House-made blini, those tiny savory pancakes, served with Petrossian Shassetra and Ossetra President caviar, hard-boiled egg shrapnel, capers, onion, parsley, and house-made crème fraîche. Life-endingly good. The Scottish salmon gravlax in a cucumber-dill “snow” and lime Chantilly cream is also highly recommended. A beet is remarkable mostly for the beet ice cream in the middle of the granite spread.
The star of the show should, since Ponsaty is impeccably French, be the foie gras and prune-stuffed pheasant breast in a game bird reduction. We’re salivating. Thankfully so, because the pheasant, when cut open, is beyond dry. A flaw I haven’t seen Ponsaty make in part, let alone in full. But the entrées are redeemed with his rabbit—braised and sautéed with intense, phenomenal flavor, especially for such a lean protein.
One final note about an experience at Ponsaty’s. Bring two credit cards. A master chef is cooking, and prices have been set accordingly.
I’m glad that Mr. Ponsaty has a home, and a marquee with his name on it. When he’s in the kitchen, and when the restaurant is open as advertised, this is rightfully one of the better places to see what a master chef can do. He’s taken me to far greater heights in the past, and I’m sure he’ll raise those expectations again. My first two nights weren’t world-beating, but they had enough oh-yes-god-yes bites to make me consider venturing into the magical, secluded island of RSF in the future once again.