Call it a lull, a pause, a plateau…hopefully not a rut…that the San Diego restaurant scene has been mired in for most of the last chilly, rainy quarter of a year. When one major food writer in town resorts to an entire series on salt and pepper and another does a take down of a Mom and Pop run Thai restaurant, the translation is that pages must be filled and readers appeased, rather than any interesting food news imparted. Since my six readers were on post-holiday diets, I went into hibernation. Fortunately, Ponsaty’s French Dinner Series, created and curated by French Master Chef Patrick Ponsaty and Ponsaty’s Executive Chef Alain Delahaye, has broken through the wintry chill with its first installment, the Basque, or “Euskadi” tasting.
From the initial announcement, for those in the know, meaning those of us who have either had Patrick and Alain’s food or are aware of their heritage and the generations of experience they bring to the table from their native shores an ocean and continent away, Ponsaty’s French Dinner series created that low in the belly, subsonic, tingly, rumble of excitement. Here, for the first time in a long season, was a food offering that promised to be not only unique, but potentially educational…I mean, if you’re into understanding a region and a people through their food.
Now, after delicately devouring my way through the first part of the series, the Basque “Euskadi” tasting, I can say the pre-meal anticipation turns out to have been both justified and reasonable, if not downright, woefully underestimative. The Basque tasting, scheduled to run through the end of this week, hit pressure points I didn’t know I had and transported me, at least in my imagination, to the shores of Southern France. The picture in my mind’s eye of Basque cuisine now and forever, or, until the day the Basque tour bucket list item is eventually checked off, will be of Basque cattlemen and their families, gathered under a grove of trees, rolling hills in the background, rows of tables placed end to end, laughing, communing and eating…seafood. Oh, yes. The primarily seafood tasting is indicative of the cuisine in the Basque region, which is supplied by a thriving coastal scene and resulting staples.
It seems strange, at first, to think of seafood as rustic, homey, comfortable and countrified. And, yet, while that’s exactly what we received during the progressive tasting in the cushy Ponsaty’s Rancho Santa Fe dining room, there was something else. This wasn’t thoughtless, simple peasant food. There’s an initial impression that flavors are muted and subtle. Then, you realize that they are like a freight train that’s wrapped in a silk purse and moving 5 miles an hour. There are no sharp edges that cut right through you. No power punches that blast you in the face. Rather, the flavors in this tasting are an aggregate of enveloping, rich, hearty ingredients from which every last drop of usefulness is squeezed. It’s a fullness that manifests as a relentless force that has no other option than to leave an indelible, lasting, powerful imprint on those bold enough to tread the tracks.
Much of the success of the menu can also be attributed to the progression presented by Patrick and Alain. Each course and corresponding main ingredient builds upon itself, layer upon layer. Seafood flavors are enhanced by earthy, herbal accents and nuances. You’ll find yourself transported to a time and place when meals were conceived and prepared with ingredients readily available, as much in the interest of having enough to eat as to make wonderful flavors.
In the case of this meal, you’re slowly introduced to non-traditional combinations of fairly recognizable ingredients, giving you a window of acclimatization and allowing you, by the end of the meal, to feel you have a new understanding of how certain flavors are impactful in ways you may never have previously considered. Honestly, it made me a little emotional. I started hugging everyone in sight, the chefs, the hostess, some dude named Gregory, a random, dog walking lady on the way to our car…
The tone and expectations for the evening were set completely by the appetizer of Crabe Txangurro, which are different words for the same thing. But, this was no ordinary crab. This was an aromatic stuffed crab dish that had chopped prosciutto, pernod and the ever so subtle overtone of tarragon. A savory lobster broth seemingly suspended all of the ingredients at the exact moment in time when all achieved a synchronic crescendo. Elevating the dish from lip smackingly luscious to over the top Aaahh inspiring was the fresh-herbed breadcrumb crust, lightly toasted and gently crunchy, topping the dish in the simultaneously successful and fruitless attempt to lock all flavors together in perpetuity. Fork in hand, I unlocked them. This was a powerful opening dish that could easily have been an entire meal.
There was a dish of calamari, body stuffed with its own previously attached, now chopped, tentacles, combined with herbs, and the entire Frankenstein like reconstruction bathed in its own ink. If we’re being honest here, that reads like a scene from some cult favorite, Poseidon-esque horror flick. In this iteration, though, no finned hero comes swimming in to the rescue. Indeed, you’ll note a distinct absence of compassion for your cooked in their own juices victim du jour as you further slash through the just this side of toothy flesh to get to the minced version of the same in the quest to satisfy your ever intensifying need for, well…more. The roasted piquillo pepper was a welcomed interloper, packing just the right hint of spiciness to awaken the senses, if not the recently departed.
I’m not going to continue to ruin the meal for you. There’s plenty of time to get in and try it for yourself. This is a tasting that, as a precursor to the next three parts of the series, sets the bar at an awfully high mark. If there’s a crew in town that is capable of making and fulfilling a promise at this level, though, my money would be on Ponsaty and Delahaye, et al, every time. For this one, make reservations. It’s the most exciting, notwithstanding, only, series of its kind in these parts and the dining room is full of diners who seem to think the same. Enjoy, and Cheers, my friends!
Ponsaty’s French Dinner Series
6106 Paseo Delicias
Rancho Santa Fe, California 92067
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