The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia

Dinner - Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who would have guessed that such cutting-edge cuisine existed in the isolated and conservative San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe? Certainly not this uninformed diner - all the credit must go to Gourmands Review for the discovery. This was a surprisingly modern meal in the rustic, bucolic setting of the Rancho Valencia resort. Executive chef Eric Bauer (formerly of the local restaurant Anthology) and chef de cuisine Aaron Martinez (who has worked in the kitchens of Addison and In de Wulf) showed us the future of the dining program at Rancho Valencia, and it is lovely.

Canapé 1 - Cheese
Canapé 2 - Chicken skin, fava bean, herbs
Our group was served two canapés shortly after being seated. The first was a plate of dehydrated cheese wafers, puffed up to resemble shrimp crackers. They had a strong umami quality that really made the inside of my mouth tingle in anticipation for the courses ahead. Next, some compressed chicken skin crackers - crisp and salty, but nicely balanced by the nutty and slightly bitter notes from the fava bean puree that sat atop each cracker.

Amuse - "Veggies"
A vibrant dish, visually and on the palate - assertive in flavour, touching all five tastes. The mushroom soil was very earthy and really grounded the other components. I continue to enjoy minimalist vegetable preparations more and more.

Cucumber, mackerel, verbena, borage
Excellent. Very strong fresh cucumber notes, which were juxtaposed against the oily mackerel. The borage tied both components together, tasting strongly of cucumber (to me) with a mild briny aftertaste ("oyster-like", according to our server). The tanginess from the verbena and the sharp bite of the pickle further lightened the composition. Lastly, two small pieces of shaved fennel served as excellent foils for the oily fish.

Carrots, radish
Flowers, ham, herb infusion
I really enjoyed the roasted vegetables here - they tasted rich and deep, ripe with their inherent sweet essence. A ham cream (white, foreground) added some nice meatiness to balance the sweetness.

Coriander, escargot, seaweed, zucchini
The escargot was apparently "local" to Rancho Valencia, prompting some remarks about foraging for snails in the manicured gardens outside. I found this preparation a little heavy-handed, with the bonito butter dominating many components. However, the seaweed powder was used with nice restraint to accentuate the vegetables and snail - a good move, because it was quite potent. The delicious coriander flowers were redolent of cilantro and its seed.

Hay-roasted potatoes
Lovage, peas, marrow pudding
Halibut, salsify, mussels
A solid, if relatively plain dish. One half of my (very large piece of) fish was overcooked, but I believe that most of the other diners had well-prepared protein. The smoked mussels and pickled shallots were a nice touch that enhanced the otherwise plain halibut. Two textures of salsify also contributed to the briny quality of the dish.

Veal tongue, asparagus, rocket, mustard
As with the previous dish, the vegetable was presented in two textures. I adored the meltingly tender white asparagus, and their contrast with the firmer green asparagus tips. The thinly-sliced veal tongue was complemented by the mustard seeds, and the peppery arugula kept the dish from being overly rich.

Foie gras
Pork belly
Red onion, beet, eel mousse, sorrel
The foie gras and pork belly were served identically. I preferred the unctuous belly, but to me, this dish ended up being the most pedestrian of the evening - a bit of a cop-out. Also, after a string of excellent beet preparations recently, I found the beet pieces and beet syrup here very weak - saccharine, and not well balanced with the rest of the components.

Morels, ramps, lamb, barley
The lamb neck was perfectly glazed and very succulent - quite a delight to eat. I also enjoyed the in-season morels and ramps individually. Taken together, the flavour of the lamb overpowered the wonderful vegetables, and I found myself wishing that they had been given their own stage to shine. A potentially great dish that somewhat undermined itself.

Intermezzo - Apple foam, celery
Very refreshing. The crisp, clean, tart apple flavour was extremely pronounced in the thick foam. The little bits of celery were also slightly tangy, whilst providing a nice textural bite to balance the dish.

Fennel, chocolate, licorice
A bold dish, relying on two strong and contrasting flavours. The fennel meringues and fennel fronds were relatively subdued compared to the strong punch of the licorice ice cream. These notes were very well balanced by the rich chocolate ganache. I'm not a huge fan of anise (preferring to enjoy it in moderation), but this was really admirable.

Goat cheese, rhubarb, rose geranium
Another notably unsubtle dessert. This time, the goat cheese flan was countered by the sweet rhubarb, as well as the strongly herbal rose geranium. Quite enjoyable, although not as refreshing as the previous course.

Mignardises - Pistachio macarons
Running $110 for the tasting menu (excluding drinks), dinner was a veritable bargain. Worthy of future visits? Most certainly. The real question, I think, is how the local clientele will react - our party was one of only three tables that dined in the restaurant the entire night. One wonders whether a revision of the restaurant's tired "standard" menu (iceberg salad and filet mignon are representative dishes) will boost business, or alienate more people. Only time will tell.

5921 Valencia Circle
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067
Phone: (858) 759-6216