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Sugar doughnuts with Bailey’s ice cream and espresso foam

Part Deux

by Kersten Deck | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | August 27, 2013

We’ve had a year to lament the shuttering of El Bizcocho and wring all meaning from the phrase “end of an era”—longer, if your mourning period began with the ’07 departure of wunderkind Gavin Kaysen. The Rancho Bernardo Inn stalwart was a fine-dining institution for nearly half a century, a stately landmark that lured celebrants of special occasions as well as illustrious chefs who came to visit, learn and sometimes stay, elevating San Diego cuisine to lofty levels and inspiring us to dress for dinner.

Today, as the just-unveiled Avant, few would recognize the space, now a modern California ranch den where petite syrah is on tap and warm bread arrives at the table in a paper sleeve. In style, temperament and cuisine, there’s absolutely no mistaking this modish and warm restaurant for the formal and meticulous El Biz—and after pouring $2.5 million into the wall-leveling, view-enhancing, tablecloth-eschewing, thoroughly modernizing remodel, Rancho Bernardo Inn is surely fine with that. There’s little sense in holding the new space to the stratospheric bar set by its predecessor; Avant is less inclined to fill dauntingly big shoes than it is to break in a brand-new pair and show them off for the masses. The fact that The Wire and Game of Thrones are both HBO dramas doesn’t mean it’s useful to compare them too seriously.

Avant’s accessibility reverberates from every surface, from the exuberant staff to the multitude of social dining spaces: a leather-and-wood dining room with retractable windows and views of the golf course, two private rooms (one with a sleek exhibition kitchen and a truly gorgeous communal table), a climate-controlled patio and a bar replete with TVs that are, gratefully, easy to ignore. On any given night, the massive stone bar is beset on four sides by resort guests, leisurely exurbanites and girlfriends sharing rillette, while Zach (an affable charcuterie whiz hand-plucked by Executive Chef Nicolas Bour from the teppanyaki theater of Benihana—again, this is not the aughts’ El Biz) slides domestic La Quercia prosciutto and black truffle salami on a slick fly-wheel Berkel slicer and pairs artisan cheeses with luscious tomato marmalade I could eat by the ladle. As for the bar’s pièce de résistance, a pair of custom-made bar taps dispense Avant’s housemade mustard varieties—Temecula Valley honey, rosemary Dijon, the list goes on—just in time for the au courant condiment’s moment in the sun.

Rancho Bernardo’s pastoral ambience jibes well with Avant’s produce-driven menu, guided by Bour, a self-taught culinary magpie who honed his skills in both Paris and Atlanta, and Chef de Cuisine James Kozak, formerly of a little place called Charlie Trotter’s. Bour’s enthusiasm for Avant’s dawn and potential is contagious, and it shines through in his creations. Diver scallops with summer bean succotash and tomatoes are terrific, and it will be exciting to see how Bour bolsters these lush mollusks in winter—what bounty from the Inn’s garden will grace this dish in a few months? While the seafood is in very competent hands—the seared ahi starter is a bright collection of flavors enhanced by olive tortellini, a smart little snack that could be its own side, and the subtly flavored Baja grouper comes with a bistro-perfect salt cod brandade—Avant really knocks it out of the park with a few of the fauna. The buttery lamb, which looks as impressive as it tastes, comes with juicy Hakurei turnips and a classic caponata. Delicious chanterelles dot the rich sirloin steak. And if Bour didn’t speak flawless French, his decadent Sonoma duck breast confit shepherd’s pie (like a proper Parmentier, but less fussy in presentation and nomenclature) would be cred enough for most Parisian gastronomists. And of course, there’s that charcuterie, beautifully presented
and paired.

Bour’s noble quest for uncomplicated dishes in which the ingredients speak for themselves is ably fulfilled, almost to a fault. The housemade Atomic Horseradish that accompanies seasonally selected oysters—meaty Kushis, robust Misty Points, sweet Malpeques—is atomic only in the sense that it is made of atoms. And grass-fed beef tartare with violet mustard and a gooey quail egg wouldn’t suffer with a heavy dash of salt.

For dessert, coffee and donuts—Bailey’s ice cream with espresso foam and cinnamon sugar doughnuts for dipping—is a campy winner that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. For sheer impact, the chocolate fondue is a reverie of guilty pleasures: pink peppercorn marshmallows, strawberries, almond cake and candied bacon. It’s like a third-grader’s dream grocery shopping list gone gourmet.

There’s no denying El Bizcocho was sui generis in San Diego; it gave people from Santa Monica to Tijuana a truly unique place to indulge in the finest of fine French dining. Avant is a much different beast, a restaurant that hopes to inspire weekly visits and detours with the best and brightest of California, hinting at the sense of occasion without a dress code or unsolvable dishes. And as locals continue their casual exorcism of the El Biz ghost, giving in to a Rancho Bernardo Inn signature that wants them to stay a while, try the cab on tap, take home a little mustard, it may begin to seem like Avant was there all along.

17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego, 858.675.8550,
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 4-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 4-11pm; weekend brunch: 10am-2pm
Menu: Appetizers, $6-$18; entrees, $21-$38; desserts, $5-$16

The Taps
No one cuts the mustard like chef Bour, who has several housemade mustards on tap.And bonus: wine on tap.

What to Wear
Resortwear to blend in with the guests

Play Favorites
The cleverly curated “You Be the Judge” menu is an excuse to try two incarnations of the same ingredient: olives and oil from Temecula and Italy; gourmet cheese from both coasts...

The Cocktail
Try the barrel-aged Negroni for a classic with the planet’s most perfect ice cubes, or a Dutch mule for a comically giant concoction.