By: Sheen Fischer
In San Diego County, the chances of eating a meal prepared by a French Master Chef are… two. Not two percent, not even two out of a thousand… There are exactly two French Master Chefs or certified MCF’s (Maitres Cuisiniers De France) actively cooking in San Diego County.
One day, I will have a chance to enjoy a meal made by the other guy, but for this meal we were fed by French Master Chef Patrick Ponsaty, Corporate Chef of Bellamy’s in Escondido and a fifth generation French chef. By the age of 10 years old, Chef Patrick was preparing traditional French dishes in his father’s restaurant, Cochon de Lait (The Suckling Pig) in Cazares, France. In addition to training in a variety of Two and Three-Star Michelin restaurants in France and Spain under the direction of legendary Chefs Didier Oudill and Alain Ducasse, Chef Patrick has also been Chef de Cuisine at Bernardo’s and El Bizcocho in Rancho Bernardo.
Bellamy’s Restaurant is comfortably nestled behind possibly the tallest (and most impeccably groomed) palm tree in downtown Escondido, with ample street and back lot parking available. They have a great happy hour that runs daily from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m. The bar menu here is better than the main menu at many other places.
I was a little concerned after being seated when our server, Gregory, placed menus in front of us. Since we were celebrating a chef friend’s birthday, I had contacted Chef Patrick four days earlier to request his signature dish of Beef Wellington and to place ourselves at “Chef’s Mercy”. Specifically, I asked him to “feed us”, similar to omakase style in a sushi bar. When I mentioned this to Gregory, he smoothly replied as he retrieved the menus, “Chef was leaving you the option of ordering from the new spring menu, but he is prepared.”
Indeed, Chef was prepared. 15 minutes later, we were served this Chilled Red Beet Soup. Even a close up picture doesn’t quite capture all of the ingredients, but readily visible are the goat cheese, beet ice cream, sliced beet and house made parmesan twist (think croissant in tube form) still warm from the oven.
Through our dining experiences over the last several years, we must have eaten with a dozen people who gagged at the mention of beets. Beets may be one of the most reviled vegetables in America next to overcooked, soggy brussel sprouts. After choking down canned beets most of my childhood, I confess I was once a beet naysayer myself.
But, this flavorful, fresh, beautifully balanced riff on borscht, while unmistakable in its beetness, activated every pleasurable sensory node on our palates. It danced on the tongue…sweet, savory, cold and creamy, changing flavors as it dissolved. By the time the third server stopped by the table to ask how we were enjoying the dish (no doubt because they saw that my eyes kept rolling back in my head), my barely audible, slightly panting response was that every person on the staff should receive a bowl of this soup as a payroll bonus.
The theme of the night is that all of the food tasted even better than it looked. Examine this picture closely and you can see peeking ever so slightly from under the cucumber slice traces of Tobiko caviar. This New England halibut tartar in Uzu dressing was remarkable in both its refreshing simplicity and powerhouse flavor. The halibut tartar itself must have had sea salt added grain by grain until peak flavor was reached. It was then accented to perfection by the addition of the briny flavor and crunchy texture of the caviar. Meanwhile, the uzu sauce worked a similar flavor-merging magic to olive oil, without the oiliness. I mean…right? So. Breathlessly. Right.
Chef’s next offering was, of course, no ordinary Pan Seared Scallop. This scallop sat on a Basque influenced bed of rich, tomato sauce bathed, sautéed octopus and was topped by a grilled leek and kale foam.
I recalled at this point in the meal that Chef had kindly given us the option of ordering from the menu. What the heck? What was he going to do with all of this specially prepared food if we took him up on his offer? More on that later.
Back to the dish – assuming this was an authentic Basque sauce – strike that – who cares if it was authentic? Pour me a bathtub full, please.
It is not every day you get invited into the kitchen of a French Master Chef. Incredibly, this is what the kitchen looked like deep into the evening’s service and just preceding our 4th course. Seriously? My kitchen at home looks worse than this AFTER I clean it!
Then, Chef pulls out of the oven the reason I gave him 72 hours’ notice that we were coming in. His signature Beef Wellington. Why 72 hours? Apparently you can only fold the puff pastry so many times before letting it rest, then you fold it some more, let it rest, then you fold it some more – very similar to the way I do laundry, but my socks never come out looking this good.
Let’s talk a bit about Beef Wellington. The origin of the name of the dish is unclear. Among the many theories, one suggests that beef Wellington is named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, but there no evidence supporting this. In addition to the lack of evidence attaching this dish to the famous Duke, the earliest known recipe to bear this name appeared in a 1966 cookbook.
Another account credits the name to a patriotic chef wanting to give an English name to a variation on the French filet de bœuf en croûte during the Napoleonic Wars. These differing theories make for quite scintillating banter at the dinner table…
The burning question, though, is who would ever order this dish on purpose? Isn’t this something your grandparents would order? Isn’t this dish like 600 years old? Well, I ordered it and I was completely sober when I did. I was stricken with the notion of enjoying this dish about 6 months ago after Chef Patrick posted a picture of it on his Facebook page.
Take a second, a minute, even an hour and really examine this picture. The black plate is a perfect palette for the presentation of this dish. The hundreds of folded layers comprising the puff pastry would make any Japanese samurai swordsmith or Damascus steel fabricator applaud in appreciation. The tenderloin roast contained within the pastry is ethereal. The temperature, color and moistness of the meat all border on miraculous, especially considering that the pastry is perfectly toasted and not the least bit soggy. The mushroom puree and fois gras topping almost seem gratuitous until that first bite where all the flavors blend together in the jus of the meat. The bacon wrapped around the roast accomplishes a flavoring of the roast in the same fashion that a salt/spice rub would, but with the added moistness of the bacon fat. How this did not make the pastry soggy during the cooking is a mystery to me.
The flavor of the roast is unexpectedly, but very pleasurably, intense. Think of the rich, irony flavor of a game meat, but in the familiar, non-gamy, simple essence of beef which is magnified by a factor of 3 or 4. Chef attributes this flavor to his meat purveyor supplying him with quality grass fed, natural, hormone free beef.
I trust you, Chef. But, I don’t care if that cow ate only ate watercress coated in aged balsamic its entire life. It didn’t cook itself. I believe the intense flavor of the beef was also largely due to the “locking in” of the flavor and the perfect preparation of the dish by a Master Chef. But, who am I to argue? Take another look at that picture, though – it’s worth a thousand words.
As I was considering the 5th generation peppercorn sauce and creamy potatoes that accompanied the Beef Wellington, while using my steak knife for the solitary purpose of pushing more food onto my fork, I realized that our meal had taken us across a couple of continents. We had traveled through Eastern Europe with the Borscht like beet soup, into Asia with the Pacific influenced sashimi/poke like tartar, back toward the Motherland through the Basque region with the intense octopus sauce and into the Empire upon which the sun never set with our main course.
Yes, we were being toyed with. I mean, weren’t we here to enjoy a meal prepared by one of the top French chefs in our region? The audacity! Where was the French food?
Finally, the sweet and tart strawberry, rhubarb, blackberry compote with a scoop of Basil Citrus Parfait and topped with candied Isomalt we were served for dessert was decidedly French. It sufficed. In spades.
When Chef finally had a few minutes to chat about the meal with us, I had to ask a couple of questions.
First question: Does Chef consider this “fusion” cooking? The answer: Absolutely not. These dishes are unique creations utilizing both classic and modern techniques. His final sentence uttered in his inimitable French accent, “Fusion is Confusion – that’s where you throw a bunch of stuff on the plate and mix it all up!”
Question 2: How could Chef possibly have given us the option of ordering off the menu if he had this meal prepared for us? The answer: He made this meal out of what fresh ingredients he had available in the kitchen. On the spot.
If I ever I do get around to enjoying a real French meal by that other guy, I’ll have some pretty high expectations. Cheers, my friends!
417 E. Grand Ave.
Escondido, CA 92025