Amid the green fields and valleys of the upscale community of Rancho Bernardo stands a culinary jewel that endeavors to satisfy your epicurean desires. In a community that prides itself on its graciousness and devotion to remaining genuine rests Bernard’O. Since 1992, hosts Bernard Mougel and his wife Diana have been delighting customers from all over San Diego with their California French cuisine. Award-winning French Chef Patrick Ponsaty infuses each dish that leaves his kitchen with his unique personality and high level of sophistication. Open for lunch and dinner, and boasting an impressive private wine cellar room and an enticing patio, Bernard’O hopes to satisfy every customer.
At 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, I enter Bernard’O and am greeted personally by owner Bernard Mougel. He quickly leads me into the main dining room: a charming room so luminous and airy I wondered for a moment if Bernard has led me right into the French countryside. As I situate myself into a beautifully intimate booth in the corner of the restaurant, I gaze through Bernard’O’s extensive windows and notice the alluring and charismatic patio seating. The bar area has a significant happy hour crowd and the dining room is home to several guests, all smiling as they are undoubtedly enjoying selections from Bernard’O’s “Sunset Menu.”
The atmosphere in Bernard’O is so engaging I lose myself in the large mural painted on the opposite wall. I contemplate what it is about this restaurant that gives the impression of a generous and comforting old friend, and easily conclude that the colors and the light certainly have something to do with it. The bright blue and deep brown upholstery of the dining chairs, along with fresh flowers placed in tall vases, further accentuate the carefree attitude that is rapidly taking over my psyche. I am only disrupted out of my reverie by the arrival of my dining partner.
My guest and I glance over Bernard’O’s extensive award-winning wine list, and are instantly impressed by the selection. Although dominated by California and French wines, Bernard’O’s’ does offer selections from Australia, Italy, Chile, New Zealand, and Spain. Bernard’O’s well-rounded wine selection aims to please anyone from the amateur wine drinker to the persnickety wine connoisseur. Bernard’O’s dinner menu also offers a broad assortment of dishes: from a vegetarian choice of Organic Local Baby Vegetables braised in vegetable broth to a delectable California Bouillabaisse featuring sea bass, scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams. For those looking for a more carnivorous feast, Bernard’O offers such choices as Duck Leg Confit, Short Ribs, or a Center Cut Filet Mignon.
We decide on a light La Playa Sauvignon Blanc to pair with our first dish, a colorful King Salmon Gravlax. The salmon is served with white asparagus, sweet pimiento, hot red pepper, a hint of chervil, and is mixed with citrus vinaigrette. This colorful dish is as enjoyable to look at as it is to taste. The color of the salmon and the red peppers are made even more dramatic against the light delicate color of the asparagus. The aroma of salty seaweed is immediately present as I lean forward to welcome the full fragrance. As I inspect the many components of my dish, I let my fork move immediately to the salmon. It is fresh, lean and incredibly moist. The combination of salmon, vinaigrette and hot pepper is quite pleasing to my taste buds; the sweet, spicy, and salty elements all work in conjunction to keep my fork moving.
Our second course is presented to us in what resembles a shot glass. We are informed that it is the Crème Fraiche Ahi Tuna Tartare and it is paired with a sweet Gainey Riesling. The rim of our seeming shot glass is topped with tuile, (a very lightweight, dry, crisp cookie), and the tuile is topped with sautéed scallops. We quickly break the tuile to reveal crème fraiche atop a bed of fresh herbs. As the tuile crumbles and the scallops fall into the dish, it is the fresh herbs that immediately command my attention. The sweet of the tuile proves to be a delicious contrast to the fresh, bold taste of the fresh herbs.
The third course is a Sautéed Halibut served with salmon, scallop, and sausage. The sausage is balanced atop a large cube of golden crunchy halibut; organic and locally grown vegetables swim in a flavorful broth that offsets the fish flavor. Braised beets, carrots, onion, and celery give the dish a colorful and playful presentation. The whole dish is sprinkled with pungent black truffles. Each fresh vegetable adds its own unique flavor to this dish.
Our Mint and Basil Crusted New Zealand Rack of Lamb sits amid a sea of deep green pesto, white bean ragout, and vivid tomatoes. The pesto is an excellent companion to the tender and juicy rack of lamb, the light mint rub only adds to the fresh and sophisticated taste of this creative dish. The pesto is light with just a hint of nuttiness and the lamb is beautifully browned. Again, as with so many of Chef Ponsaty’s dishes, the taste of fresh produce reveals how important buying locally grown produce can be, not only to the community but to the flavor of each dish.
The star of the show is Bernard’O’s award-winning Pork Loin. The cut is stuffed with doughy sweetbread; it is served with braised bacon Potato Napoleon, sautéed mushrooms, and a smooth orange butternut squash. This dish has rightfully earned Chef Ponsaty much acclaim. The pork belly is slow roasted for several hours, which provides for a sinfully tender belly chunk. The butternut squash not only provides a splash of vibrant color, but it contributes the sweetness and the starch that justly accompanies most pork. The mushrooms add an earthy flavor and the potato supplies the trace of salt. Each element works in conjunction with the other. Chef Ponsaty’s innovation allows him to coordinate his dishes to harmonize with local seasonal ingredients – in this particular dish these delicious fresh seasonal touches are forced into a close second to the tenderly glazed pork.
As we discuss our meals, our server brings a cheese plate that is highlighted by a European Bleu Cheese, so creamy and mouthwatering that I cannot look away. The cheese is topped with caramelized onions and a sweet walnut caramel that towers and spins high above the plate. Aside this leaning tower is a garnish of aspic with cubes of pear floating weightlessly amid the gelatin. The unlikely companions of caramelized onion and walnut caramel are especially unconventional when served alongside Chef Ponsaty’s take on the traditional bleu cheese and pear combination. The creamy bleu cheese melts in your mouth as the caramelized onions slide down your throat. The sweet aspic and the walnut caramel easily contrast this rich deep flavor.
Our desserts are served next and we are delighted to find a Strawberry and Pomegranate Consommé. This sweet consommé is served underneath a rich chocolate disc topped with a lemon and marshmallow gelato. Homemade marshmallows, a treat rarely seen in fine dining restaurants, are also served alongside this beautiful dessert. We are also treated to a Warm Chocolate Coulant: This chocolate –erupting tarte is topped with vanilla bean gelato, and is presented with a beautifully spun sugar bird cage. Another of Chef Ponsaty’s novel experiments is positioned next to the coulant. An Imperial Stout has been whimsically added to the dish giving it a deep rich flavor. Situated alongside the coulant, the stout jelly adds a distinctive flavor that is far from overpowering. This special addition is just one more example of how Chef Ponsaty can utilize anything and everything to create a unique dish.
As we leave Bernard’O, we look back and notice that the ambiance has changed dramatically. The fire place is now roaring and the lights are turned low. The colors have somehow transformed from light and airy to deep and romantic. This change came so subtly and so naturally that we never noticed as we were pampered by the unbelievably attentive staff of Bernard’O. If there is anything to be learned from our experience at Bernard’O, it is that nothing is set in stone. From the ambiance to the food, Bernard’O is continuously adjusting to anticipate the needs and desires of all customers. Chef Ponsaty is constantly incorporating new ingredients and fresh ideas to ensure that each dining experience is unique. Bernard’s continuing presence in the dining area ensures that a sense of quiet elegance is always preserved. Every effort is made to ensure guests at Bernard’O certainly feel as though each meal is designed exclusively for them.