The pale rosé is a pretty coral hue, but as it’s poured into wine glasses, my friend exclaims with dismay “What? No margaritas? I was so ready for a margarita!” We’re first-time diners at Sol del Sur Bistro, and discover that only beer and wine are served on these premises. “This is not what I was expecting,” she says.
Much about this San Juan Capistrano restaurant is unexpected. The petite shopping center storefront is a culinary recital starring ambitious and surprising cooking filtered through the intense imagination of chef-owner Dave Emery. The New York native is a citizen of the globe, having eaten and traveled widely, and having worked in kitchens in Europe and Asia. A gracious and unassuming host, Emery answers menu questions himself, takes orders, and retreats to the kitchen until he delivers the finished dishes. This works best if you relax and accept the gentle pace of this solo performance, though on busy nights he enlists the support of young servers. The mood recalls the modest cafés of Europe and the feel is startlingly intimate given the suburban locale.
We start with small plates from an ambitious, eclectic lineup that veers from poached morels to cold haricot vert (green bean) soup to fresh uni with scrambled eggs. Round One includes three choices that spotlight lobster, duck confit, and seared beef, all in distinct preparations. Small clouds of fluffy lobster meat are scattered on a frilly bed of flowering chervil sprigs. Barely visible garlic jelly oozes over the lobster and is so muted that the dish tastes bland, even disconnected. Just-made corn tortillas add a rustic note to phenomenal tacos exploding with flavors of duck confit, crunchy cracklings, and housemade cherry mostarda. Why can’t Taco Asylum’s intrepid creations taste this good? Open-face lettuce wraps piled with seared beef loin, pear-fennel kimchi, and red quinoa are a wild ride, but the complex kimchi takes a back seat to aggressive red chilies that proved too fiery for some.
Entrées maintain the fearless pace, and the choices are bold and rich. Coriander-glazed lamb short ribs are easily stripped of their charred and glistening flesh; they make a great trio with herby cilantro-mint couscous and grilled plump Romano beans. Tender beef-cheeks confit collapses at first forkful, its flavor intensified by low and slow cooking in beef fat. For a lighter entrée, we sub a small plate: burrata with beef carpaccio, tomato jam, and a swirl of basil seed vinaigrette. Even though it’s served cool, the flavors are exuberant and I wonder if one less ingredient would calm it down. When a dining couple departs, it’s just us left in the 30-seat space with its sunset-hued walls and bouquets of dried grasses.
Several nights later, the bulk of the menu has been changed to underscore a new raft of seasonal ingredients, including wild king salmon, peaches, and white corn. Again, Emery offers a courteous welcome, but spends the rest of the evening cooking our meal.
A Spanish albariño proves agreeable with sun-ripe Saturn peaches grilled with salty goat and sheep’s milk haloumi cheese under a dribble of riesling reduction. Caviar d’Aubergines might disappoint fans of sevruga since it’s actually a classic French purée of grilled eggplant, olive oil, and sea salt; Emery pipes a fat ribbon of the fluffy basil oil-tinted mixture over slices of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes. The dish is a lovely, light counterpoint to a hearty tapas plate of fried quail eggs and coarse, spicy chorizo on toast planks.
The king salmon filet and a seasonal risotto are timid by comparison. The dish lacks the proper short-grained rice, and the vegetable stock and goat cheese add little. The lightly grilled salmon is fresh, but not so flavorful, and long curls of lemon cucumbers extend the monotony. At $30, this plate is a low achiever in a field of more interesting fare. Your money is better spent on parmentier, the French take on shepherd’s pie. Its confit of duck leg, roasted garlic potato purée, and Comté cheese make for deeply savory, almost indulgent comfort fare.
Consistent with Emery’s ambitious savory courses, desserts also vault from classical to novel. Ultradark chocolate mousse, with a creamy texture more like velvet than airy chiffon, is served on a baked meringue base that adds welcome crunch. Ripe watermelon and a few strawberries release their supersweetness after a spell on the grill, but chocolate-cloaked blue cheese ice cream, balsamic reduction, and crystals of sea salt take a good formula a bit too far; the tangy ice cream is all the fruit really needs. The cardamom-poached gooseberries, raspberry sorbet, and gjetost cheese dessert is shown above.
Despite his tame demeanor, Emery is a chef with a wild streak. And he has the courage required for a high-wire act such as Sol del Sur Bistro. How cheering it would be to see more diners filling his small bistro’s tables. I just know there are plenty out there, eager for the unexpected.
Quail eggs over chorizo on toast, eggplant purée, grilled peaches and haloumi cheese, duck tacos, lamb short ribs, confit of beef cheeks, chocolate mousse on meringue.
Dinner: small plates, $6 to $14; entrées, $17 to $33.
Dinner only Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday.
31115 Rancho Viejo
San Juan Capistrano
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.