Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
Got game? If not, go see Patrick Ponsaty. Venison and wild boar trot across his menu nightly at Bellamy's Restaurant in downtown Escondido , where selections from the wild, including California squab (tastes like dark chicken), will be served through the end of March.
Developing wildly delicious flavors requires masterful preparation, and cooking game with expertise and imagination is part of Ponsaty's culinary inheritance. Like a magician brewing a perfect potion, he knows when tossing an extra juniper berry into a fragrant pot of civet de sanglier (boar stew) would be adding one too many.
A fifth-generation French chef from Cazeres, a village 30 miles south of Toulouse and two hours from the Pyrenees, Ponsaty started cooking as a child. His bedroom was above the kitchen of the family restaurant, Le Cochon de Lait (The Suckling Pig), which no longer exists but enjoyed a reputation across France for precisely presented classic dishes and many house specialties. During the cold months, these included ultra-savory renditions of the gibier (beasts and birds) brought to the back door by neighborhood hunters.
"In France, game is available always in winter," says Ponsaty. "Virtually every restaurant, Michelin-rated or not, serves venison, wild duck, wild boar, wild hare and becasse," a prized game bird known in English as "woodcock."
His father cooked proprietary recipes of all of these, often as long- simmered stews with subtle yet explosive flavors exemplifying "savory." Becasse is Ponsaty's favorite.
"It's the best thing I ever put in my mouth," he says. "You even cut the head in half and eat the brains. I also would like to cook wild hare, but it's very hard to find."
The bird Ponsaty presents most often at Bellamy's is squab, a wild pigeon he prefers because "it's more gamey" than domesticated fowl, and thus more engaging in taste. He roasts the squab to a medium-rare finish and sends it out in a copper skillet, which the server carefully positions with the handle turned 90 degrees to the right, to keep the diner from interacting with the red-hot pan. Underneath the squab, a rich sauce packed with minced black truffles suavely greases a path to heaven. The vegetables, as is typical for Ponsaty, are like edible jewels. His juniper- braised boar, hand-shredded and baked with pasta under a souffle?-like Parmesan sauce, is another bestseller.
The chef learned his profession as a kitchen drudge assigned tasks deemed manageable by a 10-year-old, a role common in French family restaurants. "I made French fries, cleaned escargots - thousands and thousands of escargots - roasted chickens and prepped sacks of onions and garlic," he says.
About those snails: "Andre Ponsaty Escargot" are the lead appetizer on Bellamy's dinner menu, and they're not the standard version with garlic butter. Dressed with wild mushrooms, chestnuts and a Marsala sauce, they're uptown snails styled with down-home trimmings.
The upside to working as a youngster in the family business in France was weekly winter fun in the mountains, fueled by a special lunch packed by his father, the fourth-generation chef in la famille Ponsaty.
"I used to ski every Wednesday morning in the Pyranees when I was a kid in school," Ponsaty says. "The whole school, 40 kids, would get on the bus very early. My father always made me a sandwich stuffed with foie gras."
When Ponsaty turned 18, France still required all men to perform military service. So, as an already-experienced chef, he was assigned "to cook lobsters for lunch for five-star generals, and then go surfing" on the French Polynesian island of Muraroa.
Tiny French villages often dispatch talented offspring to big jobs around the world. Ponsaty's career, for example, has taken him from Michelin-starred restaurants in various corners of France and Spain to the Caribbean, New York (where he worked for Jean-Michel Diot, now proprietor of La Jolla's Bistro du Marche by Tapenade), and on to San Diego, where he helmed several high-profile restaurants before landing in downtown Escondido. (Apparently, Gallic guys like cities this size: three blocks away from Bellamy's, Ponsaty's fellow Frenchman, Arles-born Vincent Grumel, operates the charming Vincent's on Grand Avenue.)
After closing for remodeling for a few days in January, Bellamy's will reopen with new surroundings including a six-person chef 's table. Dining possibilities will encompass multi-course menus of game dishes, cheese and fanciful desserts, such as the newly introduced salted caramel cake. A kind of stiff mousse with candied hazelnuts and persimmon, it's the sort of magical sweet a 10-year-old sleeping above a French restaurant kitchen likely would dream of.
417 W Grand Ave., Escondido