Sol Del Sur’s Dave Emery is a juggernaut. The owner and chef of this tiny San Juan Capistrano bistro has a menu of Herculean proportions. It’s a Jenga-tower of entrées, salads, appetizers and desserts, taking on Spanish, Swiss, French, Cajun, Japanese and more cuisines than space permits to list here. His ingredient mise en place could double as the index of a botany textbook, with everything from Australian finger limes to the little-known tuber crosnes.
A full kitchen crew with a supporting army of prep cooks would find his list challenging to execute, but our overachieving chef insists on doing it all himself. To see him work is to realize the guy is kind of nuts. Why doesn’t he cut his menu in half? Like Emery, John McLaughlin of Long Beach’s At Last Cafe works alone. But McLaughlin limits himself to one appetizer per night. Emery is not content unless he has about two dozen.
On evenings when more than a handful of customers shows up to his sparsely adorned kitchen/dining room in the eerily sedate complex where a Montessori school and a small grocery store are neighbors, he can easily sink into the weeds, even when he finally enlists a helper to do the plating. If you read this and are headed out the door, budget at least two leisurely hours for dinner—more if others reading have the same idea. Try as Emery might, his mortal hands and the laws of physics constrain him. One evening, he came around apologizing that there was just no way he could do the turkey confit we ordered with other tickets stacking up. “Don’t worry about it,” we said. “Do what you can.”
But to talk to him, you can’t convince the guy to do a little editing, to cut a few corners or to give himself some slack. This is a man who clearly loves to cook. He relishes the challenge of the difficult and hard-to-do. He told us with a kid-like excitement how this past New Year’s Eve, he made chocolate cotton candy as garnish for a cassis mousse bombe dessert. He started with a blob of sugar and hand-stretched it to create thousands of exponentially thin strands as fine as hair. “Easily the most fun thing I did all year,” he said.
“One of most fun things I’ve eaten,” I countered.
This is how Emery rolls. He aims for the unusual, the interesting and sometimes just the funny. The pellet-like pulp of Australian finger limes looks like caviar, so he calls the dish that uses it “Citrus Caviar.” His bacon jam, oxtail marmalade and pear confit share a plate atop rafts of grilled toast, a play on Basque pintxos and also a play on words, one a chimeric pun of the other, each bite building from the last, from the unctuously beefy to the sugary sweet to, finally, the bacon-esque.
For another tapa, he unsheathes spicy chorizo, pan-fries it in its own fat, and mounds the blubbery meat hash on top of more toast and beneath a sunny-side-up quail egg. For the crosnes, those caterpillar-like roots, Emery drizzles on duck fat and sea salt, roasting them to bring out their flavors; the result is like the offspring of a baked potato and a steamed artichoke.
The crosnes is French; the chorizo, of course, is Spanish. A crawdad meatball is obviously New Orleans-inspired. There’s a classic Swiss raclette, even roasted shishito peppers. He braises gargantuan beef short rib with wine in the classic French manner. It sports three bones the size of airfoils that detach themselves with a nudge. In their meaty strands, the drunken cooking liquid has seeped thoroughly. The plate easily could have done without the butter-soaked side of smashed fingerling potatoes or the overbraised-to-salty beet greens.
Emery is all over the map. The casual observer would mistake this as ADD. Dave Lieberman succinctly described it in his Stick a Fork In It review as schizophrenic. Read Emery’s blog, and you realize his menu is the travelogue of a world traveller set in food. You eat where he’s been and what he’s seen. If there’s one fault in a few of Emery’s main entrées, it’s that the perennial experimentalist is not a proponent of restraint. Some things can be excessively bold, rich, salty or just plain beguiling, such as a pasta he recently edited off the menu. In it, dollops of weirdly bitter yuzu pesto interrupted his remarkable house-made fettuccine. On the side, a roasted Japanese eggplant sat like a riddle that needs a solution. And that’s just three of the six ingredients on the plate.
Simpler dishes such as the Pilchard Provencal exhibit cleaner, simpler flavors. For the entrée, he tightly swaddles the fish inside grape leaves and grills it until the wrapper crinkles like parchment. Eat the heads if you dare, or linger over the side of ratatouille and house-made gnocchi. A dish he calls Bacon and Eggs is flawless; here, he braises a Gibraltar hunk of pork belly and drapes it with the addictive nibble of a stewed chicharrón. The bacon lentil stew, the spiced carrot purée and the poached egg work together like a distilled Proustian memory of autumn and winter. Though you wouldn’t be able to jog a mile after consuming it, I wouldn’t doubt that Emery could. Like I said, the man is a juggernaut.
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Sol Del Sur Bistro, 31115 Rancho Viejo Rd., San Juan Capistrano, 92675, (949) 487-5225; soldelsurbistro.wordpress.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., noon-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-close. Tapas and small plates, $1.50-$10; entrées, $20-$35. Beer and wine.
This review appeared in print as "Everything Under the Sun: Sol Del Sur’s globe-trekking menu is already dizzying, then you realize that one guy insists on cooking it all by himself."