San Juan Capistrano, you've been holding out on us. About a month and a half ago, I polled the readership to find out what's new down in South Orange County. There were a surprising number of suggestions, but reader 1000steps mentioned a place in San Juan Capistrano called Sol del Sur and, upon investigating the menu online, it seemed like a good place to start our investigations south of the El Toro Y.
Just finding the place is difficult; it's on a road that seems to exist only as a frontage road to the 5 freeway north of Ortega Highway. It's toward the back of a plaza with no signs visible from the road; you'll want to turn west (toward the freeway) at the traffic light at Golf Club Drive. Once in the plaza, you'll see it; last night the plaza was nearly devoid of cars. Not only was mine the only party, I think I may have been the only party in any of the restaurants in the plaza.
Inside, the place is charming, informal and done up in light wood, with somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty seats inside and a good-sized patio outside. Given chef-owner David Emery's Tweets and blogging, I expected the soundtrack to be trance ("Sol del Sur" is the Spanish translation of a Paul Oakenfold track, "Southern Sun"), but it was smooth jazz. (Trance would have been more fun.)
The menu is a schizophrenic trip around the world, filled with dishes from hither and yon, anywhere the chef has been and learned to cook the food. German-style pork knuckle with apple-fennel slaw sits in the same menu as an Andean pastel of quinoa, yams and black beans with millet cakes. The small-plates list includes raclette over potatoes, a quintessentially Swiss dish, as well as crostini with bacon jam, oxtail marmalade and pear confit (I see what you did there) and boquerones, that quintessentially Spanish tapa. The restaurant's food cost must be insane; there are sixteen small plates, twelve mains and five desserts on this week's menu.
Crosnes (pronounced "crone") are vegetables that look disturbingly like butterfly cocoons but are actually the root of a plant closely related to mint. Here, they're roasted in duck fat and sprinkled with sea salt. The roasting concentrates the Jerusalem artichoke-like flavor, and nothing fried in duck fat could possibly taste bad. The only complaint is that it could have done with half the salt, but otherwise this was a comforting, wintry dish, one that could easily be shared with a group as a tapa and eaten with toothpicks.
The tired old Wolfgang Puck salad of fresh goat cheese pressed between rounds of roasted beet gets a welcome new life with the addition of a roasted beet vinaigrette and vesicles of finger lime, a citrus fruit originally from Australia. The lime, accurately described as "citrus caviar" due to the individual vesicles that spill out of the fruit, provides a tart, almost medicinal bite that complements the rice wine vinegar in the dressing perfectly. Roasted beets and goat cheese are too earthy by themselves; this is a great addition and the update cuts through what can be a tedious dish.
Roman Maialino is a ragù of roast suckling pig, that most Italian of dishes, tossed with house-made pasta. The menu decribes pappardelle; what arrived was tagliatelle, and it matters not a bit. The pork was tender and nearly milky in its gentle flavor; the ragù coasted down onto the pasta, making this nearly a two-course dish in itself. It might have been better with freshly-grated pecorino, I pushed the irrelevant raw arugula to the side, and I kept picking rosemary branches out, but these are really minor quibbles on a winter dish that, in a better world, would grace Italian tables from San Clemente to Seal Beach.
The pasta came with several pieces of excellent grilled pumpkin in agrodolce (sweet vinegar sauce). The agrodolce was understated, just enough to give some counterpoint to the pumpkin.
The wine list is larger than expected, with many wines I hadn't heard of, but I am not a wine guru, and what is important to me is that most wines are available by the glass at an extremely reasonable price. Pours are very generous--it would surprise me if they get more than four glasses out of a standard bottle--which just encourages the happy European habit of dawdling and drinking wine.
Dessert was a hard decision, but it came down to "chocolate licorice apple", an odd choice of name and one that doesn't do the dish justice. A Calvados-tarragon panna cotta, twice the normal thickness, was surrounded by an excellent chocolate soup that was closer to a very light mousse, with pieces of salted caramel swirled in. An almond tuile was perched on the side of the dish.
By itself, the panna cotta was more tarragon than anything else; swirled through the chocolate, though, the tarragon subsided and a very, very faint and very appealing taste of apple cider came through. The caramel, a nice touch and one of my guilty pleasures, actually distracted from the dish due to the chewiness. The tuile, incidentally, is there to give you an excuse to wipe up any stray streaks of chocolate soup that might linger in the bowl. An excellent dessert; I wanted five more.
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Service is friendly and completely informal, by design--this is a bistro, not a stuffy restaurant, and so if you need something, a quick word will get attention (though, since the restaurant was hardly full, this was not a problem at all). This is a small place, and Emery will likely also be the one waiting tables, so go in with patience. Make an evening of it; don't try to rush out in an hour.
Prices, for the quality of the food served, are outstanding; tapas and starters are all $10 or under, main courses are $20-$35, and desserts are all either $7 or $8. Portions are very generous, particularly for the dessert.
It was worth the drive from North County; it's worth the hassle of trying to find it (there is no signage visible from the road). San Juan Capistrano has a gem of a restaurant hiding out just east of the freeway; go and try it. If this is what South County has been hiding from me, I foresee many, many miles on my car and many, many happy meals.
Sol del Sur Bistro, 31115 Rancho Viejo Rd. (in the Marbella Plaza), San Juan Capistrano; 949-487-5225; soldelsurbistro.com.