Dave Rice 7:21 a.m., May 21
Given its role as a privacy property hidden away from public view, it's not surprising that Rancho Valencia gets overlooked by most foodies. But there are good things going on there.
My interest in RV was first piqued when chef Eric Bauer, formerly of Little Italy's Anthology, came aboard to head their culinary efforts. A good guy with a knack for Mediterranean flavors and mixed-Euro techniques, his food never seemed to fit the motif at his last venue and I was curious to see how it would play at this luxury resort. The answer — extremely well.
Chef Bauer, who smiles a lot more now, is every bit at home as his dishes. Unlike at Anthology, diners appreciate his traditional and more cutting-edge techniques. The food is in the spotlight versus simply being an opening act to a musical act. With one exception.
Bauer has teamed with RV's new sommelier, Jayson Knack, former owner of RSF's Decabnter (a casual wine-centric eatery whose demise I lamented — that was some wine selection), to put on extravagant meet-the-vintner wine dinners that take place on the patio at the Restaurant (the name of RV's fine-dining venue), and include live music. The most recent took place last night and it was quite an affair.
The event (RV's third in a series of five) was centered around the Spanish wines being produced under the Clos Pissarra label by Sonoma's Emmanuel Kemiji. Kemiji grew up in Spain, first fell in love with wine in that country, and has devoted himself to crafting a small line of vastly flavorful wines using Grenache, Carménère, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes plucked from a pair of slate-riddled appellations in Spain. To match these intensely flavorful vinos, Bauer put together a five-station buffet that included some of Spain's most lauded edibles — Iberico ham, Cabrales blue cheese, Marcona almonds — and dishes such as a velvety heirloom tomato gazpacho, braised pork short rib with a zesty romesco sauce, and a kitchen-sink-like paella that had just the right amount of saffron to add earthiness without overshadowing the natural flavors of a cast of seafood stars that included monkfish, clams, shrimp, squid, and langoustines.
I'll be forthcoming. The event was not cheap, but it was worth its price tag thanks to exceptional wines (and plenty of them) and enough food to make you feel like you hit Hometown Buffet instead of one of the most luxurious places in the county. The open courtyard, music, and dancing also helped to melt away any pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies such high-end places, which makes for a fun way to splurge if you're so inclined. And if you are, the next RV winemaker dinner will take place on Wednesday, October 12 at 6:30 p.m. and feature the wines of Napa's Darioush.