Don Bauder 5:30 p.m., March 10
Checking in on Vintana
Back in May, I wrote about my pre-open tour of Vintana. A the time, there was no furniture and only preview-sized bites of the dishes that would someday be served there. The eatery, which is interestingly perched atop The Centre at Lexus Escondido (1205 Auto Park Way), has received pretty steady business since opening just over a month ago, which prompted me to head back to see how it shaped up.
I have to say, once you get off the dealership’s sales floor and up to the third story, it’s easy to forget where you are and get into a dining state of mind. The place is absolutely lovely. Angled floor-to-ceiling windows and a two-tiered dining room floor plan create a bit of an airport VIP lounge or glitzy dinner theater look, but a very nice one.
The Cohns put their money into creating a polished, luxurious environment as they have in the past with Island Prime and 333 Pacific, versus one that runs on a recognizable aesthetic theme. It was the right move, and this restaurant will definitely appeal to the clientele both they and their landlords are looking to draw.
Tables are draped in white linens and servers have the friendly yet formal approach one would expect from a fine steak or fish house. When I was there, they were a bit clumsy and awkward, but they’re still getting their rhythm and, frankly, their kindness made it worth sitting through prolonged exchanges.
The menu reads well. It was hard to decide what to order, which is always a good sign. Also impressive was the fact that many of the ingredients are locally sourced, and brought in from sustainability-focused operations. When we finally made up our minds, my dining companion (a member of the “posse” assembled to review Mission Hills' Brooklyn Girl last month) and I went with crab cakes, mussels, bison ribs, and soft-shell crabs.
The crab cakes are handsomely presented as a spherical trio with each leaning on their own private slice of pork belly. It was an interesting surf ‘n’ turf that would have been better if the belly hadn’t been a bit tough, but this was still my favorite dish of the evening. It was best when the cakes and pork were consumed in tandem with an accompanying blackberry and watercress salad that brought everything together nicely.
The mussels were huge and as juicy, but sadly, some had some funk to them—not enough to be dangerous or indicate long-dead mussel cadavers had accidentally made it into the mix, but enough to mar an otherwise tasty dish. More bread would have also been nice (seems like I’ve been saying this a lot lately).
Chesapeake soft-shell crabs fried up and served with a chipotle, lime, and cilantro compound butter, were straightforward, crispy, golden brown and so vividly delicious they didn’t even need a squeeze from the charred lemon half served as a garnish. Vintana offers a variety of other seafood offerings including Mano de Leon sea scallops, Skuna Bay salmon, and local line-caught yellowtail; all of which come with diners' choice of one of four compound butters or three sauces.
The biggest disappointment of the evening was the blackberry-glazed bison spareribs. What’s that? You read that Vintana hard hat piece where I said the sampler of this dish had “great sweetness and texture and [made] a case for ditching fried chicken for this tender, gamey option.” First off, thanks for reading (seriously). Second, what I had at that event was a bite-sized offering that had a better waffle-to- meat ratio.
The actual dish features brilliant meat cookery that’s marred by way too much of that cloying, syrupy glaze. It’s a sugar bomb that, unless eaten with the slightly bitter greens that are wisely provided, but not in a large enough proportion to get the job done, tastes more like breakfast. To put it in wine terms (appropriate since Vintana is vino-focused), this dish is the white zinfandel of the entrées. Way too high on the brix.
All that said, the food is, for the most part, quite good. Brussels sprouts glazed in a much softer glaze of pomegranate molasses with bacon and raisin was a delight, and a chocolate pot de crème served in a coffee cup topped with marshmallow crème, and house-made graham crackers was so good I powered through it despite a stomach ache from the ribs. My big complaint on that one—the crackers should be longer so one can dip all the way to the bottom of the cup to get maximum chocolate and ‘mallow.
So forget the ribs. One dish—good or bad—should not define any restaurant. Especially one that, despite the outcry from my palate, is one of Vintana’s top sellers. Mine is certainly not the end-all opinion when it comes to the food world. But if you find my tastes tend to match your own, skip the bison and get your sweet-meets-savory satisfaction from the crab cake appetizer.