On sold-out Fridays and Saturdays, the sound levels can be fierce.
3731-A India Street, San Diego
Wine Vault and Bistro is one door south of Saffron, up three short levels of stairs. It opened in 2005, mainly as a wine shop, with tastings of wine and cheese. Then it expanded into occasional winemaker dinners, and now it features regular Thursday-night three-course dinners and weekend five-course chef’s tasting menus, both with optional wine pairing, at amazing bargain prices for sumptuous quality.
The dining rooms are clean and spacious, but more rustic-looking than luxurious, with unclothed large wooden tables and plain, hard wooden chairs; it’s like a simple country inn. And when it’s crowded, there is a great din. I tried a sold-out winemaker dinner there about two years ago, and I remember some of the lively people at the communal table, but also how the noise wiped out the taste of the food — I can’t recall a bite of it. The owners have since installed soundproofing, which helps somewhat, and the seating is no longer totally communal: there are some two-tops and four-tops among the six-seaters. The sound is reputedly civilized on Thursdays, but on sold-out Fridays and Saturdays, it can be fierce. And you’ll be immersed in it for a very long time, as service — or perhaps it’s the kitchen — makes “slow food” a literal term, with long pauses between courses.
But fine slow food, it is. The gifted chef, K.C. Howland, is still under the radar but starting to get some buzz, judging by the packed house on a recent Saturday evening. While waiting for the first course, we enjoyed the sweet French bread, room-temperature butter, and coarse sea salt to sprinkle on. The bread also proved invaluable later for sopping up the subtle sauces.
The first course was sized as an amuse — a couple of exquisite wild spotted prawns that arrived in individual bowls with tiny cubes of bracing raw green tomato and sweet watermelon, awaiting server-poured baths of warm “bacon dashi” mystery broth. The liquid didn’t taste fishy, like dashi (Japanese dried bonito broth), and had only a subtle hint of bacon; if anything, it tasted citric. The prawns were likely raw before their warm swim, as they were astoundingly tender and buttery-tasting. This dish did what an amuse should do, not just “amuse” the palate but wake it wide up to anticipate the dishes to come.
The matched wine was a Heron Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). The wine menu describes it in efflorescent tones: “intensely aromatic, sweet citrus nose of orange blossom and pink grapefruit with minerally background aromas,” etc. I did find it aromatic, minerally, and dry; solid, but nothing to prompt such ecstatic prose. In any case, we discovered the value of coming as a sextet to these events: instead of receiving carefully measured three-ounce pours per wine, after the first pour, the rest of the bottle is plunked onto your table. You could definitely say, the more the merrier.
Next came bowls containing three in-shell steamed venus clams, medium-size, flavorful, meltingly tender (like the prawns) in a saffron broth touched with fennel and slices of prosciutto-like speck ham. As with the amuse, this was a course of great delicacy, but heartier, with that smoked, cured pig meat to chew on. The wine was one of my favorites of the evening, a new discovery: Seghesio Arneis (Russian River Valley) — fruity but dry, crisply acidic, full-bodied and complex.
We were still ravenous when our third course, a vegetarian dish arrived: a “summer succotash” of peas, squash, corn, broccolini, and tomato confit. The element that brought it all together was the sharp, crisp broccolini, mediating among the softer textures and sweeter tastes. The tomato confit lent welcome acidity to the combination. Assertively not your mom’s canned succotash, it was so balanced and flavorful, I could have happily welcomed it as a meatless main course. With this came a Cass Grenache from Paso Robles. The wine menu talks of “strawberries and ripe black cherries.” I didn’t love it a lot. Oh, actually, I forgot it immediately.
With the entrée came another Paso Robles wine (the most expensive, at $45 a bottle), a 2007 Tobin James “Silver Reserve” Syrah. “Don’t expect a Côte du Rhône–style Syrah,” one of my tablemates warned. No way this could be an easygoing Côte du Rhône rollin’ down the river. It’s highly complex (tastes of smoke, tobacco, wild berry, with gamey undertones) and is tannic to the point that I’d cellar it for three or four years.
The meat was maple-glazed pork loin. The glaze at the edges was tasty, the center-loin overcooked (to my standards), but there were a few little pieces of the fatty outer edges of the loin, which I liked much more. The accompaniments were the charm: asparagus, cipollini onions, and, above all, morel mushrooms, with their crenellated parachute texture and deep, earthy flavor, which some of us dare to consider even better than truffles. (Truffles are hard, subtle, and demanding, while cooked morels are juicy and welcoming.)
Then came a dizzy, happy ending: the chef’s version of s’mores. Howland substitutes dark chocolate mousse for plebeian candy bars, robing melting marshmallows over graham-cracker crumbs. These feel like floating chocolate-marshmallow clouds, an image (and taste) to put little kids to sleep with a smile. Big kids, too. S’mores are becoming a regular dessert in this age of retro comfort food, but I usually skip them, given the degeneration of commercial marshmallows since my childhood. But these — well, I think those marshmallows must be house-made. To the cloud!
Dessert came with La Misión “May Harvest” Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, a wonderful semisweet wine, fruity and rich but acidic, not so sweet it’s cloying. You could drink this with very spicy Asian food as well as dessert. The menu says it goes with dark chocolate, but I think it might also go well with most of the Thai dishes at, say, Sab-E-Lee.
It’s an extraordinary bargain here, $20–$30 for a full meal, plus wines. It’s a long haul: we arrived at 7:30, and left at 10:15 p.m. Don’t plan on anything afterward. This is your whole evening — but it’s likely to be a rewarding and tasty. ■
Wine Vault Bistro
★★★1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
3731-A India Street (south of Washington), Mission Hills, 619-295-3939; winevaultbistro.com
HOURS: Dinner Thursday–Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to about 10:30 p.m.; occasionally open other days for winemaker dinners.
PRICES: Three-course chef dinners most Thursdays, $20; a few à la carte choices (e.g., cheese plate $15). Five-course chef dinners Friday–Saturday, $30, plus $20 for matched wines. Other wines $5 per glass, $10 corkage for in-house bottles, $20 for outside choices.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Local-sourced, seasonal delicacies; menus change constantly, with some à la carte dishes; mainly these are chef’s tasting dinners. Vast repertory of wines, including bargain finds, plus artisanal beers and ales.
PICK HITS: Five-course Friday and Saturday chef’s tasting dinners. Second best: Thursday-night three-course chef’s tasting.
NEED TO KNOW: Food easily earns four stars, but discomforts (noise, hard chairs, very slow service) detract from the experience. Reservations essential; most five-course weekend meals are sold out several days ahead. Premises up three short, well-banistered flights above Saffron Thai, with free parking behind Shakespeare Pub, and wheelchair access to back patio (with fireplace). For best wine pours, go in groups of four to six. Visa and MasterCard accepted, but not Discover (check when reserving for other cards).