Shepherd's pie: ground meat and vegetable stew topped with mashed potatoes
We’ve seen a number of restaurants successfully pivot in the covid era, whether they’ve transformed into on-site groceries or added family combo meals to the menu. Escondido’s premier fine dining restaurant has found another way to stay relevant: it’s split into two restaurants.
113 W. Grand Avenue, Escondido
Now, this requires some backstory: Vincent’s on Grand had been a bastion of upscale French cuisine in Escondido’s historic downtown for the better part of two decades and continued to be following the 2016 passing of its namesake founder, chef Vincent Grumel. His widow entrusted the kitchen to protégé Brandon Hunsaker, who’d been working in the Vincent’s kitchen more than half his life, since age 15.
Mrs. Grumel sold the restaurant in 2017 to Jeannette McBrearty, and to Escondido’s benefit, McBrearty didn’t come in trying to fix what wasn’t broken. She’d been a longtime Vincent’s customer, and wanted to preserve its place atop Escondido’s dining scene. That included retaining the young executive chef who’d filled his mentor’s shoes. To recognize his contribution, she renamed the restaurant Hunsaker at Vincent’s.
That’s how things stood when the covid shutdown hit, delivering what will be long-term damage to the restaurant industry, and a major short-term decline in fine dining. Minus the ambiance and service, upscale dining starts to look like pricey take out: still high in quality, but not in demand. Think of it this way: if nobody’s going on dates, nobody’s trying to impress their date with a fancy meal.
Rabbit and pistachio pâté, served by Hunsake at Vincent's and virtual sister restaurant The Flying Toad
Hunsaker at Vincent’s continues to offer take-out of traditional, 36-40 dollar dishes, such as steak au poivre, rack of lamb, and beef wellington. And since restaurants have been allowed to sell alcohol, it's been bottles of fine wine, often discounted 50 percent or more, and cocktail kits to make at home.
But McBrearty and Hunsaker recognized that take-out business model benefits from lower-priced fare, particularly given the economic crisis the pandemic has brought. So they launched a second, virtual restaurant out of the Vincent’s kitchen: The Flying Toad, named for a moniker given Hunsaker by his grandfather.
A Remember the Maine cocktail kit, with pre-measured spirits and liqueurs, plus instructions on mixing them
While created and cooked in the same kitchen, Flying Toad fare veers more toward comfort food, including chicken pot pie, BBQ pork biscuit sandwiches, and vegetarian stuffed poblano chili. More importantly, the most expensive dish, a short rib taco salad, costs $15.
The trick here is not to mistake this relative affordability for a significant drop in quality or taste. The $14 cheeseburger here is made with Kobe beef, after all, and Francophiles may order a $10 frog legs appetizer. There’s even a couple of carry-overs from the Vincent’s menu, such as a bacon-wrapped rabbit and pistachio pâté ($12).
A double serving of the Vincent's Remember the Maine, assembled at home
Although the respective menus have separate online ordering through their respective websites, it’s not difficult to order items from both. Local delivery is offered in and around Escondido, and curbside pickup for both is offered from the same place. Actually, it’s alley-side pick-up: straight from the kitchen out the back door of Vincent’s (113 W Grand Avenue, Escondido). Once you drive into the alley, it’s surprisingly easy to spot, given a colorful “Bon Appetit” mural.
I drove over for a three-piece order, which was placed directly in my trunk. I started with that rabbit pâté, and though I raised my palate’s expectations to discerning, there was no mistaking its quality: my salt, fat, and umami receptors went wild.
A mural marks the alley spot for curbside pick up from both Hunsaker at Vincent's and The Flying Toad.
The bigger surprise was the $14 shepherd’s pie, which filled a pie tin with enough meat and potatoes for two. That would be mashed potatoes over a stew of ground beef, pork, and veal, along with carrots, peas, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Shepherd’s pie is about as peasant a dish as I can think of, but this mix of herbs, meats, and vegetables tasted better than anything I’ve ever tried out of Ireland not named whiskey or Guinness. It’s the best 14 bucks I’ve spent all pandemic.
My $11 Vincent’s cocktail wasn’t shabby either. The double serving of Remember the Maine came in a cardboard box, which contained airplane bottles of the cocktail’s components: rye whiskey and Heering cherry liqueur, plus vials of sweet vermouth and absinthe, and a brandied cherry garnish. Following instructions to mix my own cocktail was nearly as fun as drinking it.
If you live anywhere close to Escondido, consider The Flying Toad a must try shutdown meal. Even if you live far away, I would consider it. The round trip drive from downtown San Diego took me an hour, and if it proved one thing to me it’s this: 30 miles is not too far to go for good take-out.