Our latest issue out now!Fall 2017
Down off of bustling El Camino Real in San Clemente lies a portal to an exquisite dining experience. Vine has a relatively unassuming storefront, but walk through the front door and prepare yourself for dining that is as good and authentic as you’ll find anywhere in the area. Stepping inside, exposed rafters, a brick wall running down one side of the room, and wood and zinc accents transport you from lazy beach town to wine country in a heartbeat. Glancing around the room, you take in a space reminiscent of a converted farmhouse, or a place you might discover as you roam one of California’s famous wine regions. Vine describes itself as “wine country cuisine,” and ably fits the bill, but with less attitude than a restaurant of this stature that might actually sit in an area such as Napa.
The interior space is pretty cozy on the bar side of the house, but once you successfully navigate your way to the wood and zinc bar, rewards await. OC cocktail guru Gabe Whorley spins out a variety of unique cocktails – many with a nod to the classic libations that are coming back into favor, but others that are simply unique in their own right, and absolutely delicious. Our group tried a few different concoctions – each well-made, with flavors that indicated a bar stocked with items that were as fresh as those in the kitchen. You may not recognize some of these drinks, but with names like Flaming Buffalo and Polyester Caballero, how can you go wrong?
Vine has a small outdoor dining area, but we opted for an indoor table. The space is as cozy as the bar space, but is well laid out and features a continuation of the warm, inviting atmosphere. An open kitchen separates the bar from the dining room, allowing full view into where executive chef Jared Cook works his magic. Once seated at our table, we had a comfortable space to enjoy some conversation over our drinks.
Our waiter, Curt, was efficient, courteous, and funny without being too intrusive. He quickly took care of the bottle of wine that our group had brought – not as an affront to Vine’s own wine list, but rather to thin the ranks of my own collection of bottles that should be drunk before they start heading downhill. Most of the wines on the Vine list are available by the glass and they have a solid selection, so rest assured that you’ll find something there to complement the delicious food. Since I’m a craft beer nut, it was nice to see ten taps providing a credible craft selection, though my sense is that wine pairings with the menu probably tend to work better than beer.
As the menu was on the verge of changing over from summer to autumn selections, the restaurant arranged for a set menu to allow our group to try some upcoming offerings mixed in with the year-round items. We started out with a selection of cheese and charcuterie. The substantial board of meats and cheeses was very good and nicely accompanied by figs and other accompaniments that completed the taste experience. Next came the duck wings, which had been on my “must try” list based on a few of the reviews that I had read. Looking like an oversized drumette, the crispy wings were coated in a Meyer lemon and honey sauce that nicely complemented the rich duck meat. The addition of chili added a little kick to offset the sweetness of the sauce.
The next course was a hands-down favorite. Plump raviolis filled with pumpkin and complimented by hazelnut brown butter, truffle oil, crispy sage, pepitas, and aged manchego cheese. Everyone was raving about these and you could see eyes scanning other plates to see if there was a possibility of picking off an extra one.
This course was followed by one that illustrates the efforts that Vine has made to reflect a fine dining experience with offerings that are definitely out of the norm for other restaurants. A large beef bone was brought to the table, cut down the middle and exposing the cooked marrow within. Accompanied by roasted garlic and melted Cambozola cheese, this was an interesting dish. I don’t know if I would always go for the marrow, but you could tell that it was done right. Despite some of our trepidation, none of the edible parts remained when the dish was taken away.
The salad course was next – a sea salt roasted heirloom beet salad that provided a brief respite from the richer dishes that preceded it and it tasted as good as it looked. Red and golden beets with greens and a delicious burnt meyer lemon vinaigrette dressing quickly disappeared from our plates and we were ready for the home stretch.
The next offering was pork schnitzel with oyster mushrooms, butternut squash spaetzle (a German style pasta), fall vegetables, and thyme-roasted apples, served on a swathe of whole grain mustard and cider gravy. The outside of the schnitzel was nice and crispy, while the juicy meat inside played extremely well with the accompaniments.
For the last entrée, we had the chance to try the sea bass, also known as loup de mer. Another dish that you knew would be good just looking at it. Accented with preserved Meyer lemon and riesling raisins, the dish also featured cauliflower, baby endive, capers, frisee, with a spiced pistachio browned butter. The freshness and uniqueness (did someone say reisling raisins?) of the ingredients and the combinations of flavors also had the table nodding in agreement that this dish was another winner.
There should have been no room for dessert, but the description of the oatmeal raisin cookie crumble with apple strudel ice cream and bourbon caramel broke down all defenses. And just to assure an impending food coma, why not also try the Scharffenberger chocolate soufflé with vanilla bean ice cream, as well? Despite our substantial meal preceding these delights, both dessert dishes appeared to have been licked clean before they left the table.
Vine has been in existence for a number of years, but with a change of ownership in September of 2013, new owner Russ Bendel and operating partner Kyle Simpson have kept a good thing going, while making a few changes to address their own restaurant philosophies. Both have deep experience at top-notch restaurants such as Fleming’s and Roy’s, and their commitment to a quality dining experience is evident – from the warm greeting for returning regulars as well as new guests, to the constant monitoring of activities to make sure everything runs smoothly, all the way to a heartfelt thanks as patrons make their way from wine country back to the streets of San Clemente. Combined with unique and fresh ingredients (many of them from Chef Jared’s garden that he tends behind the restaurant), well-made dishes across the board, and great drinks to go with them, Vine ably distinguishes itself from many restaurants that claim a fine dining experience, and goes one better by keeping prices lower than you might expect with such quality. That is a winning combination that will keep this restaurant on my “go to” list for the foreseeable future.
Vine Restaurant & Bar
211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, CA 92672
Hours: Open Tuesday – Sunday, Closed on Mondays. Reservations available.