Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hoping That Vine Bears a Great Night Out

Vine Restaurant
211 N. El Camino Real 
San Clemente, CA 92672

After we get invited to a restaurant tasting, I always wonder if we get a true representation of the food and service. With food writers and other assorted media in attendance, a restaurant could just be putting on a pretty face. I had no such thoughts when we were at Vine Restaurant earlier this year. The team behind this restaurant is just too good to have a bad restaurant.

It starts at the top, with Owner, Russ Bendel. We met Russ a number of times when he was a Partner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse at Fashion Island. He left that post in early 2013, and resurfaced with a group of his friends to purchase the already established Vine Restaurant in San Clemente. Also coming on board was Partner Kyle Simpson, who has extensive restaurant experience, including stints at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion, as well as others. Gabe Whorley is not only a partner as well, but he's the man behind the craft cocktail program at Vine. He's worked his way through the bartending ranks, and was last behind the bar at legendary Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza. Rounding out this impressive team is the man in the kitchen, Chef Jared Cook. This is Jared's third time working at Vine, but his first as Executive Chef and Partner. He's so passionate about local and sustainable produce, that he's created a garden on site here, and uses what he picks that day to inspire his chef's specials.

Definitely a great team, but what brought us back here so quickly? I had liked their Facebook page during our first visit, and then a couple weeks ago, up popped one of their specials of the night, a big slab of meat that definitely called out to me. After looking at the picture, I alerted Katie that I had made our decision on where we would be eating later that night. She seemed really happy with our decision, so we headed down the 5 Freeway after making our reservation.

I was really glad that we made a reservation, because Vine was packed on this Saturday night. The bar area was hopping, and the restaurant was just as busy, even at this 8PM hour. Our table took a few minutes to get ready, which was nice, so we could observe Chef Jared hard at work in the kitchen, which you can see right by the front door. It's always entertaining watching a professional kitchen in action.

Vine is not a large restaurant, but it's not cramped. The decor could be described as rustic, with lots of wood showing. They are really trying to play up the wine country vibe here, as there are plenty of wine bottles on display throughout the dining area, including an actual wine cellar room, perfect for small or large groups located in the back of the dining space. The menu is not huge, with ten entree options, and a couple of burgers to offer. This is a seasonal menu, so you might experience some changes depending on when you visit, but there's probably enough diversity on the menu to please a good many of you. I, of course was having the special that I saw on Facebook, so I just had to wait for Katie to make up her mind. Let's see how everything turned out for us on this night.

Meals at Vine start off with their version of a bread basket, which is actually served in a metal pail. This sturdy bread was served alongside a White Bean Puree, which is made up of olive oil, honey, salt, pepper, and sage. A very mellow spread, it had different bursts of sweet and earthiness in alternating tastes.

I usually forgo having cocktails when we are out to eat, instead trying to save room so I can consume more food, but I had to try one of Gabe's specialty cocktails. I went with the Hot Shot ($10). To be honest, I'm not really sure what was in this, but it started out sweet, then got spicy on the way down. I know there was jalapeno in this, and it was garnished with a cucumber. A very unique drink.

There are some really good starters on the menu at Vine; including Duck Wings, Bone Marrow, and a House Made Pumpkin Ravioli. At the media event we attended they had charcuterie boards out for us, and Katie has been thinking about them ever since, so we started with this Selection of Artisan Cheeses and Domestic Cured Meats and Cold Cuts ($18). There's too many things on here to remember, but the pate really stood out, as well as all of the meats, which worked out well because Katie was way more into the cheeses. When this was brought to the table, other customers really took notice.

It has been awhile since I have had a memorable Caesar Salad ($7), but that streak ended on this night. Joining the usual produce in this salad was white anchovies, garlic croutons, crispy capers, pecorino, and a Tijuana vinaigrette. What set this Caesar apart was that the greens were chopped finely, the anchovy was not overly fishy, and the croutons added a nice crunchy texture. The salad was lightly dressed, in a nice tasting Caesar dressing. A good sized salad for the price.

At a restaurant like Vine, you might not expect burgers to be on the menu, and I definitely did not expect Katie to order one, but here she was getting the Mexicali Burger ($14). This Mexican inspired burger came topped with queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, chile de arbol crema, onion, and roasted Serrano chiles. Not a usual Katie hamburger choice for sure, but she called this burger, "really delicious". Even though she wanted her burger well done, it still came out juicy, which is a feat in itself. This was a burger of big flavors. The arbol crema was good and spicy, but was balanced out by the smooth and cool avocado. The bun should not be ignored here. It held everything in place, and you could tell it was freshly baked. Not what you would expect from this kind of restaurant, but a very solid burger.

Now this is the meal that I saw on Facebook that brought us back to Vine Restaurant so quickly, the Center Cut T-Bone Steak ($36). This big hunk of meat was topped with an asparagus Bearnaise sauce, and served alongside garden vegetables and mashed potatoes. I picked this bone clean, the meat was so good. Cooked to my desired medium rare, the Bearnaise sauce paired well with the tender steak. All the vegetables were cooked perfectly on this plate, and I especially enjoyed the shallots that were scattered about. This big plate of food did a great job of filling me up, but of course there's always room for dessert.

The Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Crumble ($9) had me fooled. I'm not really a raisin kind of guy, as I would much rather prefer to have chocolate chips any day, but the raisins did not get in the way here. Three scoops of apple strudel ice cream, along with cut up apples, and caramel bourbon drizzle combined to make this dessert a winner. A lot of my complaints about ice cream desserts in restaurants is that there is never enough ice cream, but that was not the case at Vine. More than enough ice cream to go around, the oatmeal cookies had a good chew to them, and I liked the sliced apples in this. They almost fooled me into thinking this was good for me.

Usually I feel like wine-centric restaurants do not cater to non-wine drinkers like myself, or that they are kind of stuffy. This was not the case at Vine Restaurant. The vibe here was more beachy, than highfalutin. We even struck up a great conversation with a couple sitting next to us, who gave us some great recommendations for other restaurants to try in San Clemente. They had eaten here before this new group of owners had been here, and they are much more pleased with how things are now. I have to admit, I was pretty pleased as well. The steak that I saw on Facebook was well worth the drive, and the rest of the meal was great as well. The service we had on this night was solid, but a little leisurely, which is perfect in a beach town on a late Saturday night. We were glad to see that the media dinner was not just window dressing, the Vine Restaurant is really all that.

Out of five loincloths, (because that's what Tarzan wore when he traveled the jungle on vines), five being best to zero being worst, Vine Restaurant gets 4 loincloths.

For more information about Vine Restaurant, go to their website here:

Vine Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

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