Gayla Pierce finds a culinary pearl in the heart of darkness
If you grew up in San Diego, as I did, Ocean Beach was the place your mother always warned you about. Hippies, bikers and other assorted deadbeats were the order of the day and clearly a potential corrupting influence. Fast-forward 40 years. The hippies, bikers and assorted deadbeats have joined the mainstream and are now the Ocean Beach shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. So, if the community has morphed into respectability could a wine bar be far behind? Not just any wine bar, but a wine bar with an OB attitude, which is to say, decidedly friendly and relaxed.
Step into The Vine, at the corner of Niagara and Bacon, and it feels a lot like stepping into a best pal’s den. The cool, casual elegance is somehow comfortable, familiar and inviting at the same time. Celadon green walls set off dark wood furniture and mottle grey slate floors. There are wide-slat blinds covering the large West facing picture windows and providing some much-needed protection from the setting sun. Four old commercial ceiling fans keep the interior refreshingly cool. Sunny patio seating is available on the Niagara side of the building.
The menu has been well-crafted offering wine and beer friendly dishes that go far beyond the standard bread, cheese and olives fare. The bread, cheese and olives are there; in fact, there are three separate cheese boards offered as starters. A dish of olives will bring you four different varieties in assorted shapes and sizes. The American Cheese Board recently came with sharp Vermont Cheddar, a crumbly hunk of rich blue cheese, and delectable Humbolt Fog blue goat’s cheese. All were impeccable, but the star of the board was an out-of-state intruder from Wisconsin, a combo of sheep and cows milk called Gran Carnaria. Creamier and a little less granular than parmesan, it has the same tang and addictive flavor. Thin slices of baguette and Carr’s Water Biscuits accompanied the cheeses. The cheese board amply served two and complemented both red and white wines.
Make no mistake; the wine is what it’s all about at The Vine. In order to highlight as many of their wines as possible three different wine flights of four three-ounce pours are offered. There’s a nice list of reds and whites by the glass with a few roses and sparkling wines thrown in for good measure. Nearly all the primary wine growing countries or regions are represented, as are nearly all the varietals and wine styles. Whether you’re looking for an unoaked chardonnay or an Argentian Malbec, chances are good you’ll find something to like on the wine menu. Don’t fret, beer drinkers, you’re not forgotten—choose from an impressive selection of Belgian imports, along with the usual suspects from San Diego’s well-regarded brewing community.
Following the tapas trend for smaller plates, The Vine offers four salads – spinach, Caesar, green and house – along with a daily soup, but the kitchen really shines and shows off it’s skill with its “Savory” preparations. I don’t know who Shannon is, or why she has a pate named after her or what even makes the pate super sexy (and perhaps I really don’t want to know), but with a menu name like Shannon’s Super Sexy Pate, how could I resist trying it?
Chicken liver pate is, basically, chopped chicken livers, and pate certainly sounds sexier than chopped liver. While the version here may not be very sultry, it’s deliciously seductive. A generous mound of pate with an equally generous number of perfect crostini and wafer thin slices of perfectly ripe pear and apple may be enough to tantalize and delight the taste buds. The textural contrasts--suave against crisp, sweet against meaty and creamy against crunchy--alone are worth the price of the dish.
Another decidedly spicy choice is the Empanadas Verde, two terrific light and flaky pockets of achiote-stained pastry filled with minced pork and beef. Subtly seasoned with chile for heat and raisins for sweetness, the empanadas are served drizzled with lime crema and salsa verde for a tasty treat with a luscious Latin bite.
Other savory dishes include ahi tartar, mushroom pate, shrimp cocktail, seared salmon, scallops, grilled chicken, smoked pork loin, a flat iron steak and even a burger. These may sound substantial, but portions are small enough not to be overwhelming and most can be easily shared; making it easy to sample whatever items on the menu sound intriguing or pair well with the wine, or both.
The dessert menu is short and sweet. Unfortunately, my favorite—the Fresh Berry Shortcake—isn’t currently on the menu; it’s truly outstanding. A feather-light biscuit is split and filled with sweetly macerated strawberries as well as house-made whipped cream flavored with Pedro Ximenex sherry. The combination of sherry and strawberries is as captivating as it is subtle. Perhaps now that it’s berry season this dessert will make a return engagement. If not, the flourless chocolate cake, crème brulee or gelato will each suffice nicely.
The Vine is a great little neighborhood wine bar where the locals wander in and out meeting and greeting friends. It’s an easy place to like. What isn’t so easy to like, though, is the ultra casual service and the difficulty in finding parking. The servers may not call you “dude”, and they may even be able to answer most questions about the wines they serve, but the style is beach casual and relaxed and it often shows. Parking, on the other hand, isn’t casual and relaxed. It’s street parking only, or the public lot at the end of Newport Avenue, and both can be difficult during the summer and virtually impossible on Wednesday when the OB Farmers Market is in full swing.
True, Mom may have warned me to stay out of Ocean Beach, but thank goodness I didn’t listen and made the effort to find parking, or I would have missed the friendly comfort—not to mention very good food and wine—at The Vine.
1851 Bacon St.
Sun – Thur 4 – 10 PM
Fri & Sat 4 – 11 PM