Troy Johnson reviews Veladora
It’s with a heavy heart that I write today. I wanted to tell you in person, but with your valves not as valve-like as they once were, I felt I should prepare you for your annual respite in Rancho Santa Fe.
San Diego is different. Shamu still draws a crowd, but a smaller and sadder one. Bartenders are extinct; the polite nomenclature is now “mixologist.” They’re very artistic, and sensitive.
So much change. Including your favorite spot in all of life—The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa. Remember the blue-and-yellow Spanish tiles? How you said they reminded you of a swimming pool at a very affordable motel? They’re gone. Remember how you’d have me recite the jokes from Ladies’ Home Journal while you crocheted by the sunny window? How some jokes, especially ones about ironing, were so funny that you spilled your tea? Well, the restaurant is less Ladies’ Home these days.
There’s no easy way to say it. The place you loved is gone, Grandma. But if I can convince you of anything in this letter, it’s that… it’s beautiful! World-class! They spent $30 million making the Relais & Châteaux property even more Relais-y.
The new owners (their dad created Qualcomm, which makes phones without cords) brought in a flashy designer. His business name is Mr. Important Design, which I’ll take at face value because the new room looks important. The restaurant is now called Veladora, which is I believe is Italian for “over budget.”
It’s appointed with beautiful hunting-lodge wooden frames, iron chandeliers, and candles galore (I just consulted the Internet—it seems veladora is actually Spanish for “candle”). The centerpiece is a huge, brightly colored piece of art that looks like a Buddhist mandala, or a splayed-out collection of tie-dyed t-shirts. But it’s made of hundreds of real butterfly wings and cost $1.1 million! The artist’s name is Damien Hirst. He’s British and famous for putting dead animals behind glass.
There’s a new cocktail den called the Pony Room. I know, I know. Grandpa said places named after animals were always “sellin’ flesh.” And I guess they are—Kobe beef sliders on brioche with Béarnaise, candied garlic chicken wings, wood-fired pizzas, and salamis they make themselves. They have more than 100 tequilas, so I tried the Neck Shot cocktail with blanco tequila, serrano-infused simple syrup, and house-made grapefruit soda. My wife you don’t approve of chose the Peachy Paddock Mule with Bulleit Rye, fresh peaches, house-made ginger beer, and lime juice. Both were remarkably fresh, as if some prankster spiked your hand-squeezed juice. That said, our cocktails tasted nearly identical; some nuance is desired.
The Pony Room is, however, one of the most stunning places I’ve ever had an indistinguishable cocktail. The wooden barstools are branded like cattle, standing on hoof-shaped feet! The wallpaper is textured. There are deep leather chairs, oil paintings, candle-shaped light bulbs, and a massive hutch filled with stemware. It smells like new leather and feels like home, if my home were prettier.
We’ve eaten there twice now. The first evening, the maître d’ walked us through Veladora’s warm, lovely main dining room and its legion of throw pillows, and sat us in the Sunrise Room. Remember this room? Such sentimental value! Unfortunately, that’s its only allure. Compared to the main dining room’s $1.1 million supply of butterfly wings, both Unapproved Wife and I felt like we’d been banished to the kids’ table. So remember to ask to sit in Veladora’s main area, or just eat in the Pony Room.
Veladora’s chef is Eric Bauer, formerly of that jazz club called Anthology, and the Four Seasons. He uses produce from local farms, including a famous patch of earth called Chino. All of his herbs are grown on-property. He also has six honeybee hives! And an olive grove to make his own oil! He is The Luckiest Chef in the World.
Do try his slow-poached Maine lobster salad, Grandma. You won’t miss the mayonnaise dressing, I swear. It has pickled and roasted beets, so sweet, with avocado and tufts of burrata cheese in a lemon vinaigrette. It’s art on a plate. The wild-caught ono crudo we didn’t love as much. The tang from pickled apples, white soy, and poached black mustard seeds overwhelmed the roasted pepper oil and silky ono. The steak tartare comes out in a generous roll. It looks like a sausage someone forgot to cook; but just scrape off a bit of the salty lemon-and-caper aioli and it’s very good.
Bauer is making excellent extruded pastas! The kind pressed through bronze dies (like a gun chamber for pasta) with durum wheat for that rough, textured surface that catches every bit of sauce! Both the lamb osso bucco and Bolognese with Reggiano cheese were lovely. The wild mushroom risotto with whipped mascarpone and Reggiano had great creamy-forest flavor—though we did find the rice a bit hard-centered, as if someone had a lapse and added cold stock.
Now, I know you’ve called vegetarians “bony fanatics,” but they’ve spawned and grown in number. Bauer is thoughtful to include two options for them. The Anson Mills polenta with wood-roasted ratatouille ragout and smoked tomato sauce is sinfully creamy, with enough vegetable acid to give it a kick. I’d like a touch less cream and a bit more polenta grit, but that’s a quibble.
You must try the sautéed Scottish trout with braised millet (it’s a very old grain, apparently good for your constitution), roasted and smoked turnips, mussels, and fennel-orange reduction. Oh, my. The skin cracks like glass, and the meat is perfectly cooked (a few degrees past raw in center). Bauer also manages to keep his Berkshire pork tenderloin from drying out—a feat. It’s a touch salty, but the sunchoke purée and roasted local figs balance that out if eaten as a composed bite.
For dessert, pastry chef Jean Marie Verhoeven makes an olive-oil cake with honey-roasted figs and lemon-thyme tuile (fancy thin cookie) and sliced Marcona almonds. It’s good, as is the spiced fruit consommé, served with strawberry bits, lemon verbena, a pistachio tuile, and citrus mascarpone. A light treat.
I know change is hard, Grandma. I know you loved the old restaurant, but I always felt the phrase “dull torpor” described my feelings about it. I was concerned the new designers would ruin the “soul” of the place. But, I assure you, that $30 million was incredibly well spent.