This restaurant rules the northeast
"Is this it?” asks the wife as my 10-year-old truck groans into the parking lot. A battalion of immaculately polished Lexuses salutes us. Or is it mockery?
A massive JumboTron flashes a series of images: pretty new car, genial serviceman fixing engine woes, pretty new car, succulent pork tenderloin with an epidermis of bacon.
The pork is why we’re here—Vintana Wine + Dine, the $2.5-million restaurant perched atop Lexus Escondido. It’s a collaboration between SD’s prolific Cohn Restaurant Group, chef-partner Deborah Scott, and Judy Jones-Cone. Cone owns the 326,000-square-foot “super dealership,” which also boasts a café, business center, golf simulator, and library, and has plans for a children’s museum.
To diners, a high-end restaurant at a car dealership seems “weird.” To the industry, it’s known as “nontraditional location”—a hot trend, especially among fast food (Subway made a killing doing it in everything from hospitals to department stores). Gourmets are no strangers to the concept, either. Food trucks and pop-ups are, after all, just restaurants in nontraditional locations.
In 1966, L.A.’s Horseless Carriage became the first dealership restaurant (a diner, still there). There are others across the U.S. but Vintana takes it to a new, upscale level. The idea may have come from Bistro 33, which opened in a Rocklin Mercedes dealership in 2008. While that Sacramento-area resto fell victim to the holy economic hell, Vintana should kill it for multiple reasons.
First, Escondido is a fine-dining vacuum, yet these hills have avocado money (and other kinds). Second, Vintana is architecturally stunning. Third, the 20,000-square-foot lanai—a semi-covered outdoor area with fire pits—rivals Stone Brewing Co. as North County’s most picturesque place to eat and drink. Fourth, the lanai is hosting concerts, weddings, quinceañeras, etc.—all of which need hot food. Finally, the food is largely enjoyable.
Coming in the front doors, the aroma is unmistakable: semi-analine leather seats and capitalism. I escort my wife past the showroom floor to the glass elevator. She gazes lovingly at a baby blue convertible. Her type of hunger requires financing.
Entering Vintana on the third floor, you feel it: Vegas. A recessed dome is painted with blue sky and clouds, à la Caesars Palace. There’s marble everywhere. The dining room is two-tiered, theater style, facing a wall of 17-foot windows. It’s like modern architecture afflicted with gigantism.
The architects deserve a medal. Faced with a view of asphalt, freeway, and a humorous neon eyesore (Dick’s Sporting Goods should pay the Cohns), they slanted the windows and ceiling upward and outward. The effect? Diners can’t help but stare up—to North County inland’s eternally clear skies.
The Cohns heavily staffed Vintana. Scott pulled chef de cuisine Mark Suttles from Island Prime. The sommelier is Sheehan McCoy, fresh from England’s three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn. One of the servers, Stephanie, is the former owner of 150 Grand (formerly Escondido’s lone gourmet bright spot).
We didn’t have much luck in appetizers, save for the wine and a unique shrimp cocktail—Mexican prawns poached in court bouillon, served with a mix of horseradish cream and roasted tomato sauce. Asked for a non-traditional white, Stephanie suggests a Bodegas Naia Verdejo. The Spanish version of Sauv Blanc is a green apple-and-grassy gem from McCoy’s list.
Those same Mexican prawns get lost when tucked into sweet corn fritters, needing the maple-honey crème fraîche for much taste besides the fry. A crispy yellowtail roll is too oily for my blood with mayo, fried tempura, and dynamite sauce (more mayo).
Scott’s other restaurants (Indigo Grill, C Level, the shuttered Kemo Sabe) established her loves: the deep fryer (like her famous nut-crusted Brie, served here), heavy sauces, and bacon galore. She shows little interest in subtlety.
Vintana’s entrees are much better. Her sauciness works with bison spareribs. The sweet booze of blackberry-bourbon BBQ goop is balanced by a complex rub of dark notes (coffee, cumin, cocoa powder, cinnamon, etc.). The rib meat just melts. A rainbow trout, though, is caught in a perfect storm of Béarnaise. Wipe some of it off, however, and the citrusy, eggy cream over crabmeat and trout is quite nice. The pan-seared sea bass and crab wonton is also a hit, served over a white bean-chorizo pistou and lemon-poppy brown butter (a “light” sauce on this menu). It’s a sort of cassoulet for bait-and-tacklers.
The black pepper bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, stuffed with sun-dried nectarines and peaches, is a quality example of meat-and-sweets. The 8-ounce filet mignon gets a heady salt crust (necessary with the tall cut), and bone marrow and Bordelaise provide the famously bland steak enough rich flavor. Underneath it? A fried Cheddar and scallion potato cake. It’s easy to leave Vintana craving vegetation.
Definitely share the trio of ice cream sandwiches—then accidentally heap the lion’s share of the spiced oatmeal cookie with rum raisin ice cream into your mouth.
Overall, yes, Vintana feels like you’re dining in a Lexus brochure. But it’s easily the top fine-dining experience in Escondido (Stone’s beer is better than its food). Just be mindful of your order’s deep-fry index, wipe off some sauce, and take in that killer mountain sunset from the lanai.
My only true regret is that the valet returned with my truck, which had failed to trade itself in during our visits.