Betting On Barona
Navigating a casino floor is like being whirled in a stereophonic Mixmaster, and yet if you listen ever so carefully, you may hear (underneath the river of sound) a lyric that sounds just like “Luck be a lobster tonight.” This is the theme song of the high-rollers, jackpot winners and poker-faced hopefuls who’ve helped the lordly crustacean claw its way to the pinnacle of the food chain—as understood by casino patrons.
A ways out yonder to the east of town, past the rodeo grounds in Lakeside and toward the end of scenic Wildcat Canyon Road, Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino houses a homey version of Vegas inside a casino that looks like the biggest barn on the planet. Ever since it built the structure and the adjacent luxury hotel, Barona has seemed particularly eager to please on the culinary front. This impression was underlined by two recent decisions: the construction of a restaurant wing separate from the casino, and the appointment of well-regarded, longtime San Diegan Jim Phillips as executive chef. As a result, fine dining seems the general rule in the new Barona Oaks Steakhouse and the casual but deluxe Seafood Plaza, where truly tasty clam chowder is served in hollowed bread rounds ($5.75) and the jumbo shrimp in the cocktail ($12.95 for five little monsters) would choke Moby Dick.
Despite the resort’s rustic theme, Barona Oaks Steakhouse delivers a sophisticated welcome. Down a long escalator and well out of earshot of the casino, the room seems a world away from baccarat and blackjack tables (the former steakhouse was adjacent to the action).
Management placed a nice-size grand piano at the disposal of a player who likes show tunes and Sinatra classics, knows his way around Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and frequently segues into “Happy Birthday,” prompting the conclusion that the steakhouse is popular for special occasions. Money was lavished on décor that includes a massive stone wall; wintry, leafless trees dramatically posed in wall niches; a lovely fireplace in which the gas flames really rip and roar; and spacious, luxuriously dressed tables at which guests spread out and plant their elbows to indulge in deluxe dinners.
The “play for big rewards” psychology of gambling may inspire Barona Oaks Steakhouse prices, which rival those at luxury restaurants around San Diego. Many guests certainly switch into big-winner mode when they glide into this imposing room. In addition to the all-you-can-eat buffet and 24-hour Sage café, Barona offers a multitude of dining venues where good food (Phillips is a pro who keeps his eye on the “400 culinarians” he says work under him) is served in generous portions at prices that appear to be underwritten by casino proceeds. Not so in the steakhouse, where a “surf ’n’ turf carpaccio” appetizer of raw beef filet and ahi tuna runs $20, and a mixed grill of three meats and shrimp costs $40. Winnings undoubtedly pay for some dinners—and why not?
It was a sad day for lobsters when casinos commenced serving meals. Lobster is widely perceived as the ultimate luxury, and Phillips gives it plenty of play on a menu that includes lobster bisque, garnished with his unique “potato cracklins’” ($12), an impressive Maine lobster salad with sweet-tart vanilla-citrus vinaigrette ($20), a surf ’n’ turf entrée of filet mignon with Australian lobster tail ($61 if you choose a 6-ounce tail, $98 for a 14-ounce behemoth)—even a side dish of a “lobster loaded potato,” a giant baked spud stuffed with lots of stuff, including big lobster chunks ($14). It all spells celebration to someone who’s just hit a jackpot. At the very bottom of the menu, a boxed listing offers a 2-pound Maine lobster sided by a lobster-jammed potato ($50).
Guests get the service they pay for, and in two visits it was consistently gracious and professional. Staffers seem knowledgeable about the menu, and when a guest queried whether the heirloom tomato salad with locally made burrata cheese ($12) would be a wise choice, a server said, “We grow the tomatoes right here in our own garden, and they’re beautiful.” As was the salad, heaped with giant and delicious basil leaves and a finely balanced dressing that included olive oil from Temecula.
The collection of American oysters ($13), a selection of eight briny beauties arranged around little pots of sherry vinegar mignonette sauce and well-flavored cocktail sauce, made a light and thoroughly satisfying first course. For something richer, the menu offers escargot with garlic butter cleverly enhanced with Pernod ($10), sesame-crusted ahi with tempura-fried asparagus ($16) and a jumbo lump crab cake with orange-avocado salad ($15).
Phillips boasts of having his own butcher shop, in which steaks are both cut and dry-aged. Stars include a New York strip, served with a creamy potato gratin ($36), a dry-aged porterhouse paired with potato purée ($46), filet mignon with a creamy baked potato ($29 for a single cut, $55 double) and a dry-aged buffalo rib-eye ($35). Other offerings include Alaskan halibut with citrus-lobster sauce ($30) and classic veal “Oscar” ($37) garnished with plenty of crab. Nightly specials may include venison in the same brandied peppercorn sauce used with the filet mignon.
To skip dessert would end the celebration prematurely. The house cheesecake ($8.50), silky and sweet, caps the proceedings like a jack topped by an ace.
The Seafood Plaza serves lunch and dinner daily, and Barona Oaks Steakhouse serves dinner nightly, both in the Barona Valley Ranch Casino (barona.com) at 1932 Wildcat Canyon Road in Lakeside. Reservations are encouraged for the steakhouse; the toll-free number is 888-722-7662