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Feb 29, 2008 09:53 AM

Wine Vault and Bistro - SD

Dined at the Wine Vault and Bistro on India St. last night (above Saffron). Though we've dined at WV before, this was our first experience with their new chef, Bobby. Though the food was always good, and fairly priced, it never seemed to hit memorable. I must say Bobby has now changed that.

With wife Mary and our friend Geno, sampled several apps and a couple main courses. For starters, we had oysters on the half shell with 3 sauces. Though very good and fresh, they were huge, and I must admit I'm a fan of the smaller, sweeter oysters. Still, they were tasty and well dressed.

We followed the oysters with:
Spring garlic soup dressed with a large thin crostini with warm taleggio cheese. Simply the best garlic soup I've ever tasted. Savory and sweet, with a real depth of flavor that was nicely complemented by the cheese.

Black truffle studded mac 'n cheese made with Quebec vintage cheddar and Delice d'Bourgogne cheeses. Sometimes when people get too fancy with the cheeses they use in their mac 'n cheese, the dish sputters and fails. Not so with this one. Judicious use of these rich cheeses, and just enough truffle to notice but not overwhelm. Excellent.

Housemade butternut squash tortellini with fried sage and brown butter. Another dish that might overwhelm with richness, again tamed by the chef's restraint and sense of balance. This was truly delicious and a dish I'll order each time it's offered.

Tender greens salad with roasted beets, manchego cheese and blood orange viniagrette. OK, I'm not at all fond of beets, probably from being forced to eat that canned jellied crap when growing up, so I'm not the best person to comment on this dish. The manchego and the viniagrette worked very well together, it's just those beets....

Roasted asparagus with poached farm egg and herb salad. I'm not a big poached egg fan either, but the execution of this dish was amazing. Roasted but still crisp asparagus, dressed with a poached egg that soaked the asparagus in warm yolk when broken. Since the egg was slow poached, the white remained intact, so my fear that the asparagus would be covered in yutz was unfounded. Really worked well, but the best part was the herb salad. Seemed like 6 or 7 herbs or more, prepared in a kind of chiffonade (sp?), that was like a taste of spring. Chervil, sorrel, god knows what else, but it was a very nice touch.

My companions did not seem to share my capacity, so we tried two main courses:
Sauteed diver scallops with bamboo rice and tatsoi in a lemongrass/sorrel emulsion. Yes, it's hard to screw up good diver scallops, unless you overcook them. These were nicely seared, done just right. The bamboo rice was interesting, and light enough that it did not compete with the scallops. The lemongrass/sorrel emulsion was done with a very light touch,and complemented the scallops beautifully.

Braised short ribs with cauliflower puree, rapini and truffle jus. I'm an admitted short rib ho. These were extremely tender, almost gelatinous. Heaven, I'm in heaven.

Even my capacity now failed, so we only ordered the truffle dessert to go with the rest of our red vino. Made locally by Dahlmann, very good. But next visit, I'm trying the 34 yr old PX sherry sundae with housemade butterscotch ice cream. May have to start with that, sounds too rich to finish a meal!

Happy to report that Wine Vault and Bistro, always good, has achieved a whole new level in their kitchen. And the best part is...nothing on the menu was over $16. The apps all run in the $4 -$8 range, main courses $13 - $16. Buy a bottle of wine from their shop (we chose a $17 Tablas Creek red) and open it for $10 corkage. They also offer constantly changing wine flights, and a multitude of selections by the glass. And for you bourbon and scotch fans, they have a limited but well chosen selection of high end whiskey, including Michter's, the holy grail of bourbons. They have a beautiful space to boot, with an excellent, unique and warm patio for nice nights.

Check 'em out, you may just add them to your Chow rotation.

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  1. OK, so Mr. Paso and I will be in San Diego at the end of the month, and this place is at the top of our list. We will probably go on a Thursday for flight night- but I have a question about your post. Do they charge a $10 corkage JUST for the wines you buy from their shop, or is it $10 regardless of what wine you bring in? Frankly, they are not off to a good start in my book, because the fact that sell you a bottle of wine at retail and then charge a corkage seems weird to me. At any rate, the opportunity cost is just too good to pass up, so I am just trying to decide on the Thurday flight night or the Friday winemaker dinner. Suggestions?

    4 Replies
    1. re: paso_gurl_100

      I haven't been to the Wine Vault, but quite a few places work the same way around here.. buy a bottle in the shop, pay a few extra bucks to drink it there. It's one of the coolest things about some of the wine bars around here, IMO - not paying exhorbitant markups on everything, and also knowing you can enjoy something in the bar and then be able to buy a bottle to take home as well.

      $27 for a Tablas Creek wine is a bargain in any restaurant.

      1. re: paso_gurl_100

        So you would think it's wrong to charge retail price on a bottle of wine (not restaurant markup price) and ask you to pay $10 for corkage? So say for instance you buy a Kistler chard for $80 and pay $10 corkage. Go down the street and order it off the wine list somewhere else and pay $120 and that includes corkage. You feel that it's wrong to charge retail and ask for a $10 corkage fee? insert confused smiley here.

        1. re: Paul Weller

          I said, weird, not wrong. $27 is a bargain for TC in a restaurant. I guess the question is : Is retail the same as a restaurant mark-up? From the responses, I would say the answer is no, it's less. My only experience that's kinda similar is a restaurant in town that sells the wine on their wine list for $10 cheaper in their shop. (Does that make sense?) In other words, it's $50 in the restaurant, and if you would like a bottle of it home, it's $40. So I wasn't sure how the Wine Vault works, but I'm looking forward to checking it out. Still facing the flight vs. dinner decision though....

          1. re: paso_gurl_100

            Most places that do this charge true retail price and then the corkage fee. It works out to be substancially less than most wine list markups. They are always exceptions.

      2. We finally got to check out the Wine Vault and Bistro on friday with a small group, had a very fun time. The wine flight service consists of you getting a glass and paying for the flight. You then go up to the bar with your flight checklist and they pour your glass. Pours are about 3-5 oz., 4 wines for $16. They ran out of several of the wines on the flights but replaced them with supposedly upgraded wines.

        We got a slew of dishes, including the cheese board (included Humboldt Fog), sauteed calamari, soft shell crab and udon noodles (had a very light but surprisingly tasty coconut curry sauce), and the wonderful beef short ribs. Short ribs aren't exactly a rarity in San Diego these days, but I still love them when done right (and they were).

        Service was very attentive and friendly.

        We are looking forward to going back for one of the wine pairing dinners.

        5 Replies
        1. re: MrKrispy

          We did the chef's tasting menu on Saturday night and had a great time. It was 5 courses for $25 which had us all wondering how they keep the lights on. Every course was interesting and although initially it seemed like the portions were on the small side, it turned out to be the perfect amount of food. Truly, we enjoyed every course but highlights were:

          Course 2...The amazing soup - fresh peas & pods cooked until tender, then topped with fresh burrata and a lovely broth poured over the top. Beautiful presentation and the perfect spring soup.

          Course 3...perfect duck confit. I often find confit a bit too salty but this was just right.

          Course 4...incrediblly tender short rib that was not too smoky (despite being smoked for 3 hours) and served with a great potato side that together, would make a fine standalone entree in most restaurants. It seemed overkill after the duck - but I don't think anyone really minded since it was so tasty.

          We've been very impressed with the past few visits we've had and highly HIGHLY recommend this place whether it's for a casual get together or a celebration dinner.

          And as a bonus, there is a noticable improvement in the restaurant's acoustics. One of our major complaints from our first few visits was the inability to have a conversation across the table. They've done a lot to address it and It's really amazing how much better it is now.

          1. re: mimosa

            We were there Thursday.. They were pouring beautiful Bourdeaux blends. It was a new treat for me, because I have been favoring the Rhone of late. I think we got 5 pours (we did reds) for $12. The Donati meritage from some small place up in San Benito County was beautiful, with licorice-y anise notes, (paired super with the mignonette with the oysters). Also a new release from Foxen (Santa Ynez), the "Range 30 West" was really good. We had the oysters, which were so good we ordered a second round right after the first, the special steak tartare appetizer- fabulous! And I had the roasted asparagus as an entree, hubby had the steak au poivre special ($15). Out on the patio they have heaters to ward off the ocean chill, it was a delightful visit. We can't wait to go back.

            1. re: paso_gurl_100

              It sounds really nice, but I'm totally baffled by their massive calendar of events, we like to go and have a nice dinner, rather than a huge tasting menu at a specific time. Is it always a tasting dinner on a Saturday? Which is the best night to try?

              1. re: jennywenny

                I got the impression that they always have the bistro menu to order from. So, if you look at the calendar, go to the 'more info' section and it lists their bistro menu. They also serve a full wine selection, so you are not obligated to have featured wines.

                1. re: jennywenny

                  If you just want to check the place out without going to one of the many special dinners, try Thursday. Most of the time, it's just the bistro menu and some well chosen wine flights.

          2. We've only been when they've had the huge special dinners with the long tables. We were thinking about going on Thursday -- do they still have the long tables where you sit with strangers, or is that different on the other nights?

            2 Replies
            1. re: fauteuil

              You can call and get a reservation for a table of 2 or more I believe. We've always had good luck that way. The tables outside are really nice too if the weather is as warm as it's been.

              1. re: mimosa

                Thank you- my boyfriend called while I was typing my question and they told him that it was pretty dead on Thursday and just come in after 6, we'd have our own table. Not sure if reservations were necessary. It's pot au feu and central coast syrah (the wine is the main draw for us). I have enjoyed the big dinners but the forced conversation with strangers was somewhat offputting. I'll post about it after!

            2. We call ourselves foodies, but we were completely unaware of this place...I guess because as much as we love wine, it is not our main pursuit when dining out. Thank you so much for this post and all of those that have contributed to the thread. I am genuinely excited to try this creative and reasonably priced find. Sounds like a real gem!

              1. Last night we enjoyed our first experience at the Wine Vault and Bistro after reading this thread, and I am happy to report that it was a wonderful experience. Thanks to all that have posted about recent dishes they have tried, we were able to steer ourselves to several items that we knew would appeal to us.

                First let me say that we arrived there around 630pm (thursday evening) and the place was hopping. The lovely patio was filled to capacity (though I think most people seated there at the time were in wind-down-after-work-mode mainly enjoying wine and appetizers) and the dining rooms were about 3/4 full. A reservation is definitely a good thing, and I know the owners would appreciate the courtesy so they can properly accomodate their guests. By the time we finished our dining experience it was almost standing room only, but the staff kept smiles on their faces and friendly attitudes as they efficiently moved the crowd through their paces. The busiest individual had to have been the gentleman behind the bar, pouring a non-stop flow of wine flights - if you decide to go this route be sure to leave an appreciation in the tip vase for this pleasant individual with the grueling pace. Although I am not usually partial to dining in a full house after a stressed out weekday, the warmth of the crowd and ambience made us feel that we were attending a great dinner party in a friend's home. The owner (Mary) recognized immediately that we were newbies and patiently walked us through our libation options before seating us. I think the dinner party vibe partially comes from the leisurely repetion of going to the bar to receive your next flight (individually, at your own pace). Waiting for their pour, strangers compared notes on the wine then moved on in conversation to recommending dishes, other wines they had enjoyed in the past, individual stories and even other dining destinations. Throughout the evening we met new people from all over San Diego (Eastlake to Encinitas), and of every social type and age group. Our goodbyes were said with promises of seeing them again on one of our return visits.

                Last night we enjoyed the featured flight of central coast syrahs and actually came away with a new discovery to add to our favorite rotation. The syrah ticket offered four 2-ounce tasting pours for $10 with options to add a 5-ounce appertif for $5, as well as a 5-ounce pour of a fairly rare, optional premium syrah for an additional $4. The value makes my head spin.

                Thursdays feature a 3-course dinner special. Last night's first coures offering was bay scallop tartare with chilled young coconut soup, banana blossom salad and micro mint. Second course: Pot au feau complete with individual marrow spoons that we saw several people enjoying, then wrapping up with a third course of cheese (I can't remember which cheese was featured). Being our first time at the Bistro, we wanted to sample dishes that we knew would hit our weak spots so we passed on the special trio and instead ordered a smorgasboard to fill our ravenous appetites. I think it was a good choice as everything we sampled was a hit, but the $20 price tag for the three course will certainly get a really strong consideration next time (again, the value for this kind of quality makes my head spin).

                So here is the quick rundown of shared items:

                4 oysters on the half shell served with individual ramekins of cocktail sauce, pepper mignonette and horseradish granite $7. I have never before tasted oysters like this. Simply put, it was the taste of a pristine sea. I am with Rotie77 on the original post about enjoying smaller oysters but the these vancouver beauties absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I had always read that this was supposed to be the experience of tasting a superior oyster, obviously all that had crossed my lips before this were of average caliber. I'm glad that given the flavor I stayed away from the cocktail and migonette sauces and had only adorned them with a small squeeze of lemon. I enjoyed the horseradish granite as a small chaser. It was a very unusual but delicious offering of what seemed to be a clear slush that carried the flavor of really sharp, creamy horseradish. Eat this concoction fast so you experience the complexity of it's flavor and consistancy before it melts.

                Prima Donna aged cow's milk gouda with fig vincotta $4 A perfect mild but tasty vehicle to bring my taste buds down from that briney, bracing high.

                Tempura battered soft shell crabs (2) with carrot salad and spicy mustard $10. These were big and plump versions fried to a perfect golden brown. They were perfectly soft and moist inside with a extraordinarily crisp exterior. The carrot salad was a little bit of a throw-away distraction but the mustard sauce had a beautiful bite and made for a sharp foil to the rich crab. I think this was the freshest and best version of soft shell crabs that I have experienced outside of New Orleans.

                Roasted asparagus with slow-poached farm egg and herb salad $8. A very nice rendition of one of my favorites. The slow cooking process of the egg left it very, very soon as it was even nudged the yolk broke to crown the sharp herbs salad and asparagus with a perfect coating of velvety, rich yellow gold.

                Filet mignon with morel and fava bean ragout, wild ramps and fingerling potatoes $20. My husband ordered this craving the red meat, I encouraged him just so I could rob the plate of the fresh spring vegetables harvested in their too short spring season. Neither were disappointed. I even loved the steak, at medium-rare it was unbelievably soft enough to cut into bite-sized pieces with a salad fork.

                And my favorite...the dessert. 34-year-old px sherry sundae with housemade butterscotch ice cream $5!!!! Served in a brandy snifter, the bottom of the glass had large dollops of a dense caramel sauce with several small scoops of the rich and creamy ice cream. Opposite on the plate was a miniscule caraffe of the sherry to pour on with your own time and desired amount. We left the dish unadorned at first, to experience the pure flavor of the housemade ice cream and caramel sauce. Devine. Then, just a small sprinkle of the dark, sweet sherry - even more interesting. Finally poured in the whole vessel of wine, turning the dish into the most decadent, delicious sort of milk-shake after dinner drink ever! We bought the last bottle on the shelf of the Sherry for $16 promising to replicate the dessert at home with cheater ingredients (haggan daaz ice cream).

                Mary took extra effort in making sure we were taken of, stopping by 3 or 4 times to field questions, tell us about their wine and chef 5-course (Saturdays - $25) dinners and introduce us to other patrons/dinner guests. We chatted with several of them for quite some time after dinner. She bragged about the kitchen staff and told us the chef came from the Modern in NYC. We didn't need his impressive credentials to woo us after that meal. What an has moved into the top spot of our favorites!

                3 Replies
                1. re: foodiechick

                  OMG! I forgot to mention the mac and cheese.! IMHO forget the rest in San Diego. A generous, over-sized individual ramekin overflowing with very thin, but long, ziti-type pasta. The perfect consistency of creamy, gooey sauce perfectly binds the pasta without being gummy, glumpy or runny. The top carmelized into a crispy golden crown of a crust before digging into the faintest teasing of black truffle essence.
                  Black trffle studded man "n" cheese with quebec cheddar and teleme $7. Died and gone to heaven.

                  1. re: foodiechick

                    Nice report! Glad you enjoyed WV. I really hope others on this list take your queue. It's been a favorite haunt for a while and I don't think it's been given enough love here or elsewhere given the caliber of food and overall experience you get there - especially when compared to the many places in town offering mediocre food and poor service at ridiculous prices.

                  2. re: foodiechick

                    I am still craving that asparagus dish. The egg really was something spectacular, sopped up with that great bread they serve. And the ambiance on the patio makes for a very relaxing experience, what with the ambient lighting and the heaters to ward off the chill.... ah, can't wait to go back..