Vintana: The New Cohn Restaurant in Escondido

For an early Father’s Day celebration a few weeks ago, I went with my aunt, uncle, cousin and my uncle’s mom to try Vintana, the new Cohn restaurant in Escondido (north of San Diego proper) that is creatively (?) located in a Lexus dealership. That’s right. It’s a little bit weird but we went with it! It’s actually kind of a brilliant marketing idea for Lexus, since you have lots of diners coming in and out and looking at your cars. Not very often that you get foot traffic at a dealership outside of people who are there to actually buy a car.

Anyway, I was there for the food, not the cars, obviously. The restaurant is located on the third level of the dealership, and you take a glass elevator up from the ground floor to get there. The size of the restaurant was the first thing that hit me — it’s huge! There’s a bar area, outside patio, a sort of wine storage area you walk through to get to the actual dining room, and in addition to the main dining room there is at least one private room off to the side. The tables all have views out the front windows of the dealership which are pretty much floor to ceiling glass, and you can see the hills of Escondido in the distance and the dealership fountain out front. The view to the right isn’t so great — freeway. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all. The decor overall was beautiful — check out the cool chandeliers in the picture below.

The place was hopping when we got there on a Sunday evening and the sun bathed the dining room in a nice glow as it went down (a little bit of an issue for the people facing the sun though). There was a nice, upbeat energy to the dining room and the staff were super nice and attentive. The restaurant had only been open for about 3 weeks and at that point, you know they’re still ironing out the kinks and getting things rolling along. But overall, I had a great experience and was very pleased with the service.

One of my favorite parts of the meal were the ahhhh-mazing popovers they start you with, accompanied by butter that had a touch of spiciness to it. So good that I had to have 1 1/2 — and they’re not small. For my main course I tried the pan seared sea bass with white bean pistou, grilled artichoke, chorizo, roasted potatoes, stone crab wonton and lemon-poppy seed brown butter from the “Signature Offerings” part of the menu. It was very tasty and the fish was cooked nicely — loved the incorporation of artichoke. One drawback to the menu from my viewpoint was that a good portion of it has you choose your seafood or steak and pair it with a compound butter or sauce. The butters/sauces sounded delish, but I tend to trust the chef to pair the sauce/butter with the protein that fits it best instead of having to think about what would go well. And it doesn’t include as many elements as the signature dishes, so I was unsure about how complete a dish I would be creating. I would just rather select a fully composed dish, I guess!

My aunt and I also split the pomegranate molasses Brussels sprouts with black pepper bacon, raspberry vinegar and orange zest, which were okay but not my favorite Brussels sprouts ever. I’m a huge fan of Brussels sprouts, but these were a little bit undercooked and a tad heavy on the bacon (which I never thought I would say).

Given the 30-minute drive to get there and with a plethora of Cohn restaurants closer to my neighborhood, I don’t think I’ll find myself in the position to eat here often, but it’s definitely a nice addition for Escondidans. Note: if I found myself there again, I’d love to try the sweet potato and pork belly hash and pan seared local greens for sides. And approximately eight more popovers. Maybe it’s a good thing I live far enough away to put some distance between me and those popovers!


Maui: Cocktail Edition

What is a trip to Hawaii without cocktails? Not very fun, that’s what! And we had some tasty ones that weren’t the same ol’ Mai Tais. My favorite was called Hawaiian Angel at Aloha Mixed Plate on Front Street in Lahaina. Coconut rum with pineapple and cranberry juices – tart and not too fruity and rich (what you often get with pina coladas or anything with coconut in it). It was perfect and refreshing.

My first drink of the trip was a Plantation Punch at Mama’s Fish House. Delectable. Fruity but not TOO, and just strong enough. And especially good because it was the first drink of the trip. We sat overlooking the beach and decompressed from our crazy work weeks, and the drinks were perfect to get us in relaxation mode.

We also tried some Maui Brewing Company beers – we went to the brewpub location just north of our hotel, technically still in Lahaina. I wouldn’t recommend it — it was dark with barely any windows, and who wants that when you’re on vacation in Maui? Instead, you can get many of the brews at the local bars. My favorite was the Bikini Blonde, a light lager. We tried the Hot Blonde – Bikini Blonde with chipotle – oh my. Way too much chipotle – it was more like eating a sandwich. And super spicy. Christine loved the Coconut Porter. Our waiter at Lahaina Grill said it would be good as a float with a scoop of macadamia nut ice cream. I tend to agree! May need to try that one. They had a cool bar feature — a rim with ice/snow around the whole bar where you set your beer — no beer gets warm here. Love that.

And we got a couple of delicious toasted coconut martinis from the Pupu Lounge in Kihei. The place isn’t the classiest, and inside is dark, but it’s a good place for a cocktail and an app on the patio outside. And I think they even toasted the coconut themselves! Fancy.

Perfect mixture of great food and great drink? Indeed. An all-around amazing trip. Hmmm, maybe I’ll make myself a Hawaiian Angel right now….

Aloha! Maui: Foodie Edition

I got back a couple of weeks ago from an incredible trip to Maui with my fabulous friend Christine. We romped around the island for nine days in our rental convertible – got plenty of sun, took surfing lessons, mastered stand-up paddle boarding (SUP!), drank delicious tropical cocktails, got rained on at a luau, drove the Road to Hana, hiked to deserted waterfalls, saw the “sunrise” at Haleakala Crater (not much sun to be seen that day, unfortunately) and… ate some great food! Obviously.

I am sunkissed and rejuvenated. What’s not to like about a vacation when the most difficult decision you make is whether to hit the pool or the beach? And what to eat? (One of my favorite decisions to make.)

The best meal of the trip was at Lahaina Grill, hands down. I was blown away. I ate every morsel from my plate, then scraped the last tastes up with my fork. Christine had to stop me from licking the plate. I had the fish special, which was opakapaka (pink snapper) over a cheesy cauliflower risotto with a prawn on top. The fish absolutely melted in my mouth and the risotto was rich, creamy and delicious. The chef added a bit of zip to the richness of the dish with some capers and a lemony, acidic sauce that gave just the right amount of bite. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

We ended with the mixed berry pie, which had a grainy sugar coating on the crust and was delicious – we added ice cream to it – what is pie without ice cream, I ask?

The meal, like most in Hawaii, was not cheap, but I would return in a millisecond. The service was also incredible – our waiter had a strong opinion about the best dishes to order, which I appreciate. If you work at a restaurant, you need to know what to recommend. And he didn’t steer us wrong.

The location of the restaurant is just off Front Street, the main drag through Lahaina. You don’t get the benefit of an oceanfront location unfortunately, but the restaurant itself was beautiful. If I went back I would request a table up front by the windows to ogle the passers-by.

Second choice of the trip goes to Mama’s Fish House in Paia on the North Shore. We stopped here for lunch just after we arrived in Maui, and our first meal was killer. We split a tuna sashimi appetizer – it melted in your mouth – and a mahi mahi sandwich with smoked applewood bacon, Vermont cheddar, focaccia bread and Molokai sweet potato fries. It was heavenly. The mahi was super tender and moist.

A close third goes to the amazing sushi we got (twice! It was so good!) at Sansei in Kapalua, just north of where we stayed in Ka’anapaali. Kapalua is a bit of a sleepy little town, but it’s worth the trip for some pretty amazing sushi. The restaurant is in an upscale “strip mall” (not ideal) but once inside you forget about that. They really pack the people in here (get a reservation) but our service was great and we really enjoyed our meal(s). From what I understand, they have karaoke some nights, and a late happy hour that starts at 10 p.m. (half-price rolls) that would be killer – but we were early-to-bed and didn’t take advantage of it.

Our first visit we got some melt-in-your mouth salmon sashimi and three of their popular rolls. The first: Panko Crusted Ahi Sashimi Sushi Roll (above). Hawaiian ahi, arugula and spinach wrapped into a sushi roll, panko-crusted, flash-fried and served with a mild soy wasabi butter sauce. I’m not the biggest fan of “cooked” rolls, but this was pretty darn tasty.

Our favorite roll was the Sansei Special: spicy crab, cilantro and fresh veggies, dusted with furikake and served with sweet Thai chili sauce.

All of the fish was super fresh. In fact, we loved it so much we went back.

Second round, we tried their Sansei Style Ahi Poke with sweet Maui onions. The onions were a little on the heavy side for my taste, but the poke was awesome. And some salmon and pink snapper nigiri — we wished we got all salmon, it was so good.

Other winners from the trip:

A pretty amazing swordfish at Tropica at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa – I hesitantly ordered it upon the recommendation of the server – when it’s overdone, it’s pretty awful. But this was super tender and delicious. The HUGE Portugese roll was a bit much but the potatoes and roasted tomatoes were good, though some of the potatoes were a bit undercooked. The dessert was surprisingly good for the chocolate lover that I am – Baked Hawaii. Pound cake topped with ice cream topped with toasted meringue with strawberries alongside. Pretty yummy! I started with an okay lobster chowder that was a little too bacon-y for my taste. The bacon overpowered.

On the simple side, we had some tasty nachos topped with Kalua pork and jalapenos for dinner one evening (meal of champions!) at Leilani’s at the bar with our favorite bartender, John. He treated us well.

OH! And the banana bread. How could I forget the banana bread. We had some delectable slices of banana bread heaven, purchased along our route on the Road to Hana. It was a little roadside stand called Halfway to Hana in Keanae. It was unbelievably moist and even had studs of not quite pureed banana baked in. Amazing. We were in love.

Many mahalos to Christine for putting up with my photo-taking prior to digging in to all of our meals (such restraint!) and for being an amazing dining partner. Such a great trip!

Coming soon: Maui cocktails. They deserve their own dedicated post. Tasty, tasty.

Wisconsin and Fried Pickles and Cheese Curds, Oh My!

I’ve spent the last two weeks in Wisconsin for work, which I realize is not most people’s idea of a culinary mecca. However, they are a mecca for cheese, which is one of my main food groups.

On my first night in Wisconsin, I was introduced to cheese curds. Despite having the word “cheese” in their name, they don’t sound very appetizing at first blush. Must have something to do with the word “curd.” However, let me assure you that they are little gems of deliciousness, and if you get the chance to try them, you must.

Cheese curds are very young cheese, and according to Wikipedia, “little known in locations without cheese factories because they should ideally be eaten within hours of manufacture.” They are mild in taste and often prepared fried for an appetizer. Some of them are like mini mozzarella sticks, while others (my preferred) were less “perfect” looking due to homemade batter (see above), and the cheese inside was a little sharper. Biting into cheese curd is heaven — the cheese is hot and melty, the fried shell is crunchy and savory…yum!

The cheese curds above were one part of a fantastic “snack-y” meal on my last night in Madison with my co-workers Carey and Martin. They introduced me to Graze, a very cool gastropub located right by the Capitol building in downtown Madison. The vibe was young and hip, with floor to ceiling windows looking out at the Capitol, a loud, upbeat, chatty atmosphere, and the food was downright delicious.

In addition to our cheese curds, we ordered some killer fried pickles (or “frickles” as we called them) with a yummy dill dipping sauce. I’m used to the typical sliced pickle rounds, but these were actually long, thin pickle spears, which was a nice, offbeat twist. We devoured two orders of them in record time.

Add to that some of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever consumed. It was made from 10-year cheddar (super sharp), herbed breadcrumbs and topped with pulled pork. Wow. The cheese was the perfect degree of creaminess — not too thick/sticky and not thin. And it packed a punch in the sharp cheese flavor department!

Vegetables? Oh no. Well…do pickles count as vegetables? Mmm hmm. Definitely.