My first clue should have been the parking issue. Basically, there wasn't any. Of course, Wednesday is farmer's market day in OB and that was compounded by the onset of the unseasonably hot weather; I should have been prepared. But should have, would have, could have aren't in my lexicon, and like a typical San Diego native I just kept driving 'til I found a parking space. And, really I got lucky. Right in front of Qwiggs on Abbott, just a hop, skip and a jump over the surfers and bums was a spot big enough to squeeze the Jettamobile into. Finally.........10 years of parallel parking on the streets of San Francisco paid off!!
After sweating way around the farmer's market and buying 7 tomatoes and a pound of really cute fingerling potatoes for $10, I was ready for something more interesting than hummus and samosas. It used to be Cucina Fresca a perfectly respectable neighborhood Italian joint. Now, at the corner of Bacon and Niagara is The Vine, a wine bar that's been open a little over a year. Wine bar and OB don't seem like such a natural combination until you remember that all the hippies, bikers and outcasts have all grown up, raised families and become respectable, if not prosperous, members of the main stream. It was probably only a matter of time before a successful wine bar could put down roots.
But my oh my, what a wine bar this is. Sophisticated, airy and accented by dark wood furniture and wood slat blinds, The Vine is a comfortable neighborhood gathering spot for locals. The wine list is interesting and consists of mostly small producers of high quality wine. There are 3 different wine flight of 4-3 oz pours, all in the $17 range. Wines by the glass are plentiful and cover the usual reds and whites, and are augmented by sparklers and roses. I've been experimenting with Argentinian Malbecs for the last couple of years so I opted for the only one by the glass, and I wasn't disappointed. It was soft, mellow and altogether suave. My dining companion for the evening, the estimable Chilepm ordered a CA Petite Syrah which was still pretty raw and green, though drinkable. Just how drinkable it was became apparent as we worked our way through the menu.
We started with the olive sampler. What we got was a herd of olives, 2 of the green variety and 2 of the black. They were good, but not great, and we had, in fact, had better olives at the olive vendor at the farmers market just a block away.
We had much better luck with the chopped chicken liver, or as the menu called it Shannon's Super Sexy Pate. Whether it really was sexy or not I'm not sure. What it was, was really good. Soft, silken in texture and devoid of grainy or grittiness. Blessedly, the plate arrived with am ample supply of nicely crunchy crostini, along with some wafer thin slices of apple and beautifully ripe pear. This was an excellent dish and a very good rendition of chicken liver pate. But, to be honest, I think if they had hit with some caramelized onions and a splash or two of cognac it could have been transcendent.
The pate was followed by two of the best empanadas I think I've ever had. The remarkably light and flaky crust had been tinged with achiote which imparted a richly beautiful orange cast. The filling was a combination of minced beef and pork and chile powder. Raisins provided a haunting sweetness and a little hunk of cheese some creaminess. I would have also liked the empanadas to have had a little more filling, but with the crust being such a stellar rendition, I can let that go. There are 2 empanadas per serving and the plate comes adorned with lime crema and salsa verde (tomatillo salsa). The lime crema was okay and the salsa verde unbalanced. Tomatillos can be on the astringent side and this salsa needed a dash of something sweet to smooth out the rough edges. It didn't detract from the empanadas, but it didn't help them either. BTW, Chilepm thinks the salsa was just fine, I beg to differ. In either case it was a delicious dish and I would order it again.
The least successful dish of the night was the Veggie Gratin, and it was still good. The gratin dish was marred by the over-zealous use of nutmeg in the Gruyere cheese sauce that bound together layers of potato and leek. Not so much nutmeg that it ruined the dish, but enough to be annoying. The sauteed vegetables that accompanied the gratin were well done and still crispy.
We split a Fresh Berry Shortcake for dessert. Whoever is in the kitchen understands baking. The pastry crust for the empanadas had been flaky and tender, the biscuit used for the shortcake was feather-light and tender. It was filled with some of the luscious strawberries I had seen at the farmers market that had been macerated to perfect sweetness. However, the star of the dessert was the house-made (real) whipped cream flavored with Pedro Ximenex sherry. What an inspired combination of sherry, strawberries and cream.
Dishes are small, tapa-style plates, most of which are suitable for sharing. Assorted cheese boards, salads, soup and more substantial savory dishes complete the menu.
Service is casual, a little too casual even for the beach. It's definitely not intrusive or overwrought, just don't ask a lot of questions.
2 glasses of wine, 4 plates, 1 dessert, tax and tip set us back $60. If I lived closer I'd probably end up being a regular. I thought I never see it, but OB is going yuppie (jeez, I really hope not).