I have a group of girlfriends who I’m pretty close to. They’re the one of the first people I meet when I moved to southern California and even though we don’t see each other as often as we’d like, we do get together for one another’s birthdays each year.
The first of our birthdays falls in February, and generally, they look to me for dining suggestions. This year, I recommend dinner at Vine in San Clemente. It is a little far and out of the way for us, but I promise my friends they won’t be disappointed. It is raining the night of our visit, but it doesn’t dampen our excitement. We are always happy to get together regardless of whether the food is good or not, but it is important to me that the restaurant I choose excels in both cuisine and service, especially when celebrating birthdays.
We settle in with a drink — some with a cocktail, others with a glass of wine. I order a charcuterie board to start. Domestic Cured Meats, Cold Cuts, Olives & Crostinis ($11/$19) and Artisan Cheese, Seasonal Garnish & Toasted Sour Baguette ($11/$19) is gorgeous and my friends are absolutely wow-ed by the presentation. We nibble on the selections in between sips of our libations, catching up on four months since we last see one another.
One of my favorites on the menu is Crispy Meyer Lemon & Honey Duck Wings ($13) — fall-off-the-bone tender drumsticks coated in a citrus honey chile sauce. My friends are impressed by how unique the wings are, saying they’ve never seen duck wings on a menu before. The flavors are robust with a nice kick at the end. Sticky, gooey, and well worth the messiness.
Manila Clams & Rock Shrimp with Saffron Couscous ($15) is another favorite, and I know everyone will love it as much as I do. Bits of Spanish chorizo are dotted among beads of yellow-hued saffron Israeli couscous. The combination of oregano, roasted garlic and charred tomato broth, together with the umami from the clams and shrimp is infused deeply into each little pearl, creating an insanely piquant dish. I might even be so bold to say this is one of my top 20 dishes of all time. My friends agree it is one of the best things they’ve ever eaten.
Of course, I can never come to Vine and not eat the Pork Schnitzel ($22). Each season, Chef changes up the accoutrements for this dish. Right now, it is served with maitake mushrooms (hen of the woods), pumpkin spaetzle, winter vegetables, thyme roasted apples, whole grain mustard and cider gravy. The portion is generous and we are glad we are sharing everything.
The Fish of the Day ($31) is a beautiful white fish — I’m not able to recall what it is exactly, but I think seabass –served with Romanesco cauliflower, wilted frisee, and fingerling potatoes, among other things. We are savoring every morsel of this perfect dish and dragging our vegetables over every drop of the remaining sauce on the plate.
Order the Baked Skillet of Mac & Cheese ($8) as a side, and you’ll be sure everyone will be happy. It is utterly sinful, and I am glad no one says the four letter word D-I-E-T!
I’m perfectly happy ending our meal right here, but the birthday girl loves desserts and we have two on their way.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Crumble ($9) is an apple strudel, crumbed oatmeal raisin cookie of sorts with ice cream and drizzled with bourbon caramel. It looks very sweet, but is surprisingly balanced even for my sugar-sensitive palate.
However, it is the Scarffenberger Chocolate Souffle Cake ($10) that blows our minds. Our server takes the scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and immerses it into the center of the cake and is enveloped by the warmth, causing it to melt into the rich airy chocolate-y mound. It is decadence at its best.
If you haven’t been to Vine, please make your reservations immediately. The menu consists of a host of excellent dishes which will tempt even the fussiest of eaters. You will be glad you came!
Vine Restaurant & Bar
211 N El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672