When stripping down his motorcycle-themed Leucadia delicatessen and transforming it into a Mediterranean-focused bar and restaurant, restaurateur Mario Guerra’s focus was on family. Above all, that included his beloved daughter for whom his Valentina is named, but he went beyond the literal definition to include the Encinitans the venue was designed to serve. Over the past five years, Guerra has worked to fine-tune his Spanish-centric concept in terms of dishes, price points, and service. Going by the jubilant vibe during a recent visit, it would appear he’s found the sweet spot for all three.
Even with the dining room’s lovely, floral mural work, Valentina’s black-and-white environs could come across a bit bleak were it not for the droves of coastal denizens adding unique local color. Diners give off an air of familiarity suggesting regular status as they discuss this, that, and the other thing from tiered, sheet-white banquettes. In the adjoining bar, the roar of the cross-street Coaster can barely be heard above the jovial buzz bouncing off walls covered in subway tiles and a collection of bric-a-brac so random (a ram’s skull, biker helmet, life ring) it’s a sure bet each piece has its own entertaining backstory.
While one may never learn why a mounted bust of a Tyrannosaurus rex oversees barroom proceedings, visitors are sure to be on the receiving end of numerous stories told by friendly staffers eager to share background on dishes and their preparations, Executive Chef Jonathan Freyberg’s acumen, and individual wines from Valentina’s 120-bottle program. The collection leans heavily into Spanish producers and includes a Grenache-based rosé cava (Jané Ventura) that’s worth a visit on its own as well as an outstanding, bone-dry orange wine (Kiki & Juan) fashioned from Macabeo, a varietal typically used to produce sparkling vino.
Valentina’s menu is split between an array of tapas and roughly half a dozen mains. Each list changes with the seasons, while retaining mainstay signature dishes like Patatas Bravas, potatoes soaked in milk then sliced extremely thin and stacked into cubes that are fried to a deep, dark brown. A generous dollop of smoked paprika aioli brings richness while a heavy sprinkling of finely minced chives adds an element of uplifting freshness. Another garnish adding more than a pop of green are the scallions atop an artfully presented, thinly sliced octopus carpaccio. Throwaways anywhere else, they introduce bright pepperiness to a lovely dish rendered further verdant by a potent oregano-infused olive oil.
Fresh oysters, shrimp in spicy garlic oil (Gambas al Ajillo), and toast wrapped with acorn-fed Iberico ham are house favorites. They are joined by blistered shishitos, steak tartare with an egg yolk and pickled mustard seeds, escargot baked in bone marrow butter, and tamarind-glazed quail. Plump and salty, the quail is a play on sweet-and-spicy barbecue that comes across a bit like soy sauce with a touch of fruity acidity and is worth getting one’s fingers messy to get every bit of meat off those ever-so-tiny bones.
Mains are varied from a cultural influence with seafood-studded Spanish Arroz del Senyoret (gentleman’s rice) sharing space with classic French chicken paillard and German pork schnitzel, both of which are served with capers in a lemon-mustard sauce. Meanwhile, seabass is dressed in a lemon beurre blanc, and steak and potatoes are accompanied by turnips and a green peppercorn condiment.
Like the tapas, a pair of entrées are fit for two. Those include a 32-ounce bone-in ribeye and a smooth, nicely aerated bouillabaisse packed with shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, fish, potatoes, leeks, and piquillo pepper. The latter conveys the delicious, briny essence of the sea and is Chef Freyberg’s homage to his mentor, Master French Chef Patrick Ponsaty (Hotel del Coronado, Grand Restaurant Group, Loews, RB Inn). So, too, is a multi-textured Basque cake (soft, biscuity) filled with vanilla pastry cream and sweet cherries. Other dessert options include cinnamon sugar-dusted buñuelos and a Spanish take on crème brûlée.
Valentina’s menu is solid, the wine list is curated with care and resultantly interesting, the staff is engaged, and the atmosphere is chill. This is the epicurean-geared neighborhood spot for locals — for family — that its architect set out to create.