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Room At The Top


Shift your gaze from a picturesque floor-to-ceiling view of a North County sunset to a forkful of trademark California coastal/Pan-Asian cuisine from a chef with greater name recognition than perhaps any other in San Diego, and you nearly forget you’re on the top floor of a three-story building that, at its foundation both figuratively and literally, is about selling luxury vehicles. Few restaurateurs have what it takes to pull that off, but David and Lesley Cohn aren’t just any restaurateurs. Since the ’80s, they’ve been forerunners in shaping San Diego’s culinary landscape. They’ve left their mark across the entire county, tackling communities many would have ignored, from Ocean Beach to Oceanside.


In their latest venture, they opted to take on Escondido with Vintana, one of the latest additions to the Cohn Restaurant Group family behind only Hillcrest’s 100 Wines. Installed on the top floor of the Lexus Centre of Escondido to help prove the facility a viable site for non-automotive businesses, it’s doing just that. On most nights, the contemporarily appointed, multi-tier dining room is close to or completely filled.


So why the success? Car discounts? Free tune-ups? Nope. The only incentives diners will encounter are half-priced bottles of wine on Tuesdays and free valet parking every day of the week (a big plus, especially considering the staff takes patrons’ vehicles on the first floor, then delivers them on the top floor).


To be fair, the first to show up and fall for Vintana’s offerings were mostly fans of the CRG’s kitchen stalwart, Deborah Scott. As San Diego at this point as SeaWorld or the Chargers (well, maybe more San Diego considering the Spanos’ perceived anxiousness to bring the Bolts back to L.A.), Scott has a huge following of foodies who have been enjoying trademark dishes like her pepita and sesame-crusted brie and “skirts on fire” (both of which are slated to grace aisles at Costco in the near future) for well over a decade. Both are on the menu, but don’t go in expecting the same old thing. Scott is proud to stick with her mainstays, but in no way rests on her considerable laurels.


Directly below the brie is an appetizer of Maryland crab cakes served as a trio of golden-brown orbs lined up atop sweet, tender, chili-glazed slices of pork belly amid artistic garnishes of arugula and blackberry sauce. Berries and crab? It’s an odd match, but it sings thanks to the addition of the slab bacon. Definitely a dish where it’s important to get every component on the fork for each bite. Ditto the brie, which diners are taught how to compose tableside — for the record, smear on coats of honey-roasted garlic and pleasingly gooey fromage, then finish with jalapeno jelly. Knowing is half the battle.


Other nice opening acts include a plentiful bowl of mussels in white wine broth with uplifting additions of tomato and preserved lemons, and enough grilled ciabatta to sop up the leftover liquid. Darin’s Belly Roll, which blends asparagus and nori (dried sheets of seaweed) with local albacore tuna that’s simultaneously crispy on the outside and tenderly rare on the interior, is delicious.


Originally, Vintana’s menu provided both plated entrees and the opportunity for guests to customize prime seafood and cuts of meat. The build-your-own option is now gone — a plus as the main dishes sing Scott’s signature style. Pan seared Mahi Mahi is nicely cooked and complemented by lemon-poppy seed brown butter, white bean pistou, and an earthy mix of fingerling potatoes, grilled artichokes, and firm chunks of chorizo. On the turf side of the equation, filet mignon gets classic bacon and bordelaise sauce treatment, plus an update courtesy of butter fortified with luscious bone marrow, and a 14-ounce ribeye is made all the more decadent with tangy blue cheese mashed potatoes and sweet red onion marmalade.


If there’s one knock, it’s that the cuisine leans a bit too far to the sugary side of the meter. The majority of the dishes include a sweet component, be it a glaze, jam, or dipping sauce. But that said, there are exceptions to the rule, most notably a pork porterhouse that is “bruleed” and served with fig jam and sweet potato hash. Unapologetically sweet, it is fairly advertised, and completely works.  BRANDON HERNANDEZ


Photography by Vincent Knakal


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