By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I had no idea what type of cuisine to expect at Vine Cottage Restaurant when spontaneously ducking in with a ravenous appetite. It was one of those rare occasions when my spouse and I didn’t peek at the menu online before driving up. We instead rolled with the tide, just as many of us did before smartphones and sophisticated GPS systems existed.
Our daring gamble paid off.
The moderately priced restaurant greets with a quaint atmosphere that feels similar to an Irish pub. A “cottage” not so much, except for a faux stone wall in the small dining area that could briefly make you feel you’re in some French hamlet rather than a small strip plaza on Lake Murray Boulevard. Otherwise the interior is filled with wooden tables and partitions arranged within eyeshot of a handsome bar that serves wine and craft beer.
The ownership, we were told, has been held by various members of a Middle Eastern family ever since the restaurant opened several years ago. Though if you come knocking for meals of such persuasion, you’ll have to make due with falafel sliders. After that, the menu hopscotches between Italy, Spain, France, England, Asia and the U.S.
We fortuitously hit Sunday happy hour, which is held all day. Draft beers, wines by the glass and salads are $2 off, and flatbreads are half-price. For us, that meant a savings of about $14.
A couple of light and highly drinkable Staff Magician pale ales by San Diego’s Mikkeller Brewing led us into a roasted beet salad with wild arugula and goat cheese. The citrus vinaigrette gave it an unmistakable Southern California spin.
Spanish-style grilled “giant” white shrimp were evenly coated in smokey paprika and served over tender white beans flecked with bacon and leeks. Though enjoyable and well-executed, we found the $16 price tag a bit steep for only three moderately large shrimp.
When learning that the flatbread pizzas use dough sourced from Sadie Rose Baking Co. (my favorite San Diego wholesaler of artisan breads), we chose the sausage and shiitake mushroom option. Other choices include prosciutto-Gorgonzola, bacon-Parmesan and chicken with artichokes.
We loved every bite. The crust had a buttery, pastry-like essence to it, and the tomato-red pepper sauce offered an appealing zing. So did the sausage, which unexpectedly wasn’t of the classic Italian variety spiked with fennel. This was more akin to spicy kielbasa or perhaps andouille.
Although hitting the nail right through the heel of Italy was one of the best and most accurate versions of cacio e pepe spaghetti I’ve had in ages. This peasant pasta dish, which dates back to the Roman Empire, is simple yet requires skill in tying together the sauce, which is constructed quickly with scads of black pepper, Parmesan or Romano cheese, and pasta water.
But if only there were oodles more noodles in the oversized bowl, which further exaggerated the small portion. Priced at $15, and given its luxurious flavor, the dish cried for a few more ounces of spaghetti. I didn’t want the dish to ever end.
The diverse menu extends to fish and chips; a burger using grass-fed beef that’s topped with “drunken” goat cheese and Anaheim chilies; sake-marinated chicken wings; duck leg confit; seafood stew; roasted chicken; and a Tuscan-style New York strip steak.
Service was friendly, and I give extra points to the way in which our meal was staggered. The salad and shrimp came out first. Shortly after we polished them off, our main courses arrived.
What’s so special about that, you might ask?
About four out of five times I dine out, my meal courses land on the table simultaneously. It’s a phenomenon plaguing basic meal service, which I find especially rampant in restaurants throughout San Diego County.
But our waiter at Vine Cottage intuitively knew better while the kitchen exhibited impressive flexibility constructing the multi-national dishes we ordered.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.