Chef Amar Santana is on a roll. This Thursday, he is in the finale of Bravo TV’s Top Chef, with an excellent chance of becoming the next “Top Chef”. Since opening his newest restaurant, Vaca, in early December, it has become the hottest ticket in Orange County dining, with reservations a highly prized commodity. With Chef Amar’s talent for delicious small plates, Vaca is a great place to go with a group and try lots of dishes.
Vaca has both a wide list of small plates/tapas and a comprehensive menu of main dishes such as their Signature Prime Aged Rib Steak, a Colorado Rack of Lamb and Chef Amar’s excellent Grilled Mediterranean Branzino, a delicate and tasty fish that is a must for any fan of fine fish. A nice selection of paellas round out the menu, with even a vegetarian version available. Not only does Vaca have their own butcher for the meats, but the charcuterie plates are made at a special charcuterie counter at the front of the restaurant. Chef Amar and his business partner, Ahmed Labatte, took an exhaustive six-week trip to Spain and Morocco to try different items and ensure that the flavors at Vaca were authentic.
After obtaining one of the coveted reservations, the meal began with one of Vaca’s Spanish Gin and Tonic cocktails. Vaca has put a lot of care into their bar list and it shows, with excellent cocktails hand crafted by Vaca’s mixologist. The Amper and Sand was an excellent cocktail too, with rye whiskey and other flavors making an incredibly delicious cocktail. For Scotch fans, the Bobby Burns was a very smooth cocktail, a play on a Manhattan that is even smoother than the original.
(Photo Gallery after the jump)
The first dish to arrive featured one of the best delicacies from the sea. The Erizos con Huevo consists of fresh sea urchin roe blended with scrambled eggs and served with miso butter toast. You can tell the roe is fresh, because the egg mixture is served in the shell of the sea urchin that it has just come from. This is a spectacular dish and a must for any urchin aficionado to try. Next to come was the Higado de Pato, a perfectly seared piece of foie gras served with a vanilla-apple compote and toasted pistachios. It is a rich dish, with the smoothness of the foie gras complemented by the crunch of the pistachio, this is a small dish with big flavors and a perfect introduction to Chef Amar’s concept for Vaca.
Some of the dishes were originally on the menu at Chef Amar’s signature restaurant in Laguna Beach, Broadway by Amar Santana. The Hueso al Horno is a nice big roasted marrow bone served with a beef cheek toast. This “beef butter” is so delicious you wind up scraping every bit from the large bone sections. The next day, Hamish the Scottie also approved of the bones, receiving a true doggie bag. Again, these small plates are perfect for sharing, whether it is just a couple or in a larger group. With the rich bone marrow, a little goes a long way.
Another essential dish to get was the Calamaris a la Plancha, with grilled calamari, stewed eggplant and a wonderful salsa verde. This dish was a unique combination and a great example of Spain’s penchant for mixing the flavors of the sea and the land.
Just when I thought I could eat no more, the main dishes arrived. Even these were prepared in a way that was conducive to sharing. The Beeler’s Pork Chop was perfectly cooked and perfectly carved, a 16 ounce piece of porcine goodness. It was nicely charred but incredibly juicy. The Paella de Mariscos was a product of the Chef’s trip to Spain, where he tried paellas across the country to find the best features of each. This seafood paella featured clams, mussels, octopus and large head-on shrimp with crispy shells good enough to enjoy. The bomba rice, a variety cultivated in Spain, was cooked perfectly and the saffron added that bit of authentic flavor which most places don’t bother with. Rounding out the main course was Bruselas, a dish of sauteed Brussels Sprouts, chorizo and a sherry gastrique. This just might be the ultimate Brussels sprouts dish, rich and making a nice accompaniment to the main dishes.
The restaurant itself is very basic in design, with part of the decoration coming from the beautiful bar, charcuterie and butcher’s stations. You very much feel like you are really in the center of things and that is meant in a good way. Lots of laughing and cries of “wow” and “awesome” permeate the air from the various tables as guests try and unfamiliar dish for the first time. It is very much the interactive place, so don’t expect a nice quiet romantic meal. Instead, expect some of the best food you’ve ever had in a lively, fun location. Nestled just blocks from both the South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Hall concert venue, Vaca is a great place to go before or after a show. Reservations are highly recommended. Chef Amar Santana has a hit on his hands with Vaca and no matter what happens on Thursday, he is a “Top Chef” in my book.
695 Town Center Drive, Ste. 170
Costa Mesa, CA 92626