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Pay More Attention to Falling Notes

Of Vine, wine and conspiratorial romance

Photo by Amy TheligI don't have a computermonitor at work so much as a glowing cube where Post-It notes go to die. Canary-yellow squares clamor for attention around the screen's frame, each brimming with information about a restaurant I'm planning to haunt. But before review-starved eateries start FedExing me stickies, a warning: I tend to stack Post-It upon Post-It until my desktop becomes a symphony of forgotten scrawls.

One pesky note, though, kept slipping off. It contained the address for the California-cuisine-themed Vine in San Clemente. I tried everything to keep the note tacked on—tape, saliva, a wad of gum—yet it persisted in tumbling down. And yet, in spite—or perhaps because—of this I ate at Vine a couple of weeks back.

Note to self: pay more attention to falling notes.

Vine is a epicurean stunner, a snug eatery that's been open for about a year now but continues to attract South Countians seeking a joyous repast. Seating is rather sparse, though; the elegant dining room is stocked with booths for couples, and the wine bar is where fortysomething-year-old men try to make like the protagonists in the wonderful new film Sideways and swish their way into women's pants.

Since it is so small, the wait at Vine tends to be a bit long—on a recent Friday, my charming companion and I stood for about 15 minutes, then sat on a plush leather couch an extra quarter-hour. But lolling about just meant more time for us to tease our tongues with the sizzles, enchanting aromas and stately chaos of Vine's open kitchen. While the rest of the restaurant features lighting low enough to qualify as dawn, chef/owner Justin Monson floods his kitchen with searing watts, a not-so-subtle hint that this is where Vine's star shines.

A hostess escorted us to the wine bar for quicker service that chilly Friday. Dozens of vintages beckoned from a chalkboard placed high above the head of patrons; we settled on a full-bodied Cynthus chardonnay. Neither of us drinks wine much, but the Cynthus impressed us with a rich, prickly jolt that demanded we order the entire bottle. Besides, not drinking wine at a restaurant named Vine is like going to Chris & Pitts and asking for tofu.

Vine focuses on California wine-country cuisine, meaning alchemies of seasonal flavors and ingredients that are as nuanced and numerous as the vineyards of Napa. Although all the appetizers intrigued—the smoked-tomato soup coupled with a grilled-Brie sandwich, in particular, sounded decadent—we settled on the pumpkin ravioli. It was seasonal—Monson prepares it only during the Halloween/Thanksgiving period—and it was glorious: Monson's team lightly baked the ravioli's ridged crust while warming the pumpkin paste inside to an optimal mushy-warm level. Cinnamon sprinkles dotted the ravioli's top, and dried basil leaves drenched in olive oil hid below each one, emerging to salute our noses with a sharp, fragrant wallop.

Those playful pumpkin raviolis were simultaneously familiar and bold and the finest summation of Monson's dining chops: take the traditional, tweak the format, then tweak it again with more tradition. This ethos emerged in all the entrées—I can't wait to revisit Vine and indulge on a grilled venison loin that Monson teams with couscous and a pomegranate-mint jus. But that night, I chose pillar-big sea scallops roasted to a slightly charred-but-moist apotheosis, buttressed by creamy fava beans and delectable mushrooms. My charming companion, meanwhile, sliced through a well-done flat-iron steak. Crusted with snappy shallots and possessing a slight mound of blue-cheese butter, it was everything you could ask for from a $30 slab of meat: juicy, hefty, with multiple notes magnified by our exemplary chardonnay. The accompanying French fries—sorry, Vine and all fancy restaurants, but French fries are French fries even when you call them pommes frites—also impressed with its strongly herbed grease.

Dessert came: a grainily good cheesecake dripping with raspberry compote that we joined with a wispy red wine. Then we rested. Turned out we're both fans of Coast to Coast, the nightly call-in show that treats seriously stories of ghosts, UFOs and second-gunman theories. After traipsing through San Clemente's hilly, dark avenues for a while, my charming companion asked if we could drive past the $1.1 million seaside home owned by the Diocese of Orange that I profiled in my "Lifestyles of the Rich and Pious" exposé a couple of months back. A Catholic conspiracy nut just like me—perhaps the answer to my lovelorn heart? May Post-Its rain upon your life soon.

VINE RESTAURANT, 211 N. EL CAMINO REAL, SAN CLEMENTE, (949) 361-2079; WWW.VINESANCLEMENTE.COM. OPEN TUES.-FRI., 5:30-10 P.M.; SAT., 5-10 P.M. ALL WINE, BABY, HENCE THE NAME "VINE." DINNER FOR TWO, $36-$62, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.

 
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