One of the first things I saw at Vaca, Amar Santana's new Spanish restaurant across from South Coast Plaza, was the ham leg propped up on a proper jamonera, an L-shaped board with two metal stirrups specifically designed for displaying Spanish hams. That the ham was essentially lit by a spotlight as the star of the embutido bar should tell you how much Vaca is selling it for. As of this writing, an ounce of the jamón Ibérico cinco jotas will set you back $36. Why so much? Because not only has this salt-cured hind leg of pork been aged for five years, but it also came from a specific breed that was allowed to roam free in an oak forest and feed on its acorns. But will you be able to tell the difference between it and the $12-per-ounce la quercia coppa Americana?
After admitting I probably wouldn't, I chose the cheaper paleta Ibérico Fermin for my charcuterie plate. It came from the shoulder of the beast and costs $18 per ounce, which was still more than most illicit substances. But as each satiny ribbon of pork melted on my tongue, I kind of forgot that every bite was the cost equivalent of putting a $5 bill directly into my mouth. Aside from the cost, the chance to taste real Ibérico ham was a treat, which up until a few years ago wasn't something the USDA even allowed into this country.
To my expensive aged Spanish pork, I added expensive aged Spanish cheese. I chose the eight-month manchego at the suggestion of my server, who said I'd be able to "taste the cheese more" with it over the three-month manchego. I didn't press him on how much better the 12-month manchego retailing for $1 more would've been. I figured I'd be wasting my money at that point. Besides, there were other things on my platter that made more of a difference. The Marcona almonds shattered like toffee; the crackers and tiny breadsticks tasted freshly baked. And the housemade compote and pickles, especially the cauliflower, were already making my $23 investment seem more than fair.
Still, it's probably wise to not think about cost when you go to Vaca. Even if you avoid the spectacular cocktails conceived by Gabrielle Dion, an evening at Vaca can quickly become very expensive, especially if you actually want a steak. A slab of cow here tops out at $55 per pound for the beef rib steak aged 50 days. Most customers on the night of my visit were content in just taking pictures of the marbled cuts behind the glass display case, then constructing their actual dinner from the tapas menu. You should do this, too—it's full of intriguing stuff.
It was where I found the erizos con huevo, sea urchin cooked with soft scrambled eggs deposited into the spiky hollowed-out shell of the urchin itself. As I spooned the wiggling curds onto a slightly stale plank of buttered toast, I realized a blond woman at the next table was staring at me. She had ordered a salad.
I would also recommend the grilled calamari, served with its char-kissed whole mantles over stewed eggplant. The squid steak was soft enough to cut with a fork. But the best dish of the night had to be the smoked-chicken cannelloni. Think of it as a chicken enchilada crossed with a cheese blini served over a lake of foie gras sauce. I'm not sure if Santana ever offered it to the judges on the current season of Top Chef, but if he did, Padma Lakshmi would've surely swooned over it, especially because he showered the soft tubes with crunchy furikake to put it over the top.
And if there were a paella-themed challenge, Santana would've dominated. He serves four kinds at Vaca: an all-meat with blood sausage and duck; an all-seafood with octopus; a vegetarian; and the most interesting of all, a fideuà, pasta cooked in the style of paella. In Santana's version, it's blackened by squid ink, then topped with calamari rings, almonds and a ginger lime aioli. I loved the dish not because it's possibly the most cost-effective thing you can order at Vaca, but also because the noodles themselves were cut to inch-long strands and tasted closer to Filipino-style pancit than actual pasta.
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This brings me to the man himself—a Top Chef contender and the real reason a reservation at Vaca is going to be harder to get the longer he stays in contention on the show. Despite the packed house, it's easy to locate him. He'll be the chef with the biggest grin, the one shaking hands and posing for pictures while leading his team to bigger heights. Do those heights include winning Top Chef? He can't say, but that Ibérico is one hell of a clue. . . .
Vaca, 695 Town Center Dr., Ste. 170, Costa Mesa, (714) 463-6060; www.vacarestaurant.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 5-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$150, food only. Full bar.