Delicately placed between a nail salon and a shoe store on Avenida Del Mar, The Cellar in San Clemente is locally famous for its high-quality artisan cheeses. But walk past the counter, and you'll find a small, intimate surprise. A bar lines one half of a wall; banquette tables ring the other wall, with modern art above the diners. The Cellar offers live music every night, and it's continuously crowded, with the high-top communal tables usually the first to fill up.
"Some people come here to buy cheese and are like 'I didn't even know there was a restaurant here,'" said chef Holton Britt.
Chef Britt created a new, innovative menu when he joined The Cellar in October 2015. With a kitchen stocked with fresh, organic meats, seafood, and produce in combination with the herbs Britt picks daily from the restaurant garden in the back, each dish is carefully constructed for the best possible flavor—and it starts with the cheese.
For a first course, head cheesemonger Dillon Joyce astutely explained what was on the cheeseboard: D'affinois Double Cream Brie drizzled with honey and raw almonds along with Noord Hollander Gouda and five-year-aged Manchego. Each cheese was sliced into thin triangles, then formed into stacks that looked like a Frank Gehry creation. D'affinois was the favorite at the table: creamy, smooth taste with a slight sweetness from the honey. Accompanied with cornichons, whole grain mustard and toast points, the cheese starter didn't stand a chance.
Next was crispy, organic chicken wings, accompanied by a sweet Thai chili sauce. Also arriving at the same time were fried calamari steak resting on a bed of arugula garnished with green onions and fried green olives. Thin-sliced calamari was moist and crisp, and though it came with a tarragon caviar tartar sauce, no dipping was needed.
Buffalo cauliflower is a seasonal item that Chef Britt is currently offering. He flash-fried it, then tossed the florets in a buffalo sauce already infused with a cauliflower puree. Its crisp but tender texture, combined with the kick of the Louisiana hot sauce, impressed, as did a peach burrata salad. A mix of 19 garden greens tossed with house-made caramelized citrus vinaigrette and topped with grilled peaches and fresh Italian burrata cheese with a finish of crunchy pistachio brittle: spectacular.
And The Cellar also elevates hummus. They prepare various flavors and make the spread daily; during this meal, the choice was garlic lemon. Not only was the hummus tart and creamy and served alongside artisan bread, but it came with exactly 14 grilled vegetables, a number the menu boasted about for some reason. Throughout the courses, the waitress was knowledgeable, attentive and fast.
Before dinner, the table next to us raved about the mac 'n' cheese, claiming it's been on the menu from The Cellar's beginning. Penne noodles baked with the restaurant's secret cheese blend, shallots, and garlic finished with chives sounds simple enough, but sometimes, that's all you need. Guests had the option to add bacon, truffle oil, spring peas, or short ribs, but the mac 'n' cheese is so rich that it doesn't need it.
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The main course was beef short ribs marinated in a Vineyard 29 Zinfandel, giving it a soft, velvety flavor. It sat on top of creamy Gouda grits, as well as sautéed baby kale garnished with pickled onions and horseradish crema—a delightful blend. Strawberry shortcake was the dessert: sweet, organic Harry's Berries strawberries and homemade whipped cream sandwiched between two fresh-baked spiced shortbread cookies and sprinkled with chocolate and dulce de leche pearls—a brilliant way to finish the meal.
The Cellar, 156 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, (949) 492-3663; thecellarsite.com