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The simple yet elegant exterior of Valentina in Leucadia. Photo courtesy of Valentina
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Lick the Plate: Valentina blossoms in Leucadia

As much as I loved the Moto Deli concept of scratch-made, chef-driven sandwiches, it never really made the transition into dinner and evening hours.

Given its killer location in the heart of Leucadia, and the now bustling nighttime dining scene, a fresh concept to cater to that crowd was inevitable and happened recently with the birth of Valentina.

Owner Mario Warman and chef/partner Alex Carballo have transformed the space into an elegant yet casual restaurant that feels like a more mature, yet still playful Moto Deli.

It should be noted that many of the amazing Moto Deli sandwiches are still available on the lunch menu. That was good to hear, as they are still some of my favorites anywhere.

The Valentina menu is eclectic, influenced by the styles of Mexico, France and Italy as interpreted by Chef Alex Carballo. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Alex pops up in Lick the Plate often bringing his culinary prowess to help launch some of my favorite places to eat in the area including Clara in Carlsbad.

The fabulous Steak Frites served at a perfect medium rare. Photo by David Boylan

The menu is simple yet obviously chef-driven with a focus on fresh ingredients and a playful mix of offerings. It has three sections, 1.0, 1.2, and 2.0 with prices ranging from $4 to $23, which is very reasonable given the quality of the food and the skill creating it in the kitchen.

The 1.0 section includes some of the best values on the menu including some of the best frites I’ve had anywhere. These are obviously hand-cut and they are amazing.

The Pulpo & Papas (octopus and potatoes) is charred with a Piquillo Pepper and is a simple delight.  The Albondigas & Marinara (meatballs in a red sauce) comes with ricotta and fired basil and is a very hearty starter that could almost be an entrée for one and it’s very good.

Heirloom Tomato & Burrata was another standout drizzled with a high quality Balsamic.  Gazpacho rounded out our samples of starters and their version of chilled tomato soup had pickled cucumber and was light and refreshing.

Our 1.2 adventure started with the Mussels al Vino in a shallot-wine broth with herbs and some perfectly toasted bread for soaking up that delightful broth. I could eat their Yellow Tail Crudo with curry-pickled strawberries every single day and it would never get old.

It’s that good.

And while Mac  & Cheese is nothing new on menus, they do it right, serving it in a mini cast iron skillet with pancetta and grantine. Grantine is the crusty top layer that elevates a common mac and cheese to another level and the pancetta was a nice touch.

Moving on to the 2.0 portion of the menu I was thrilled to see a simple Steak & Frites with Chimichurri as it is one of my favorite dishes ever.

The steak came out sliced at a perfect medium rare and those spectacular frites I mentioned earlier are there to soak up the juice. Valentina is my new local go-to joint for steak frites and I’m quite happy about that.

Pescado del Dia is the daily fish option and on separate occasions I’ve had a really nice Grouper and Sea Bass. Preparations will vary on this but rest assured they will do it right.