During my morning commute from Leucadia to Oceanside, I observed the many phases of construction of the Alila Marea Beach Resort at the end of La Costa Boulevard. I finally made my way down to this beauty of a hotel and restaurant recently and was blown away.
Vaga Restaurant & Bar, the luxury hotel’s signature restaurant, is connected to 130 coastal and garden-view rooms and suites that use innovative design to showcase the natural elements of the coastline. The resort also features an oceanfront pool and more than 28,500 square feet of indoor-outdoor event spaces along with Spa Alila, a world-class spa and wellness experience.
A property of this standing is sure to win awards. And last year, Vaga was named to Esquire Magazine’s “40 Best New Restaurants in America” in 2021. As I walked around the resort’s grounds, I imagined out-of-town business guests stoked their event planner scored this fabulous location for a meeting.
For my dining experience at Vaga, I was led to an outdoor table facing north with killer views to the east and west. I’ll say upfront that our server, Marshall Moss, was as knowledgeable and skilled at his profession as I’ve experienced in North County San Diego.
Moss was able to describe the cocktails, menu, specials and suggested wine pairings in a manner that conveyed knowledge and passion, not just memorization. The well-versed steward romanced each item description like he had a personal relationship with it. Combine that with an epic location and a menu worthy of such culinary and beverage savvy and that adds up to a special evening.
Before I jump into the details, the culinary talent brought on to open Vaga was world-class as well. Executive Chef Claudette Zepeda opened Vaga and her star-filled resume features time as executive chef and partner at El Jardin, chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero, and she competed on Top Chef Season 15 and Top Chef Mexico.
Zepeda recently assumed the role of chef consultant and will continue to be the creative visionary behind the culinary experiences at Alila Marea Beach Resort, while handing over the day-to-day culinary execution of Vaga to Ananda Bareno.
Bareno has an equally impressive culinary resume and will also oversee the menus for The Pocket Pool & Bar, Coffee Box, special events catering and in-room dining.
OK, let’s get to the goods here. It’s essential to start with a cocktail as the creative list just begs to be tried. My dining companion went with the “No Place Like Home,” which includes vodka, grapefruit, plum essence syrup, dash falernum (Caribbean rum liqueur with allspice and lime).
This drink has to be a finalist for the most visually appealing cocktail ever. It’s so pretty you almost won’t want to drink it but please do as it’s delicious. I went with the “Convoy” as a nod to one of my favorite San Diego bands of the same name and also on the suggestion from Marshall that it was a tall cocktail…more bang for the buck!
All that and I’d never experienced Japanese whiskey with house-made citrus cordial, Chinese five-spice and sparkling water. I will be back to saddle up to the bar for this one, it was fabulous.
Since we were going to be sampling a variety of dishes, we requested a couple of versatile dry white wines and once again, our server Marshall was spot-on with his suggestions. We went with the Schloss Gobelsberg Gruner Veltliner and the Domaine LaRoche Chablis, both perfectly crisp, dry and refreshing.
Then the feast began. Local Yellowtail Crudo w/ Asian pear, avocado mousse, and spicy black garlic sauce and brisket buns with smoked brisket, braised in salsa verde w/ bacon, stuffed into Chinese style Bao buns started us off in a gourmet surf and turf kind of way.
Then, in a whimsical nod to my beloved Upper Peninsula of Michigan pasties, the chef has created a whimsical take on those with her Dan Pasty, made of ground beef, seasoned with oyster sauce and ginger, stuffed into a crispy short pastry, finished with sesame mole and a green papaya salad. Loved it!
Next up was the wildly creative Octopus carnitas consisting of braised Octopus legs, finished on the flat grill with spiced beef fat, white bean puree and pickled mushroom ceviche, with warm tortillas. Again, super creative and tasty.
Even after all that culinary goodness, the best was yet to come. The Baja Seabass was the best thing I’ve eaten in a long time. The boneless filet of black striped bass, pan-roasted in a woodburning oven, with crackling skin, Green Goddess sauce and Marcona almond Basmati rice with spiced ghee was a delight for the senses. The rice was the best I’ve ever had. Seriously.
More amazing seafood arrived next with East Coast scallops, pan-roasted with caramelized plantain sauce, Macha chile, Peruvian corn, Parmigiana.
After a quick walk around the dining room to stretch my legs and gather myself for dessert, we were presented with the Chocolate Bombe. It’s a chocolate sponge cake, layered w/ dark chocolate mousse, miso-sesame caramel crema, dark chocolate glaze. And of course, Marshall paired it nicely with a La Terre Sauternes.
Vaga is all that and then some. It’s not inexpensive and for most would be considered a big night out for a special occasion. It is a culinary experience delivered at a very high level of skill, execution and service so I would consider it worthy. Or just check out the bar, the view and enjoy some cocktails and appetizers. However you decide to experience Vaga, it’s worth checking out.
Find them at 2100 N. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas www.vagarestaurant.com 760.452.3484