Review: Chef Claudette Zepeda goes global with fine, flavor-packed food at VAGA restaurant

Two years ago this month, homegrown chef Claudette Zepeda was forced to closed her year-old

Two years ago this month, homegrown chef Claudette Zepeda was forced to closed her year-old signature restaurant, El Jardin, in San Diego. Now, the Chula Vista resident is creating a new legacy at VAGA, a globally inspired restaurant in North County that looks, tastes and feels like a space where she can put down roots and flourish.

Operating since May at the new Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas in Leucadia, VAGA is a stunning ocean-facing restaurant with an open kitchen, a Zen vibe and a diverse menu that celebrates the bold, multilayered flavors that distinguished Zepeda’s cooking on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “Top Chef: Mexico” and earned her a 2019 semifinalist honor as Best Chef: West from the James Beard Foundation.

Zepeda has always called her style of cooking “grandma chic,” meaning it’s the memory-inducing, heartwarming food she grew up eating with her family in Imperial Beach and while training as a teen in her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara.

Crispy dan dan pasty at VAGA restaurant in Leucadia.

Crispy dan dan pasty at VAGA restaurant in Leucadia.

(Kimberly Motos )

“Vaga” is the nickname Zepeda’s grandmother gave her as a child. It’s a Spanish term of endearment for someone who is a wanderer or who has creative wanderlust. The VAGA menu represents Zepeda’s take on her favorite ethnic dishes she grew up eating in San Diego, including Chinese bao buns, Japanese ramen, Indian curry and Mexican aguachile.

It’s not fusion cuisine, but authentic international flavors that Zepeda has reinterpreted through her culinary lens as a native Southern Californian with Mexican roots. The Chinese dan dan noodle dish is reimagined in a British pasty. Gnocchi is made with pureed celery root and Japanese hand rolls are served with chipotle, rather than soy, sauce.

Oftentimes, chefs at hotel restaurants have to take a centrist approach with their menus to satisfy a broad spectrum of diners. Yet while there are some standard dishes on the VAGA menu, like a grilled chicken salad, they still bear Zepeda’s distinctive flavor-packed stamp, like the house burger topped with harissa bacon jam and smoked aioli.

Gnocchi made with celery root puree at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

Gnocchi made with celery root puree at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

(James Tran)

The Alila Marea resort is part of Hyatt’s Alila luxury chain of eco-tourism boutique hotels in Asia, Africa and the U.S. The 130-room clifftop resort has a modern, minimalist design that celebrates its north-facing view of South Carlsbad State Beach through walls of windows. VAGA has a row of outdoor tables and an elevated outdoor bar with deck chairs aimed to catch the nightly sunset. Its decor is luxe but spare, with bare wood tables, unadorned cutlery and humble stoneware dishes.

Zepeda — who calls the nightly dinner service her “church hour” — is in the center of the kitchen each night: cooking, consulting and maintaining a quiet, confident orderliness that keeps dishes flowing out smoothly to guests. A single mother of two, Zepeda oversees her cooks with maternal care, often posting Instagram stories of the snacks she cooks for them and the yoga and stretching exercises she has them do each night before service.

On two dining visits over the past month, I found a restaurant quickly evolving as it finds its sea legs. Reservations can be hard to get on a few days’ notice because Zepeda wants time to ease her team into operating at full capacity. On an initial lunch visit in early June, despite a mostly empty dining room, service was slow and disorganized with dishes coming out in the wrong order, plates not cleared quickly and repeated requests for iced tea refills ignored. But during a dinner visit on July 4, the service was impeccable. Our attentive but not hovering server Alan knew all the ingredients of every dish and the character of each wine served by the glass. Plates arrived together and time between courses was just right.

View from the outdoor bar deck at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

View from the outdoor bar deck at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Appetizers range from $8 for fresh-baked bread boule with honey-chili butter to $28 for dry-aged rib eye tartare with chow chow and Osetra caviar. Entrees range from $20 to $42. Desserts, most of them built for two, are $14 to $15. The menu is heavy on Pacific and Baja seafood, but there’s also a 28-ounce Snake River Farms beef rib chop priced at $130.

Not every dish was a home run. The lunch menu sushi hand rolls were bland and overpowered by the heavy sauce. The red risotto with Baja lump crab was heavy, overly spicy and cried out for a squeeze of acid to elevate the flavors of the crab. But everything else was outstanding, from their eye-catching presentations to the rich, satisfying flavors that gradually unveil themselves with each bite.

One standout dish was the wood-fired sea bass ($28), served at lunch in a filet portion with charred cabbage that melts in your mouth, mild shishito peppers, preserved lemons and a pour-over sauce made with coconut milk and lime leaves. The creamy/sweet sauce balances the pleasant brine of the fish, which was perfectly cooked with a heavenly crispy skin on top. At dinner time, this top-selling dish comes in a bigger portion ($40) and is served with a house green goddess sauce, spiced ghee and Marcona almond basmati rice.

Another excellent dish was the crispy dan dan pasty ($15), which is a savory seasoned fried pastry filled with smoked ground beef and served on a bed of Chinese five spice roasted garlic sauce, with a side of charred leek and a squeeze of yuzu citrus to balance the fat in the dish. Best of all was the evening’s special ($38), an enormous filet of tender grouper fish cooked to perfection, topped with olive tapenade and served with roast purple potato, heirloom tomatoes and a buttery sauce. The gnocchi ($20) were pillow-soft and popped with tart celery flavor, and were served with spicy greens and young cauliflower.

Flower Child Panna Cotta, with kumquat sherbet and amaretti cookie crumbles at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

Flower Child Panna Cotta, with kumquat sherbet and amaretti cookie crumbles at VAGA Restaurant in Leucadia.

(James Tran)

Fans who remember Zepeda’s imaginative desserts at El Jardin will enjoy the eye-popping treats at VAGA. The desserts are fruit-forward with bright flavors of pineapple, passionfruit and lemon. A standout was the pineapple flan tower ($15). It starts at the bottom with a caramel cake topped with a crispy caramel tuile, a pineapple flan, chunks of roasted pineapple and topped with a scoop of passionfruit-coconut ice cream. At tableside, a pitcher of fermented pineapple tea is poured on to the plate so it can soak into the cake by the time diners make their way down to it.

Just a few months into service, Zepeda is just laying down the foundation of what I hope will become her legacy restaurant in San Diego. As one of San Diego’s premier chefs, this restaurant gives her the visibility, the products, the customer base and the venue she deserves.

VAGA

Daily hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (brunch), 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (dinner)

Address: 2100 N. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas (parking is valet only, $14 with restaurant validation)

Phone: (760) 452-3484

Online: vagarestaurant.com

The dining room at VAGA Restaurant at the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas in Leucadia.

The dining room at VAGA Restaurant at the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas in Leucadia.

(Courtesy)