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Chino Farms carrot soup with mascarpone and pepita crisp; photography by Andrea Bricco

Taking Flight

by Kersten Wehde | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | January 7, 2013

There’s nothing like a wall-dominating $1.1 million calling card from pop art’s enfant terrible to remind Veladora diners that this is not their parents’ subdued Rancho Valencia. Colorfully crafted entirely from real butterfly wings, Damien Hirst’s hypnotizing “Imploration” makes for seriously sumptuous eye candy in the resort’s gorgeous new restaurant, as well as an artful salute toward the change that the space has recently undergone.

No, the secluded Rancho Santa Fe stalwart has not gone the way of the Tate since its $30 million revamp. A Spanish revival vibe is in full effect, with wrought iron chandeliers, exposed beams and glowing lanterns galore. Overdone or in lesser hands, this style might come off a little melodramatic, but Veladora steers clear of Old World artifice with luxe upholstery, hacienda-warm colors and Executive Chef Eric Bauer’s inspired Mediterranean menu, which takes local to the micro level.

After 26 years, some Ranch die-hards are going to feel a bit like the rug was pulled out from under them. Jayson Knack, director of restaurants at Rancho Valencia and a master sommelier, admits that the occasional old-timer still inquires after their chicken Parmesan and tablecloths (the latter are “done and over—so pretentious,” says Bauer, whose last gig was at Little Italy’s Anthology). But few could convincingly eulogize the aesthetic virtues of the previous clubhouse cafeteria design, with its forest green carpet, whitewashed ceilings and Tommy Bahama-style chairs. Bauer himself likens the restaurant’s previous look to “Grandma’s living room,” which is almost more insulting to grandmothers than the former space.

Befitting the cozy-meets-modern décor, the “coastal ranch” cuisine at Veladora borrows heavily from the locavore canon, and when it’s done right, the ingredients are allowed to sing for themselves. In addition to being one of nearby Chino Farms’ best customers (it’s likely that the majority of patrons traveled farther to dinner than the vegetables on their plates) and a staunch supporter of Crows Pass and Suzie’s, Bauer takes farm-to-table one step closer, foraging herbs, onion flowers, wild cress and beet soil—a delicious addition to the already spectacularly fresh market vegetable salad—from the banks of the San Dieguito River, which runs through the property. Honey comes direct from the on-site beehives, which reside in the olive grove that will eventually produce house-cured olives and perhaps olive oil. One gets the feeling that if it were logistically feasible, Bauer would set up an octopus aquaculture HQ behind the tennis courts to source his buttery carpaccio starter, a standout.

Among the entrées, particularly successful is the prime rib cap steak. Bauer is rightly proud of his treatment of the well-marbled cap, the commonly overcooked (and thus discarded) outside cut of the rib-eye. At Veladora, it’s removed beforehand and pan-roasted, resulting in a meltingly tender dish paired with fresh porcini mushrooms, celery root purée, a little grilled onion and baby Brussels sprouts (the latter two are both from the world-famous Chino, where Bauer makes daily stops). It outshines every one of the fish dishes, though the millet with sautéed Scottish trout, meaty in its own right and served with a bright fennel and orange reduction, makes a valiant case for runner-up.

The grilled artichoke cannellonis are cleverly wrapped in potato rather than pasta, though an excess of Parmesan-Reggiano and truffle cream easily overpower the novelty of the wrap itself. That cheese does rich wonders, however, in the perfectly executed wild mushroom risotto with mascarpone. A half-size portion is more than adequate for this creamy Continental stunner, but your company will absolutely steal more bites than you’re comfortable sharing, so opt for the full size to avoid an argument.

Geographically, Veladora’s isolation is both an asset and a minor liability: While the pride of Madeira-lined road to the resort is a pretty journey, the destination is not exactly central. Yet so far, the reservation book is full, the Pony Room is packed nightly and Bauer has big plans for the candlelit retreat in the middle of the Ranch. “Things will change whenever we get bored of stuff, or when produce changes,” he says. “We’ll change from day to day if we need to.” He’s referring to the menu, of course, as Norwegian cod replaces halibut and English peas come into season, but there’s something exciting about the idea of a larger metamorphosis occurring before our eyes at Rancho Valencia, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa
5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe

Breakfast daily, 7-11am; lunch Mon.-Sat., 11am-2:30pm; dinner Mon.-Sat., 6-9pm; brunch Sun., 11am-2:30pm

Who’s There
Ranch natives, La Jollans, jet-setting international types, former La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff

Oh, Barkeep
A stellar wine menu of 600 options means no one is going thirsty, and all cocktail ingredients are made à la minute. The Neck Shot, with Blanco tequila and the smack of serrano, is a winner.

Saddle Up
Next door, the more casual Pony Room offers prosecco on tap, live tunes on Friday and Saturday, dynamite charcuterie and excellent people-watching.

On Deck
A free-rein tasting menu is en route for diners looking to try smaller portions of several dishes.

Save Room
Every aspect of the chocolate bar, with almond dacquoise, chocolate orange mousse, sea salt and candied orange, is almost alarmingly delicious.

Starters, $11-$17; entrées, $24-$43; dessert, $12-$14