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Vaga Has Stunning Views and a ‘Top Chef’ Contender at the Helm

Food critic Troy Johnson reviews Claudette Zepeda's latest venture in Leucadia
Vaga - main

A portion of the expansive patio and sea views at Vaga at Alila Marea resort

I need to talk about this salad. It arrives as a giant, bouffantish ring of spinach topped with scattered deli meat. As if someone tragically misread the directions for bundt cake. Spiritually, it is that friend who comes to a costume party in khakis and a polo shirt, sucking the mystery from the affair and bumming people out—until he rips off the fake outfit and reveals a flaming flamingo bodysuit with LED rhinestones and the party explodes and people talk about it for years. Because when you toss this plain-looking assemblage of exquisite farm clippings with preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette and very intentionally fork the perfect bite (a bit of French melon, a piece of smoked lamb shoulder that’s been cooled and sliced, spinach from Girl & Dug Farm in San Marcos, a crescent of thin fennel and radish), it may be my favorite bite at Vaga. A knockout vinaigrette is the cowbell for any salad.

As locals, we’re always looking for new ocean-view restaurants to justify extorting ourselves to live here. Places to stick a straw in a decent drink and let that saltwater-sky blend of blues lull us into a hypnotic state where sound financial decision-making is not nearly as important as the sheer whoa of San Diego. I was sure we’d run out of places to pull this off, but Alila Marea (a coastal boutique resort arm of Hyatt) found a sliver for their gemstone—a $110 million, 130-room resort nuzzled on the northern edge of Leucadia.

Vaga - Claudette

Chef Claudette Zepeda

Vaga - Lamb salad

Lamb shoulder salad

Though it hasn’t been home to hill farmers for decades, Leucadia can’t be accused of being highfalutin. I often refer to it as the OB of North County. Its post-rural naturalism and ambivalence toward sidewalks are both its charm and its defiance. The tides could’ve quickly turned against Alila Marea had San Diego-based Joseph Wong Design Associates not built such an understated stunner. Its crescent facade curls into the sandstone cliff like a sleepy den animal made of concrete and dark woods.

Vaga - Hail Mary

Hail Mary cocktail

With fire pits and Adirondack chairs perched high above South Ponto Beach and Batiquitos Lagoon, Vaga is instantly one of the best places in the country to watch the sea snuff out the sun. You can see the Carlsbad State Beach campgrounds, where tent and RV dads grill supermarket meat with headlamps and dirty tongs. I love that campground. Once a year I am that dirty-tonged dad, down there guessing at grill marks in the dark. Sitting at Vaga’s bar—with a massive fold-up window framing the whole postcard scene, drinking a “Convoy” (Toki Japanese whiskey, citrus, lemongrass, five spice, and seltzer—tasting like an Asian riff on a mule)—I gotta admit I prefer this by a fairly wide margin.

Vaga’s vibe spans date night, wellness spa, and introspective Subaru commercial. Half the guests on the alfresco lounge sport puffy vests; some have flowy influencer wrap-type garb. But I’d also feel at ease here wearing nothing but essential oils and a terry cloth robe. Naturalism oozes. The problem with ocean-view restaurants is often that they know they can play average ball in the kitchen and  still eke out a win. Leave the high-cost food-and-drink voodoo to those with freeways out their windows. If you’ve got 187 quintillion gallons of Pacific Ocean, you can get otherwise savvy people to plunk $10 on leftover Spam crusted with old nuts. And yet Alila Marea hired one of the city’s most accomplished young chefs—James Beard semifinalist and Top Chef alum Claudette Zepeda—to design Vaga’s menu, source their farms and wines, train their staff, oversee menu changes, and perform recurring quality control.

Vaga - ponto punch

Ponto Punch cocktail

Zepeda’s menu lands somewhere between Baja, Asia, and Wherever Tastes Nice. After training under Gavin Kaysen in French cuisine, she seemed to get typecast in her own Mexican cuisine by various media forces. Here, you can feel her wriggling free a bit. Take the Mediterranean bagna cauda clams with zhoug (a spicy green Middle Eastern sauce of cilantro and jalapeño). I mean no disrespect to the clam community and I thank them for their sacrifices—but clams are never the point of a bowl of clams. The broth is the truth and the light. Vaga’s broth is up to the task; a deep, warm, round taste spiked with heat and tang and bright herb-gardenness from the zhoug. Grab that buttery, chargrilled bread. That is your divining rod. Stick it into the bowl, swirl, harvest your truth.

You could share these clams. But unless you’re married to your dining companion or owe them money, suggest they maybe get their own damn clams. This bowl is only big enough for self-care. The birria ramen is some overdue Mexican-Japanese matchmaking, with its thick soup made of chiles and slow-cooked beef juices. A tuft of that beef rises from the bowl like a very soft Gibraltar, along with kimchi, noodles, and a whole soft-boiled egg. Do I wish the egg were more distinctly marinated and browned as the greatest egg on earth—the Japanese ajitsuke tamago—should be? You bet. Get a bit of kimchi in every bite. It’s essential, like a live electrical wire cutting through an otherwise pretty intense lava pit of food.

Vaga - Burger

Vaga burger

Vaga - birria ramen

Birria ramen

Vaga - Parker House rolls

Parker House rolls with yuzu butter

The Vaga Burger arrives a glorious mess—Parmesan fondue and smoked aioli spilling out its sides and onto the plate. The burger has no restraint and no shame. It is nearly queso, and that—along with the harissa bacon jam and caramelized onion giving it a sweetness that’s not overly cloying—makes it the indulgence you’re looking for when ordering a burger. The fries, though, are hammered—hard and overcooked, no fluff on their insides. You could order a full dinner here, or you could deliver a crushing blow to the keto movement by simply eating their Parker House rolls until you pass out from pleasure and gluten. Four of them arrive hot in a skillet, glistening and topped with sea salt, served with yuzu and honey butter. The crust gives way to that indescribably soft inside. I’d also recommend the Baja sea bass. This is a spartan plate. It’s a piece of fish and sauce and a wedge of lime (a nice jasmine rice is inexplicably served on the side in a bowl). But extreme minimalism works in this case. The skin-on sea bass has been crisped and browned, parts of it lightly puffed from the sauté oil, like chicharrones. That green goddess sauce acts like a very advanced, enlightened version of the tartar sauce that provided emotional support for America’s sick 1980s fascination with fish sticks.

If there’s one recurring issue I have with Vaga it’s that the kitchen makes great sauces, but turns that strength into a weakness by flooding the plate with them. It works with the herb pistou tossed into the chilled soba noodles at lunch, with the pickled maitake mushrooms, and with the porcini dehydrated into a “migas” (crunchy bits usually made with leftover corn tortillas). Tastes like the best deli salad at a  very important picnic. But the hearth half-chicken in a sweet-and-spicy glaze begs for a side dish that offers a break from sauce, not the heavily dressed slaw it gets. And the scallop aguachile, while tasty, is topped with four inches of sweet coconut foam that drowns the nuances—most crucially, the acidity of the citrus.

Vaga - clams

Bagna Cauda clams

Vaga - seabass

Baja seabass

Vaga - This is We

This is We dessert

No complaints whatsoever with the dessert This Is We. You shouldn’t smoke. But if you do, you’ll probably need one of those and a confession booth afterward. The outer layer is ultra-smooth dark chocolate. Cut through to discover a molten miso caramel and dulce tahini cremeaux. Think of it like a Milky Way that has reached full enlightenment. Or a gigantic super-truffle. Order a second one, a third, a thirtieth. Stare out from Vaga into the beachy sepia tone. I can think of worse ways to descend into insolvency.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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