By: Sheen Fischer
How many times have you looked at a post or an article about a great place to eat and thought to yourself, “Wow, I wish that place was in my neighborhood”? While the literal Italian to English translation of Dolce Pane e Vino might be “Sweet Bread and Wine”, the emotional literation is “Sweet Czar of Mirth and Merriment, thank you for this place being in San Diego.”
It is said that there are three main items that contribute to the success of any brick and mortar business. First would be location. Then you have location. Thirdly…location. Dolce is nestled in the busiest corner of a small shopping center in Fairbanks Ranch. I think it would be fair to say it is the busiest corner because Dolce resides there.
This is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant. At around five years in existence, Dolce has already developed a character, ambience and patronage that reeks of an establishment that has simply always been there. The menu is consistent. It is refined, containing dishes with both fresh ingredients and ideas, yet replete with comfort food choices. A well-stocked bar with three TV’s playing the current relevant sports events adds to the energy of the place without being distracting.
Dolce is Warm. Safe. Cozy. Even seated at family style tables where you are rubbing elbows with other small parties of diners, there is the sense that your conversation and meal are personal and private, while the occasional smile, nod of the head and comment can be shared with your table mates at will, further enhancing your experience. Dolce has mastered all of the little things that complete the equation of Charm.
I know. How do you take an interesting picture of a wine flight? If it is possible, it is beyond my skill set. But how do you visit an establishment that has “Sweet Wine” in its moniker and not at least try? This Big Red wine flight consisted of a Russian River Pinot by Belle Glos. We were first introduced to Belle Glos here years ago and, consistently, this vineyard produces Pinot Noir that has stood up to most stringent tests of culinary challenges we have been able to throw at it. The flight, also consisting of two Napa wines, Hourglass Meritage and Prisoner Cab, was substantial enough in flavor and volume (with three ounce pours) to last and complement the entire meal.
It is possible, however, to take an interesting picture of a Level Two Sommelier standing in front of his seemingly infinite wall of wine. Steven Flowers, otherwise known as the Czar of Mirth and Merriment (in waiting), fits that bill perfectly. Along with amassing a wine collection that aims to please (and hits the mark), Steven, as Managing Parner, has selected and trained a staff that accomplishes the same function.
It is a little easier taking a picture of the complimentary “Sweet Bread”. But what brings the flavor home here is the Ohhh, sooo buttery olive oil and balsamic vinegar dipping bowl. After many years of traveling and dining, I still think the olive oil here rivals the best we’ve ever tasted. If you close your eyes, you could swear it was melted butter lightly flavored with fresh pressed olives that you were tasting.
The focal point of the open kitchen is the traditional style brick oven. The oven is also where the magic happens in the preparation of most meals that you will enjoy here. All tables in the establishment have a view into the workspace and playground of Chef Tony Ventura.
We kicked things off with brussel sprouts toasted in the brick oven. The rapid and searing heat applied to these brought them to a perfectly cooked toothiness while allowing them to retain a fresh and succulent texture. The crispy lardons were a welcome, salty accent that were best enjoyed solo. Two bites of sprout, small bite of lardon…repeat.
It was a tossup on this evening whether to order the charcuterie, which historically has been one of our favorites, or the Carpaccio. All doubts in our choice of Carpaccio were dissipated when the rice paper thin slices of Eye of Round arrived. Coated in Porcini oil, and accented by Chino Farms pickled spring onions (these should be served by the bowl – spectacular!), capers, Cremini mushrooms, pickled artichokes, smoked pecorino (the list goes on), this is a dish that can be picked at for an hour or destroyed in 10 minutes…we were hungry…
If mussels are on the menu, I will probably order them. And, I will be a critic of them if necessary. Mussels are one of those shellfish, in my opinion, that have a perfect amount of indigenous flavor, but so easily accept any variety of other flavors that can be tossed at them. These were plump, viscid, redolent of tomato, yet lightened by the generous application of lemon and spices. The baguette, oven roasted was, well – if you remember, this place is named “Sweet Bread”.
I like my risotto on the slightly al dente side, which this one was. Maybe I like to play it safe. But, there are too many risottos I’ve tried out there that were aiming for that perfectly cooked, creamy texture and overshot their mark by thirty seconds, essential becoming oatmeal. Err on the side of caution, I say. The English peas lent a very slightly sweet counterpoint to the dish and also benefitted from chef’s light touch retaining their snap, while the acidity of the fresh cherry tomatoes pierced the creaminess of the dish and multiplied the savory flavor.
So, I never order chicken when eating out. Look, you can buy a whole roasted chicken at the grocery store deli for about $6. Growing up in a family on a budget (“on a budget” means no seconds at dinner ‘cause leftovers were for the following night), I ate a lot of chicken. Chicken ranks right up there with spaghetti with me in terms of meals that I don’t want to pay for.
But, for the last 4 years or so, every time I come here I order the chicken. In fact, Dee, laughs about it, because it is the only we place we frequent where she has to order something different so that we can try all the other stuff on the menu. Usually I am Mr. “Try Something New”.
Imagine my absolute shock when we came here for the first time in over a year and my favorite brick oven chicken, pressed under a brick while roasting, with every drop of innate juiciness locked in, served with a sunny side egg on top and a jus that you would bathe your baby in is not only still on the menu, but is now offered “Angry Style”.
Really? Whatever you’re laying down, my friend, I’m picking up. Be assured, the roasted chicken “house” style will knock your socks off. It is packed with flavor and something about the whole brick thing just brings out the best in it. But, rub it in a seven spice concoction and piss it off…yeah, you know what I’m talking about!
Dee went classic tonight. Medium rare prime rib, with cheese. Oh, no, not just any cheese. I had to try it three times and then confirm with Jeff, our server, what I thought I was tasting. Burratta cheese? On a prime rib? I wouldn’t have imagined it, but it worked. It was definitely not the spicy, taste bud overloading explosion of bleu cheese so commonly used, but it also let the beautifully prepared meat shine while acting as a companion and not a conqueror of the dish.
Salted Caramel Budino for dessert. Crushed almonds for texture. But, wait…There’s more!
Could it be? Is it…? Chocolate Brioche Bread Pudding? With house made chocolate ice cream on a bed of shaved chocolate. Here we have a case where the dessert could have easily devolved to an overbearing chocolaty mess. Instead, the dense brioche had just the right amount of airiness that served to absorb the syrupy chocolate flavor and provide more of a French toast texture that seemed to require the included chocolate to establish a personality. I like you, oh pudding, my pudding!
And, at the end of the night, the true stars were in the kitchen. We had the best seat in the house at the family style chef’s table, staring right at these guys as the place filled up. We watched Chef Tony Ventura juggling dishes, spinning bottles, tossing towels behind his back as he was expediting meals. Never once were they in the weeds.
Literally the kitchen went from 0-60 in the space of about 5 minutes. Sous Chef John Weimann works the brick oven like a maestro. Flipping, sliding, shuffling – the technique and timing he uses to produce the dishes which are then finished and dressed by the rest of the crew are a delight to watch.
And as quickly as the rush hit them, it was cleared. One minute, the surface in front of Chef Tony was stacked eight deep with meals heading to the dining room, the next the crew was posing for a picture, looking as relaxed and happy as we felt after enjoying another great meal in the ‘hood. Cheers, my friends!
Dolce Pane e Vino
16081 San Dieguito Road
Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067