I love a passionate restaurateur, especially one who grew up in the industry and whose father is a lifetime restaurant guy. So when Russ Bendel, former managing partner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Newport Beach, ventured out to run his own establishment, the culinary community paid attention. Vine in San Clemente has become a great triumph, and now he’s done it again.
Ironwood Cellar.Craft.Cook in suburban Laguna Hills is, quite simply, a fantastic place to eat. In a town of few independently owned restaurants, it stands out. It’s got a casual vibe, with flawless service. Yes, there is sophisticated, elevated cuisine in South County.
From the craft cocktails created by partner and mixologist Gabe Whorley to the innovative gastronomic approach of Executive Chef Jared Cook (also a partner in the restaurant), your palate will be tempted by the Wine Country-inspired offerings—and the place is lively and fun. The beautifully redesigned space is filled with locals who are thrilled to be indulging in creative cuisine and a varied wine list in their own backyard. The space is warm and inviting, with scoping views, dark wood, polished concrete and a beautiful patio—a perfect spot to watch the sun drop just below the mountains. The outdoor expanse boasts a farm table for intimate parties. A small bar inside bustles—it can be difficult to nab a seat there, but it’s worth the wait. My favorite stool faces the action in the open kitchen and offers a great view of the restaurant—and front-and-center viewing of the delectable dishes the chef is turning out.
This is a dinner-only destination, and I recommend a few visits to taste-test the entire menu and find your favorites. I start my research by sampling from the creative libations, and the Baby Blues garners a nod. Vodka, orange liqueur, a hint of fresh lemon, blueberries and cucumber mingle together to create a garden party that’s refreshing, not too sweet, and easy to sip and savor. Watch for the daily cocktail inspiration too, as this team likes to mix things up! Or partake in the California-focused wine list, with Napa and Sonoma selections, a Burgess Syrah (my personal favorite) and a few French finds, like a stellar nectar from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The menu offers a few specialties from sister spot Vine along with a selection of new dishes. Although commonplace, the cheese and charcuterie platter at Ironwood excites—pistachio mortadella, Spanish chorizo, Manchester and herbaceous goat cheeses, and a bevy of fruit and nuts. It just seems fitting to start the meal slowly, lingering over conversation and looking forward to the next course. Move on to starters to find the signature duck wings, glazed with Meyer lemon and honey, and full of rich goodness. There’s a homemade English pea dumpling, and while the pasta (made from scratch) is a bit thick, it’s full of flavor, especially when the perfect bite blends with the pistachio brown butter. Or keep it lean and clean, and opt for the vegetable salad with fresh burrata—a stunning composition of farmers-market finds and a bacon-sherry dressing that ties it all together scrumptiously.
For main courses, be sure to try the Jidori chicken schnitzel with homemade herb spaetzle—there’s simply not enough of the tasty mushrooms that adorn this perfect plate of sustenance. The fish special, on my second visit, is perfectly cooked sea bass on flavorful Israeli couscous. And the grilled bone-in rib-eye has yet to disappoint, with its classic bearnaise and a great big pile of smoked blue-cheese mashed potatoes. The side dishes are a necessary addition to the table, and the chef’s skillet mac and cheese is a must.
For dessert, the choices are slim, but the fromage blanc brownie—the chef’s ultimate indulgence—is divinely decadent, complete with Nutella ice cream and praline crumbs.
I really can’t say enough about this new showstopper of a restaurant. Hasina, a veteran server with class and panache, will show you tremendous hospitality. The chef will delight your palate with his beautiful and delicious dishes. And the stellar team will make your visits memorable. And I’ll be keeping an eye on Bendel because I suspect Vine and Ironwood are only the beginning of his success.