A Touch of Spain in OC 5

Vaca is the most anticipated restaurant opening in Orange County this year. Not only is its chef, Amar Santana, gaining recognition as a true contender on Bravo’s Emmy-award winning television series Top Chef, but the space itself–it once housed a luxurious spa, just steps away from Segerstrom Center for the Arts–has seamlessly transformed into a stunning elongated restaurant dotted with rows of glowing lights. As you walk into Vaca, an effusive buzz emanates throughout the dining room. Two bars–one offering full service and the other, shorter bar, housing the cheese and charcutuerie display–straddle the walkway as you work your way into the main dining room. A towering meat case displays the prime cuts of aged beef, as if each slab is an unctuous piece of marbled crown jewelry.

An open kitchen creates an array of entertainment for parties seated in the dining room. As the dishes emerge, diners effortlessly get a quick glance at the next tapa they should be tempted to order. While the wooden tables are ideal for larger parties, if you opt to dine as a duo, the bar is where the action truly unfolds. Soccer games projected on a large flat screen TV stream continuously and rows of heritage liquors and spirits are stacked to the ceiling. The longer bar, which serves the entire menu, comes with an added oomph of energy from the bustling mixologists shaking up cocktails, truly transporting you to a more authentic tapas bar experience. While the ambience and bar, which features a sherry tasting menu, vermouth on tap and four different versions of a Spanish gin and tonic, are inviting and enjoyable, the food that accompanies each cocktail will keep you happily imbibing.

The crowd favorite for seafood lovers is the Erizos con Huevos, which features a spiny sea urchin shell cracked on top unveiling soft scrambled eggs lined with briny, fresh sea urchin capped with bright bursts of roe. For a more decadent touch, substitute the roe for delicate caviar beads. While the dish is easily devoured with a spoon, the chef plates the urchin with four crispy toasts glistening with miso butter. Whether you decide to dip them into the soft eggs or slather them with the Erizos con Huevos, there’s no wrong way to eat this. The presentation alone garners stares from nearby tables and soon we see several urchin shells circulating through the dining room.

While the Catalan classics, such as the Tortilla Española–a circular omelet dotted with cubes of potatoes, diced onions and peppers–and the pan con tomate channel the quintessential tapas bar experience, the steak at Vaca reigns supreme. The charred 50-day aged beef rib steak comes served medium rare with healthy slabs of buttery fat that melts with each bite. Other cuts, such as the Japanese Kobe rib eye, boneless Strauss grass-fed New York strip and the California Washimi ribeye, boast of chef Santana’s impeccable attention to high quality purveyors sourcing the country’s most coveted hormone and antibiotic free meat.

The steaks are the stars of the menu, but the paellas are the ultimate comfort food. The Paella de Carne comes served dotted with crispy pork belly strips, cubes of tender beef cheek, and slices of chorizo and blood sausage. A fork-tender leg of duck confit graces the top with glistening spatters of creamy aioli and finely diced scallions. The only thing missing is the crispy socarrat layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan. The unexpected paella dish to order is the Fideuá, comprised of toasted noodles instead of rice. This Catalan classic is a must-try course in Barcelona and should definitely not be missed at Vaca. The dark squid ink colors the noodles with a rich ebony hue that’s speckled with grilled calamari and toasted Spanish Marcona almonds. It’s finished with drizzles of creamy ginger and lime aioli.

Since Vaca is Chef Amar Santana’s and Ahmed Labbate’s second culinary endeavor in Orange County, many people were eager to see if they could replicate the magic that they’ve garnered at Laguna’s Broadway by Amar Santana. And, from one local’s review that we overheard at the bar, they seem to be on the right track. The longtime Laguna resident prides himself as one of Santana’s longtime fans. As he ordered cocktails with his companion while they waited for a table, he gleefully said: “I love Broadway. I’ve been going there for years. But, I think this place is better.”