Everything about cozy Wineworks for Everyone is tasteful and discerning, except for its clunky name. Is it a store? A motto? A bumper sticker? Get over this confusing hurdle and the reward is one of the best bistros within miles.
Most folks I bring here know nothing of the place, though it’s been open since 2007. Even those who recognize the name admit they’ve never dined here. Why? Likely because Mission Viejo is not a foodie destination, and this nook-sized lair hides in a tricky location.
It helps to know it’s a sibling of—and next-door to—Dublin 4, the classy gastropub that snagged three stars in February’s Main Course. The two spots share a kitchen and executive chef David Shofner, though the menus and surroundings are distinct. Diligent owners Darren and Jean Coyle materialize repeatedly at both venues, greeting regulars and conducting the evening’s flow. Despite Wineworks’ bantam dimensions (50 seats), the sleek room somehow has private corners and communal areas. One night, every seat is taken, a musician plays jazzy double bass, and I can actually speak without shouting to my dining partner. Pinch me.
Of course, wine propels the fare here. In Shofner’s hands, wine country cuisine means seasonal cooking with premium goods, often from nearby sources. While few dishes evoke a feast in a Napa vineyard, the fare is highly wine complementary. Tasty examples on the appetizer roster include the warm brie fondue, and the daily grilled flatbread that one night stars curls of Brussels sprouts and shreds of unctuous duck confit. Toasted ovals from a narrow baguette prove perfectly sized for dipping in the crock of melted ivory brie—the silky cheese laced with Dr. Loosen riesling. It’s one of few dishes that predate Shofner’s 2012 menu makeover, and the perfect companion to a glass of Schramsberg sparkling wine or d’Arenberg viognier-marsanne from Adelaide, Australia. Properly grilled yeasty-but-delicate house-made dough makes for a pleasing flatbread. The smattering of duck confit and Brussels sprouts looks paltry but packs a deceptively rich punch, resulting in a rousing starter for two.
Hamachi crudo with pickled heirloom beets reveals Shofner’s talent for combining amazing balance on a plate that looks randomly strewn with colorful elements yet tastes utterly intentional. Squeaky fresh and faintly cured in lemon oil, the pale pink fish takes on many flavors, depending on how you stack your fork with sizzled jalapeno, blood orange segments, and fruity arbequina olive oil. From a menu without many overtly light options, the crudo triumphs. Now that summer is fading, I’ll skip details on the luscious tomato salad with burrata and avocado-basil puree, and just remind you to put it on your list for July.
Gourmet sliders—especially because they include thyme-truffle skinny frites—find the fulcrum between appetizer and entree, and work as a shared snack or starter, or casual meal on their own. The merguez lamb sausage slider, with pickled red onion and chevre, outshines the other two: house-ground beef with roasted tomato, and the braised pork belly BLT, if only because those two resemble their delicious doppelgangers served at Dublin 4 where they’re listed under burgers. Spicy and vibrant, the lamb sausage creation tastes bespoke for this bistro, and boy does it go down easy with a glass of racy pinot.
Like every dish mentioned, entrees yield few bargains, but are well-considered and meticulously crafted. Shofner manages to squeeze plenty of intriguing proteins into a compact roster, and each dish is a complete composition. One all-poultry night, choosing a winner between the free-range brick chicken and seared Maple Leaf Farms duck breast is a maddening challenge. Juicy, flavorful chicken breast with drumette has crispy skin, each forkful begging for a pull through the accompanying puddle of polenta redolent with Parmesan. But oh, the duck breast with its rich, meaty flesh cooked beyond rare but long before dry. Pairing the nutty meat and fatty brown skin with fluffy quinoa studded with currants and marcona almonds is a match that only gets better with an inky dribbling of saba reduction. My favorite? Let’s just say I can’t wait for a rematch.
I predict a similar standoff for seafood fans. Only my trifling aloofness toward salmon pushes the seared day boat scallops to the top. Tubby and sweet with gorgeously seared ochre edges, the ivory mollusks get earthy backup from parsnip puree. Loch Duart salmon is lovely, carefully pan-roasted and flattered by sunchoke puree and roasted cherry tomatoes.
You’ll be happy with the red-meat entrees that flatter a cabernet or zinfandel. Choices include a first-rate rack of Australian lamb with wild mushroom risotto, and a Prime hanger steak, often with pureed potatoes. Once outdoor temps drop into the 60s, I’ll order the braised short ribs with roasted root vegetables, with the Quintessa cabernet. After dinner, do consider the cheese platter—one of the better arrays of my year to date. Add some top-notch cured meats and you have an indoor picnic for those nights you’d rather keep low-key. If something sweet is mandatory, and I can relate, go for the fine Irish coffee or exquisite sorbet flight.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that this dinner-only spot isn’t widely known. Fame isn’t always a requirement for success. Wineworks for Everyone works wonderfully for the cosseted cadre that appreciates a pocket bistro with polish.
Grilled flatbread, brie fondue, tomato salad, hamachi crudo, lamb sausage sliders, brick chicken, duck breast, seared scallops, pan-roasted salmon, rack of lamb, cheese plate, sorbet flight, Irish coffee.
Appetizers, small plates, and sliders,
$9 to $18; entrees, $24 to $38; desserts, $9.
Reservations strongly advised.
26342 Oso Parkway, Mission Viejo, 949-582-0026, wineworksforeveryone.com
Click here to see a gallery of additional Wineworks photos.
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.