Wineworks — indeed it does

Wineworks for Everyone 
26342 Oso Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
(949) 582-0026

I’ve always envisioned myself living in a cozy neighborhood with a local wine bar which I can walk to, relax, perhaps listen to some jazz, and pass the time with some small but delicious morsels.  Unfortunately, such an idyllic establishment rarely presents itself in the cultural desert that is Orange County.  Walking is impossible, and "neighborhood" is such a loosely defined term that it loses basically all meaning.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I found out that a new wine store, bar, and bistro opened just down the road from my house.  Pinch me, I must be dreaming!  But it was no dream–Wineworks has managed to firmly establish itself in a niche I wasn’t aware Orange County could provide for.  It is at once a small, personalized wine store, a local wine bar with countless wines by the glass, and a delightfully cozy bistro with precious few tables but overflowing hospitality.

Looking out towards the storefront

As I’ve made reference to time and time again, more menu options are not always better.  In fact, they are often the chagrin of my dining experience, leaving me staring at the menu in desperation, groping in the dark for something palpably familiar.  It should go without saying that a restaurant presenting itself as a bistro should never fall prey to such faults, and Wineworks deftly and successfully avoids such problems.

Here’s why I like the Wineworks model: they have refined their menu to only a handful of appetizers, an equally limited selection of entrees, and even fewer fresh, seasonally varying desserts.  The "choice" is directed towards the wine, and though that can be a tad overwhelming at times, when isn’t it?  I like that I know and remember exactly what’s in each of the seven or so entrees, and that between my family and myself, we’ve basically tried everything Wineworks has to offer. 

Why is this important?  Well, the way I see it there are at least two distinct types of dining experiences.  The first is one of excitement and brave culinary jumps of faith.  These are the types of experiences when you go out thinking, "I want to try something new tonight, how about some fried mayonnaise and white Belgian beer ice cream?"  The second is one of familiar hospitality.  You know what to expect, and you dine more to socialize and enjoy the comfort and ease that only such a well-traveled restaurant provides.

The dim lighting and art combine to exude a very refined atmosphere despite the small size and the occassional loud conversations

Wineworks, as you may have already guessed, provides the second of these two experiences.  The small menu, warm and welcoming interior, and kind staff all combine to produce a soulful and heart-lifting night out.  There’s something about engaging in small talk with the wait staff and the owners during the visit that can’t be replicated in an austere, formal environment, no matter the food quality or number of Michelin stars.  And the owner of Wineworks, Darren Coyle, is no stranger to the dining floor: he can always be seen floating from table to table, welcoming the regulars and effortlessly persuading newcomers to feel right at home.

All that said, though, Wineworks wouldn’t be much of a pleasant retreat without equally dependably delicious food.  Not only is the food excellent and beautifully-presented, but the small menu still manages to afford quite a diversity of dishes.  Ranging from the inventive chili-mint sliders on sliced baguette to succulent Moroccan lamb cous cous, Wineworks really does work for everyone.

During my meal, I had three wonderful courses, and two of them were entirely unique.  The first of these was an appetizer called brie fondue, which was baked brie in a creme brulee-esque dish served alongside fresh baguette and sliced pear.  Despite the potential this dish had at being an overwhelmingly filling appetizer, it skillfully avoids such a fate by pairing the heavy cream of the melting brie with the light, delicate sweetness of the pair and absorbent texture of the baguette.  The powerful trio coalesced into a fantastically indulgent sensory overload, stimulating and perhaps even scaring my excited taste buds.

Brie fondue with sliced baguette and pear

My second course was Moroccan lamb cous cous with yogurt sauce, and I’m happy to say it was the most boring of the three.  I’m happy to say that because despite not being entirely unique, it was easily one of the most tender and juicy rack of lambs I’ve ever had.  The meat literally was falling off the bone, forging its way through the exotic journey of cool, semi-sweet yogurt, fresh cucumber, warm cous cous and fruity raisins.

Rack of lamp with cous cous and yogurt sauce

I ended my experience at Wineworks with a most  singular dessert: sliced fig topped with mascarpone cheese and drizzled with honey.  A fig newton on steroids, if you will.  Really, though, to try this dessert you may have to summon a degree of culinary curiosity, but I promise it’s worth it.  The tartness of the mascarpone is adroitly masked by the thick sweetness of honey, and both toppings hitched a ride on a fruit that manages to be both smooth and rough at the same time–a unique sensation that pops in your mouth.  A dessert I certainly won’t soon forget.

Fresh fig with mascarpone cheese, honey, and chocolate shavings

While Wineworks is deserving of commendation, the young bistro still has room for improvement.  My biggest complaint is that the size of the dining area coupled with the bar-like atmosphere often results in noise levels necessitating shouting conversations.  Another complaint is that service, while on the whole very good, seems to be inconsistent.  I like to be able to expect a certain level of service from a restaurant, whether good or bad, on every visit, and while Wineworks benefits from a few truly hospitable and excellent servers, there are also some that seemed to miss the proverbial boat. 

Finally, restaurateurs should never feel that there is shame in having a small dining area.  Momofuku Ko in New York has only 12 seats, Per Se has less than 16 tables, and the French Laundry has less than 14.  Where size starts to be a problem is when restaurateurs see small size as a crutch and attempt to hide or disguise this by packing tables closely together and creating a boisterous atmosphere.  Wineworks suffers from this to a degree — a small, cozy bistro is good, but it’s no longer cozy when tables are too packed in.

A full view of the bistro in the foreground and the bar in the background

These are all relatively minor faults, and Wineworks is well on its way to becoming my local favorite.  At once it has become a favorite of mine for a casual drink, a serious dinner, and light conversation, a niche few restaurants can claim to fill.  I applaud Wineworks’ foray into the oft-depressing Orange County restaurant scene and I can’t wait for my next visit.

As always, you can peruse more interior and food pictures of Wineworks in my photo gallery.

Mark posted this on August 3, 2008 and is filed under Restaurants.

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