Claudette Zepeda’s long-awaited VAGA restaurant finally opens in Encinitas
Chula Vista-raised chef says menu at Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas reflects the global cuisine she ate growing up around San Diego
After nearly two years of soul-seeking, culinary exploration and menu experimentation, chef Claudette Zepeda will open her latest signature restaurant, VAGA, today, May 5, at the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas in Leucadia.
The Chula Vista native said the VAGA menu represents her interpretations of the globally inspired cuisines she grew up eating at restaurants around San Diego — from Asian restaurants on Convoy Street to Ethiopian and Indian eateries to the Mexican food her grandmother made.
“We’re not making food that tastes like my grandma made, we’re making dishes that taste like everybody’s grandma made,” she said. “I’m just a 36-year-old, 100-year-old grandma.”
Zepeda is the executive chef for all culinary operations at Alila Marea, a bluff-top, oceanfront resort that opened in late March on North Coast Highway 101 at La Costa Avenue in Leucadia. The 130-room boutique hotel is part of Hyatt’s Alila luxury chain of 17 hotels in Asia, Africa and the U.S. Alila means “surprise” in Sanskrit. Besides VAGA, Zepeda is overseeing banquet cuisine for the hotel’s 28,500 square feet of meeting space. She’s also creating a menu for The Pocket, the hotel’s casual poolside bar and lounge that will open later this spring.
Zepeda is best known for the authentic Mexican cuisine she cooked on Bravo’s “Top Chef” season 15 and on “Top Chef Mexico,” as well as her work at the former Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy. Her first signature restaurant venture, with owner Johan Engman, was El Jardin, a Mexican fine-dining restaurant that opened at Liberty Station in 2018.
During her time at El Jardin, Zepeda collected many honors, including being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West in 2019, a spot on Esquire’s 2018 Best New Restaurants list, a rave review in The New York Times and 2018 Chef of the Year honors from The San Diego Union-Tribune. But sales at El Jardin were unsustainable, so Engman closed the restaurant in July 2019.
Zepeda had already started working with the Alila Marea developers as a menu consultant in 2018, so after El Jardin closed, she expanded her role with the hotel. The Alila brand has an eco-tourism, zero-waste ethos with a focus on healthy, plant-based cuisine in their restaurants, she said. As a result, many of the dishes she created for VAGA are vegetable-forward with mostly healthy preparations, though there’s definitely room on the menus for splurges like the 28-ounce Snake River Farms tomahawk steak and a burger with harissa bacon jam and Parmesan fondue.
Zepeda said she doesn’t have a signature item on the menu, but there are several dishes that have been bestsellers with hotel guests, who have been the restaurant’s exclusive diners over the past month. She said hotel guests have had an “overwhelmingly great response” to the food.
The No. 1-seller is the Baja sea bass, with spiced ghee, Basmati rice, Marcona almonds and her own Mexican-inspired take on Green Goddess sauce. The popular scallops dish, with roasted plantain purée, heirloom corn, onions and chili oil, came to her in a dream last summer. And the simple but homey heirloom bean soup with potatoes and Edam cheese can be customized with extra spice to suit a diner’s tastes.
Shared plates, soups and salads range in price from $8 to $28; mid-size plates, including scallops, gnocchi and brisket buns are $18 to $30; and the main entrees, including the Baja sea bass and lamb shank are $26 to $40. The tomahawk steak is $110.
Zapeda oversees a 14-member culinary team at Alila Marea. She said her team has been working hard, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day to serve customers. To give the team time to find its rhythm, she said reservations are being sharply limited in the first few weeks of service. After the disappointing closure of El Jardin, Zepeda said she’s approaching the public debut of VAGA with humility.
“My feet are very much planted on the ground,” she said. “I’ve learned you have a chance of failure every single day, so if you try, that’s half the battle. I hope people come with an open mind. Hopefully they’ll arrive with no expectations and just be surprised and hopefully leave here with a smile on their face.”
VAGA serves a breakfast/lunch menu from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to close. For details, visit vagarestaurant.com.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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