Tierra Sur
3201 Camino del Sol

I felt like I was getting away with something. I was sneaking off from the chaos of my life and meeting a friend for a luxurious lunch at Tierra Sur, the award-winning restaurant at Herzog Winery, on a regular old Tuesday. As I stepped through the doors of this vast, modern restaurant (that is somehow both industrial and soft at the same time), it was like stepping into a vacation. And as I waited for my friend, and took the self-guided tour that gives a bird’s eye view into the history, growing, fermenting, aging and bottling processes behind Herzog Wines, I could feel the frenzy of the day falling to the floor like a no-longer-needed jacket on a spring day.  

Open since 2005, Tierra Sur is well-known for its fine dining, quality wines and its appointment of five stars from the renowned Zagat’s guide. As of late, Tierra Sur has also undergone a bit of a changing of the guard, with Executive Chef Todd Aarons stepping back a bit and Chef Gabe Garcia being promoted to head chef last June.

The menu at Tierra Sur — kosher all around — changes almost weekly, reflecting changes in the seasons and what is available at the local farms. “I try to be creative with what farmers have in abundance,” says Garcia, referring to relationships he has with local farms like Rio Gozo and Tamai Family Farms.

On our mini-vacation, we started with a bowl of soup and a trio of platillos (small plates). We also selected our wines: a glass of the light and crisp chenin blanc for my friend, and a glass of the Herzog Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon for me, our server’s suggestion of a wine that would go well with my entrée.

The soup of the day, a roasted garlic soup, was silky and smooth, the true essence of everything we love about garlic: how, when roasted it can be both sweet and savory at the same time. On any given day, the choices for the platillos vary, but on this particular Tuesday we opted for the kale chips, roasted mushrooms, and chile relleno.

The kale chips were roasted with lime juice; and the mushrooms, earthy and meaty, were tossed in a tangy Dijon vinaigrette. These two small plates, which were anything but over-fussed-with, embodied something Chef Gabe mentioned when we spoke on the phone a few days later. “Chef Todd taught me: Don’t jeopardize the integrity of the food,” he said.

The chile relleno platillo was one of the highlights of our meal: three toy-box peppers stuffed with mashed sweet potato and taramasalata (a salty Greek sauce made with fish roe). They are battered and fried, and draped over a smear of aioli, also flavored with the taramasalata. Aside from being petite and whimsical, the combination of the mild peppers, the sweetness of the batter and the salty addition of the fish roe made this a memorable dish.

For our entrée, we decided to share the lamb birria. Upon first glance, the chili braised lamb looked like an open-faced pulled pork sandwich; yet instead of being sweet like barbecue it was savory; and instead of a soft bun, it was served on top of a corn cake. And where you normally might find coleslaw, this dish was served with fresh cilantro, sliced avocado and thinly sliced, pickled red onions. I was truly enamored of all the flavor surprises and the interplay of the rich lamb with the tang of the onions.

Since we were already being decadent, it was only fitting that we order dessert and coffee to put off the inevitable return to our regular lives. I selected the Mexican chocolate cake, an individual cake served with a scoop of caramel gelato. Imagine my surprise to cut into it and find it a molten chocolate cake with a lovely flowing center that was the epitome of silky. The only downfall was that the cake lacked the hint of spice (often from cayenne, chili powder or even cinnamon) of a typical Mexican chocolate cake.

My friend ordered the strawberry shortcake and loved the salty crunch of the shortbread, fluffy whipped cream and the strawberries prepared with a zinfandel reduction. Our only regret here? That there weren’t more of the crimson berries.

Throughout our lunch, service was superb and on par with what you would expect at an award-winning, white-tablecloth kind of place. The servers were all friendly and knowledgeable, delicate as they served, and tactful about approaching the table when we were mid-conversation. They even split our entree and soup at no additional cost, making sharing food an encouraged part of the meal instead of a hassle. From start to finish during this particular meal, Tierra Sur definitely earned all five of its stars.

Note: In honor of the Sabbath, Tierra Sur is closed Friday evenings and all day Saturday.

Check out my food tasting tours at www.venturafoodtours.com, where you’ll find information on our walking tours, corporate teambuilding events and gift certificates.