I sat on the patio of the Restaurant at Leoness with winery owner Mike Rennie on a sun-kissed spring afternoon. We were talking about Executive Chef Daragh Matheson. “He brings a very European style that is unique to wine country” Mike replied when I asked him what Daragh brought to the table. Mike went on to say his focus and passion set him apart. I had met chef on several occasions, but the last time I was set to dine here, the sheriff’s department phoned me to tell me my wife had been in a serious car crash. All was well on this fine afternoon, and the food began to make its way to the table. Daragh had already told me I didn’t need to look at the menu and that he had selected the food for me. First up was a serving of Gorgonzola fries. Crisped to a dark, golden brown, they were butter soft in the middle. Mike asked our waiter to bring out chef’s house made dipping sauces and that elevated them even more. A Cajun sauce, garlic aioli and ketchup each added their own layer of flavors to these delicious fries.
For an entrée I was presented with a trio of seafood. From left to right was a Cajun shrimp which chef called “smart food with a lot of different layers.” He always tries to layer his food, he says, for a “dish that just keeps giving.” In the middle was a pan-seared halibut on risotto with white truffle oil and a port/sherry beurre rouge finished with a ragout of mushrooms. Completing the trio was a bacon wrapped scallop on a caper/raisin sauce finished with cauliflower purée and parmesan crisps and a sprinkle of Tobika caviar. Each item was paired with a different Leoness wine: Fitzpatrick Syrah with the shrimp, Zinfandel with the halibut and Mélange de Rêves, a Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Grenache blend with the scallop. Chef Daragh believes red wine is a natural pairing for seafood because wine tasting is so personal based on your experience of what you like. Each different element definitely displayed the layers he mentioned and all the different flavors played beautifully together. I thought the pairings were perfect.
For dessert I was presented with a crème brûlée with berries, house made caramel and a delicate design in caramelized sugar, so translucent you could barely see it. Artistically plated, it was the perfect end to a wonderful meal. Daragh and I walked up and sat on the upper lawn, soaking up a picture perfect day while we visited. When he first arrived at Leoness two years ago there was “nothing here” he said, just a kitchen and the basics. There was hardly any budget. He had broken his ankle and spent the first four months in the kitchen on crutches. He had to work hard to convince people to come. That hard work, and luck he adds, have paid off handsomely. His challenge was to create something that would bring people in and have them want to return. It’s not unusual now to see a two hour wait for dinner. His staff of three has grown to a staff of nine, all of them students from the art institute where he teaches. His specials are fresh, seasonal and plentiful.
He loves the view he sees each day at work, calling it inspirational and saying it reminds him of Italy or southern France. It’s a view, by the way, he enjoys from the kitchen. Working in Temecula requires a large degree of humility. Brashness, he feels, doesn’t play well here. Although off the beaten path, he cites iconic restaurants like The French Laundry, El Bulli and The Fat Duck which have all thrived outside of major metropolises. “Good restaurants are evolutionary, not revolutionary. It’s all about taking a product and making it better every single time.” Everything at the Restaurant at Leoness is made in house, from scratch. Chef Daragh has done an incredible job.
The Restaurant at Leoness – 38311 De Portola Road, Temecula, CA 92592 – (951) 302-7601