They're awfully hard to come by, but rainy days may be the best for a drive to the century-old Bernardo Winery.
The place seems to drip antiquity when sheets of wind-driven rain beat against the weathered boards and picture windows of the small complex of buildings, which house the still-functioning winery, several shops and galleries, and the Kurt's at the Winery cafe.
A luncheon visit during last week's storm was memorable for more than nature's exuberant exertions, since the cafe, a marvelously inviting place--particularly on such a day--served a lunch most notable for its lack of distinction.
The attractions include a view, across the parking lot, of the grape arbors, whose gnarled limbs hint at the wine country and suggest a rustic setting far outside the borders of increasingly urban Rancho Bernardo. The cafe's concrete-floored dining room, evidently an old vinting room, is hung with well-worn wagon wheels, horse collars and cooking pots, and an aged, wood-burning cooking stove sits kitty-cornered to the small kitchen.
In a most untypical manner, this kitchen is the source of this cafe's problems, since not everything that issues from it is prepared on the premises.
Kurt's is operated by Kurt's Gourmet Catering of Mission Valley, and a fair number of the offerings are trucked up from that kitchen for on-site reheating. The food presumably is prepared specially for service at the winery, but, even so, it takes the journey badly, and the pair of entrees sampled gave the impression of being exhausted leftovers.
Given the wild day, the party was in a mood for hot dishes, and these, along with the pastries and several other items, all trek up Interstate 15 from Kurt's corporate kitchen. Sandwiches and salads evidently are freshly assembled to order in the small on-site kitchen,
The menu's most egregious offense arrived in the guise of a dish labeled "chicken brioche," which a note described as "served with Mornay sauce." A brioche is one thing and one thing only, which is to say, a very buttery yeast bread shaped like a muffin with a topknot. The chicken instead reposed--reluctantly, one must assume--in a bed of hard, stale puff pastry that put up a valiant and fairly successful resistance to the knife employed against it. Mornay sauce also is one thing and one thing only, a white sauce ( bechamel in French) flavored with grated cheese and a dash of nutmeg. What Kurt's served was some sort of yellow chicken gravy as binding for the chunks of fowl and green pepper, and the whole thing was nothing more than the chicken a la king of club luncheons. For the menu to list so specific a dish and serve something quite different is to show a lack of respect for guests, since it assumes they would not know the difference.
The boeuf bourguignon came closer to the mark, although its omission of the standard garnish of button mushrooms and pearl onions made it seem just a reasonably savory beef stew cooked to the shredding point in a wine sauce. The plate garnishes of unseasoned zucchini and overly seasoned, pseudo-rice pilaf (the menu specified parsleyed potatoes with the beef) did nothing to improve either entree.
A lentil soup offered as prelude to the entrees had no subordinate flavors to support the lentils, which on their own are rather bland.
Among other dishes, the menu offers "Bernardo" chili (which it says was created at the winery); a pasta salad topped with charcoal-broiled chicken strips; tuna, chef's and antipasto salads; and Reuben, prime rib, roast turkey and baked ham sandwiches. These may be the best bets.
The dessert tray is catered by Kurt's own bakery and includes several cakes, notably a carrot cake that follows the classic recipe and is moist and flavorful. The short wine card features vintages from the winery exclusively, and these seem more than equal to the menu.
Kurt's at the Winery
At the Bernardo Winery, 13330 Paseo del Verano Norte, Rancho Bernardo
Hours: Lunch Monday-Saturday, Sunday brunch.
Cost: Lunch for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $30.