RAMONA, CALIFORNIA – When I heard that Mario Medina was taking over the kitchen at American steakhouse The Main Course Restaurant in Ramona, I couldn’t make the connection. When I met chef Mario – originally from Mexico City – he was executive chef at Finch’s in La Jolla, where he prepared elegant plates of California cuisine.
Who would have guessed that the chef would be slinging large slabs of dry-aged meat in rural east county San Diego just two years later?
Chef Mario explained it to me during a recent visit to Ramona to sample The Main Course’s menu. “One of the reasons I decided to take the position here, is the availability of local, sustainable ingredients from the farms and ranches in Ramona.”
The chef continued, “All of our produce is local. We have begun to serve wines from local vineyards. And we recently bought a 2,000 pound buffalo from a nearby ranch – which we broke down and are storing now in our dry age room.”
The restaurant itself is all old-school Chicago steakhouse – from the mahogany wood bar, tables, and wainscoting, to the playful chocolate ganache “cigar” that pastry chef Eduardo Escalante prepared for our dessert.
When I asked Mario if The Main Course was the best “upscale” restaurant in Ramona, he laughed and replied, “It’s the ONLY upscale restaurant in Ramona!” The prices here reflect that, but the atmosphere, attentive service, and quality of the ingredients easily justify the final check and the night out.
“For our beef,” Mario shared, “we only use USDA prime, sourced from West Coast Prime Meats (in Brea, California). We are dry-aging quite a bit of that too, up to 60 days.” Before we sat down to dinner, Mario took me outside to the restaurant’s custom-built dry age room. Mario consulted on its construction, noting that it’s important to get the temperature and humidity set just right to prevent bacteria buildup.
In addition to aging buffalo and beef, he is also curing chorizo, prime rib sausages, prosciutto, and salami made of locally sourced rabbit. “I add a little bit of chiles to the cured meats,” Mario continued. “That’s my touch of Mexican flavor.”
As we sat down at our booth in the elegant dining room, our server brought out a bottle of locally produced Tannat from Ramona Ranch. The varietal originated in French Basque country at the base of the Pyrénées, migrated to South America where vintners would use it primarily in blends, and has recently become popular with southern California winemakers over the past two decades. The grape does well in hot regions — perfect for the summer extremes in Ramona.
Our first course was a sampler of some of The Main Course’s starters. Chili-rubbed skewers of rib eye steak, baked green lip mussels, seared ahi, and Maryland blue crab cakes arrived on a large platter.
The steak skewers are speared into a large chunk of grilled pineapple, which worked well as a sweet complement to the spicy, savory beef. The crab cakes were all creamy, crabby goodness and provided a slight tang of red pepper blended with the mellow sweetness of a well-blended garlic aioli.
Next up were our entrees. Ursula enjoyed the grilled salmon with risotto of legumes, grilled asparagus and lemon herb buerre blanc. I’m not a huge salmon fan, but it was perfectly cooked and the risotto of legumes was so creamy, at first I thought it was a classic pasta-based risotto.
I had my eye on rib eye and ordered the 60-day dry aged buffalo cowboy steak – butchered from chef Mario’s locally sourced buffalo. The large 18 oz. cut was delivered to our table, served atop a rich, creamy stack of garlic potatoes au gratin. Given that a steak can lose 15% or more of its weight during the dry aging process, this meaty monster was especially impressive.
I’ve had beef dry aged up to 300 days, and at that point, the flavor tends to take on notes of stinky cheese. This may appeal to carne connoisseurs, but I prefer a steak that still tastes like steak and not an overly ripened laboratory experiment.
At 60 days, there’s just enough moisture lost in the muscle to really concentrate the meat’s flavor, and enough left that the texture isn’t “mushy”. Chef Mario had gone rare on the thick, bone-in rib eye — which made it a bit tougher to cut, but provided a rich, buttery taste of the meat’s true flavor.
Though many of the ingredients are local, pastry chef Eduardo Escalante is imported — straight from Tijuana chocolatiers Oh! Bon Bon. There, he and partner/chef Jordana Salas create and sell gourmet bonbons, macaroons, and other sweets from their shop at Colectivo 9 on Avenida Revolucion.
Escalante trained under renowned pastry chef Paco Torreblanca, and his expertise shone through with his dessert of a chocolate mousse cake, chocolate raspberry ice cream, and a chocolate ganache “cigar” served in an “ash tray” filled with a layer of raspberry compote. The trio provided a rich, decadent, and velvety ending to our meal.
As we were leaving, Mario took us on a quick tour of the theater adjacent to the restaurant, Ramona Main Stage Concerts. Formerly a movie theater, the space is now filled with tables and a stage up front where country and classic rock groups like Molly Hatchet, Meatloaf, and Rick Derringer have performed. The restaurant offers dinner and show packages, and diners are admitted entry to the theater via the Main Course’s speakeasy door.
Ramona may seem like a distant land, even to those of us east of the 15. But it only took twenty minutes from La Mesa driving Interstate 67 from El Cajon and it’s equidistant from inland North County. It’s definitely worth the trek to visit The Main Course and sample some of Ramona’s best local ingredients prepared by a duo of our region’s most talented Mexican chefs.
The Main Course is located at 620 Main Street, Ramona, California. Reservations (760) 789-7005 or on the web at www.themaincourserestaurant.com.
We were invited to The Main Course as guests of chef Mario, who very generously covered our check. The author has not received any other compensation for writing this article and my opinions – as always – are my own. I would happily and hungrily return to The Main Course on my own dollar just to try the filet mignon carpaccio.