I couldn’t resist heading over to the grand opening of Pala Resort and Casino’s brand new Wine Cave experience. On previous visits I had noticed the major construction project next to the outside pool and café, and the closing for renovation of Mama Cucina’s Italian Restaurant and Amigos in the food court. I was sad because I had memories of many delicious meals at both venues.
In an effort to continue to be “at the cutting edge of quality and elegance,” and differentiate itself from other area casinos, Pala’s CEO Bill Bembenek said the new Wine Cave provides a unique hospitality experience for area visitors.
The classy 2,400 sq. foot “cave” is part of a $5.7 million project that includes a new stage for the outdoor Starlight Theatre, located above the cave, along with a new patio lounge called Luis Rey’s and the new fine dining restaurant, bar and lounge.
The Cave is filled with leather chairs and couches, along with a bar and music stage. Tastings are available starting at $25 for four two-ounce pours, and a glass of wine starts at $8. Tastings are fun and, in the future, during less crowded visits, I will try different flights. There are 480 labels available dating back to 1994, including California, Italy, New Zealand and Africa, to name a few.
Maybe if I am a big winner I will splurge on the 2004 Dom Perignon for $319. Other bottles start at about $28.
Mama’s longtime chef, Luciano Cibelli, originally from Milan, Italy, developed the “modern Mediterranean” menu offering proteins like lamb carpaccio, escargot, foie gras, octopus, tuna crudo and wild boar ragu. All of the beef is grass-fed, the seafood sustainably caught in the wild and the produce organically grown within San Diego County. Within a year, Cibelli noted, the Pala tribe hopes to be growing all of the produce on tribal lands.
Because many casino regulars expressed disappointment about Mama’s closure, the Cave restaurant will include some of Mama’s best sellers, Cibelli said, like the house-made meatballs, sausage, eggplant parmesan, ravioli and other fresh pastas.
While attending the pre-opening reception for media, I was able to feast on a few of the Cave appetizers and menu items. One super tasty appetizer was the garbanzo humus with feta and walnut ($11). Others were the bruschetta ($10) and the burrata, with slow-roasted heirloom tomatoes ($14). My favorite entrée was the shrimp in a light kimchi marinade with edamame and toasted peanuts. The shrimp were large and succulent; just spicy enough with the kimchi and the peanuts added great crunch and flavor ($34).
The Cave restaurant’s large a la carte menu offers small and large bites, flat breads, appetizers, charcuterie, pastas and large bites (entrée sized plates). Prices range from $11 to $45.
The dining room seats 106. The beautiful square bar seats 26 and the lounge 28. The restaurant is open every evening, with the lounge open daily at 11 a.m.
For more information, visit www.palacasino.com/dining/.