The Vault Wine Bar is now The Vault Wine Bar & Bistro, a name change that highlights the wine bar and restaurant’s new emphasis on its evolving menu of Pacific Northwest cuisine.
The Vault has always had a full menu since opening almost three years ago, but co-owner Alan Finston said that he now wants “to emphasize the food side of the business” in order to attract more people looking for fine dining options in downtown Blaine.
“We are a wine-centric restaurant that wanted to connote the idea that we do offer food,” Finston said. “The word ‘restaurant’ was too clunky, so we added ‘bistro’ to our name, to let people know that we serve awesome food in a reasonable amount of time. Our quality speaks for itself.”
Under the direction of new head chef Mark Johnson, The Vault is in the process of refining its menu, which has gone from four pages to two. Johnson said that while many customer favorites will be kept, other dishes are being reworked and amplified.
“We’re trying to go more composed,” Johnson said. “We’re looking to refocus on seasonality and on layering flavors to create new depth to the food.”
Updated dishes include the pan-seared salmon, which is now accompanied by spring vegetable ragout, cauliflower soubise and pickled fennel. Another change is the new beet salad, which features roasted and pickled beets with goat cheese mousse, seasonal fruit, yogurt vinaigrette and a dukkah nut blend.
Meanwhile, the cote de boeuf will be a larger cut with new sides: potato gratin, wild mushroom conserva and demi-glace. The scallops are now accompanied by zucchini basil puree, red onion marmalade and brown butter roasted cauliflower. The crab cakes will also be reworked, and the stuffed poblano peppers will be replaced by a vegetable risotto dish finished with an herbed compound butter.
More vegetarian and vegan options will eventually be added, and the daily flatbread will also change to be a bit doughier and chewier, using the recipe from Anna’s @BreadinBlaine, a sourdough business that Johnson recently started with his wife Anna.
“Here at The Vault, we want to find our own niche, something that makes us special,” Johnson said. He emphasized that some favorites, like the garlic and herb-crusted rib eye sliders and the Washington mac and cheese, will stay the same. Future menu changes will be guided by customer feedback, he said.
Johnson has been cooking for 20 years. After graduating from San Francisco’s Le Cordon Bleu culinary school at the age of 21, he spent seven years working with chef Gary Danko, who mentored Johnson and taught him skills like classical French cooking, leadership and management, consistency in a kitchen, sourcing fine products and creating menu items utilizing culinary byproducts.
After a stint with Mediterranean restaurant Odeum, Johnson then joined the Leal Hospitality Group, which grew from two to seven properties and catered 225 weddings per year. As executive chef of the group, Johnson worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six days per week with two young children at home.
In the summer of 2018, Mark and Anna Johnson relocated from northern California to Blaine, Anna’s hometown. Mark took a brief hiatus from cooking in order to remodel their house and spend more time with the kids. Around November, he dipped his toes back into the water, helping The Vault with food prep and production one day a week. In February, he started working there three to four days per week, assisting with Valentine’s Day events and the annual Bite of Blaine fundraiser at Semiahmoo Resort.
Since becoming The Vault’s head chef earlier this month, Johnson has been assisted by chef de cuisine Kenny Florczak, who previously worked for Bellingham’s Hundred North and Lummi Island’s Willows Inn. Together, they have collaborated on menu development, execution of recipes, organization and ordering. Also in the kitchen is Andrew Oppliger, who started as a dishwasher and is now in culinary school at Bellingham Technical College.
“We’re doing it together as a team, taking on this opportunity to help grow the business and show the town what this place is all about,” Johnson said. “It’s like a family. We want to continue to push the envelope for the town of Blaine.”
As spring and summer approach, Johnson hopes to use local farms as much as possible. He also hopes to partner with local fisheries, including tribal fisheries and Blaine’s Kaisacole Seafood, to source the freshest, highest quality seafood for The Vault’s evolving menu of Pacific Northwest cuisine.
“The stuff that I’ve been doing, it just comes,” Johnson said. “There is nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
Note: In response to the state’s current prohibition on in-person dining at restaurants, The Vault will be offering a special take-out menu of dishes that can be heated and enjoyed at home. The cost will be $18 per person, with 15 percent off bottled wines and other beverages. People can place an order by calling 360/961-3987 at least 36 hours in advance and providing their payment information over the phone. On the day of pickup, you can visit The Vault from 3 to 6 p.m., and a staff member will run your order out to your car. For more information, visit thevaultwine.com.