Whether it’s for your whole family or a romantic dinner for two, Vina Morita in Hot Springs is a wise choice.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal and Janet Warlick
[dropcap]Antonio[/dropcap] and Brenda Gonzalez did a wonderful thing for Hot Springs, Ark., by moving their popular downtown restaurant to the historic 100 Block: they opened the door to true street-side café dining. The aptly named Vina Morita, which references the vineyard and a celebrated pepper of southern Mexico, was reborn as Vina Morita la terraza, thanks to the addition of a covered patio overlooking Central Avenue.
With views of the Mountain Valley building’s white columned façade and West Mountain’s green profusion, the scenery makes a delightful addition to Chef Antonio Gonzalez’s delectable offerings. From his culinary roots in Mexico City to his travels in Spain — where he earned a master’s degree in business — France and Napa Valley while training as a sommelier, Gonzalez’s vision of the meal as a total sensory experience requires nothing less than all the necessary ingredients to create a good memory.
“I showcase local ingredients, but with a Mexican identity,” he said. He is working toward a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “Consider Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and romantic love. To taste the wine is like a kiss — you use all your emotions. When you pair a dish with the right wines, it creates combinations of sensations.”
He also noted that to enjoy natural surroundings enhances the experience, whether tasting a dish for the first time on the beach in Mexico or the foothills of the Ouachitas: “Dionysus’ rationality was to think with his senses as a different way to enjoy life. In this way, partaking of food and wine becomes the highest expression of the senses. I want to elevate the discussion.”
To that end, Gonzalez first selects the wine, then creates the meal’s courses around it, rather than vice versa. Vina Morita la terraza also hosts Opera Scala, international touring artists from Mexico City, as part of their successful series of wine-pairing dinners.
Calling opera a “universal culture,” the chef balances ambiance as deftly as he combines ingredients for his signature sangria. Adding to the experience, music is played weekly in the piano bar and weekends on the terraza. Music, a vast selection of wines and fascinating combinations of spices and aromas: “It expands your sensitivity — and your palate,” he said.
The restaurant has expanded from its origins as a tiny bistro to encompass several distinct dining areas with total seating for more than 200, thanks to the new address at the Springs Hotel & Spa. Constructed in the 1960s, the Springs Hotel uses the city’s famed hot spring water and boasts a distinctively retro lobby. Adjoining the lobby, Vina Morita la terraza features a cozy bar area detached from a large central dining room over-arched by a spectacular barrel ceiling. The aforementioned piano bar’s windowed wall opens to the terraza, where parties gather around tables for two and/or long, plank tables designed with a central, ice-filled niche for perpetually chilled cerveza.
A selection of craft brews offers a cool complement to Gonzalez’s authentic, regionally derived salsas. The cacahuate, with its spicy base of toasted peanuts and sautéed chile de arbol blended with tomato and onion, is a revelation, while the chile morita spotlights the delicious presence of that saucy, slightly smoky pepper. For a refreshing green salsa that omits tomato entirely, the zacatecana, a charred chile poblano whipped with sour cream and butter, is cooling yet zesty. Accentuating the salsas are homemade tortilla chips, light as air, crisp rather than crunchy and never salty.
Patrons can sample flights of craft brews or margaritas; the margarita selection ranges from traditional to lime, mango, strawberry and jalapeno. Vina Morita’s selection of premium tequilas and Mezcal can also be ordered as flights, with shots served adorned with fresh citrus, sea salt and crushed red pepper.
A trio sampler of ceviche includes the mojo de ajo, wild-caught Pacific Coast jumbo shrimp and tilapia marinated in citrus, thinly sliced red onion and manzano peppers; the verde, shrimp, scallops and fish in citrus with tomatillo, cilantro, jicama and cucumbers, and ceviche camaron, shrimp in salsa roja, cerveza, cilantro, tomato and clam juice, green pepper and citrus. Our fellow diner, formerly of San Francisco, observed the flavors to be “Latino nuevo, but with a touch of Northern California — it’s lighter fare and the presentation is gorgeous.” Food with this type of “energy” with a kick tastes even better shared with friends. But for dessert, the dreamy flan de la casa is NOT for sharing — to each his own flan, I say!
More familiar fare — from tacos, sopes, flautas and quesadillas, to cheese fondue, salmon, chicken, shrimp — even the hamburguesa hawaiiana — makes Vina Morita la terraza a wise choice for families, whether travelers to the Spa City or local gourmands wanting an especially fine meal downtown. Then again, a romantic supper for two in the piano bar or on the terraza, with strains of classical guitar in the background and a glow of sunset over West Mountain, is a must-have memory to create together this summer.
“As human beings we connect through our emotions, but we are always in such a hurry,” Gonzalez said. “We fill the stomach, but not the soul. By slowing down and thinking with our senses, we can change our approach.”