Wednesday, June 07, 2006

HFF Quickie: Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar

I found myself over the hills in in Pleasanton one afternoon and decided to make a visit with Chef Scott to one of the most highly regarded restaurants on this side of the tunnel, Walnut Creek's Va de Vi Bistro. As a disclosure I'm a very casual acquaintaince of the wine director but knew nothing much about the food or the restaurant's history.

The restaurant is a pretty chic but vaguely artificial space (Va de Vi is the restaurant analogue of the functionally attractive woman who smothers herself in makeup--a type ubiquitous in Walnut Creek, it seemed). We sat outside, taking advantage of an early reservation and a warm evening. Seats were comfortable, table for two spacious (and nowhere near as tightly packed as the interior banquettes). Va de Vi was bustling, even at 6PM on a Tuesday.

The restaurant is eclectic--it's name is from Catalan, the menu is a strongly Asian-tinged (Pacific Rim, as the website says) take on many French, Italain, and Spanish small plates. Seasonal California ingredients are featured, but not to the point of cliche, which was nice.

We ended up going rather nuts, getting two wine flights each and six plates, plus cheese. Like Cav, this proved to be one of our most expensive outings and also like Cav proved to be one of the more inconsistent.

The first dish was the shrimp tater tots--potato balls stuffed with shrimp and deep-fried. These were alright, nothing remarkable, and vastly undersalted. It tasted like there was little salt in the filling and it was unlikely the croquettes were salted before serving either. Adding salt to the dish piqued the flavors a bit.

Next up was a special--pan-seared onaga with creamed corn and shaved summer truffles. The fish, described as a Hawaiian red snapper, was inoccuous (not as robust as some snapper I've had) and just the slightest bit overcooked. The creamed corn was fabulous and a mix of corn, truffle (and much more mushroom-y truffle than the usual winter varieties) was pretty tasty. Once again, it needed salt--and more seasoning on the fish in general as the onaga was basically flavorless.

The next two dishes proved to be a bit more interesting--star-anise scented duck confit leg with plum sauce and a "Singapore style" barbecued Kurobuta pork belly with a soy-honey glaze and green papaya salad. The duck was tender and fatty and the accompanying soft buns were--eating the duck with a bit of bun tempered the strong flavor of the plum sauce. The meat not immediately swaddled in fat was a little bit dry. This was the only dish that did not require salting. The pork had moments that were transcendent. It was rich, fatty, and with an incredibly smooth mouthfeel. After adding salt, the crispy fatty grilled end pieces were some of the best meat that I've had (though I don't eat much, I admit). The green papaya salad was also tasty. As with the duck, the bits of meat not a close neighbor to meltingly juicy fat was just a touch dry.

My big complaint with those two dishes was that nothing really was dependent upon the cooking abilities of the restaurant--fatty meat is pretty easy to not fuck-up, especially with the fresh and rich sweet glazes that they came with. In fact the dryness of the meat would indicate that the kitchen is not operating adequately in terms of technique.

Still hungry (and veggie-deprived) we ordered the roasted beet salad. Red and golden beets with lolla rossa, half of a small tempura-fried onion, and a slice of Cypress Grove "Bermuda Triangle" cheese. This was pretty good, though it desperately needed salt. The cheese was phenomenal.

Our final dish proved to be the favorite--a shrimp "risotto" with oven-roasted tomatoes and fried basil. The basil was relatively flavorless, but the tomato flavor was rich, the shrimp nicely sauteed and the rice creamy even if it wasn't a true risotto. Still, this needed salt and a stronger herb flavor.

Va de Vi does a decent cheese plate with a small but diverse international selection. A Sauternes-washed blue from Belgium was awesome, a semi-firm Spanish sheep cheese was tasty but straightforwardly mild, and a Ewe's blue from New York was great--especially when accompanied with either the wildflower honey or abbamele (a flavored honey and pollen reduction). Also on the plate were slices of pugliese and thin Indian crepe-like pane de carasau. Also on the plate were slices of pear that inexplicably still had pieces of the core attached.

Now the wine at Va de Vi is an excellent selection of world wines leaning heavily toward big reds from France, Spain, and California and big whites from Italy, France, and California. The bottle list is extensive and well-priced in a broad range. The highlights of the wine list however are the forty or so wines available by the glass or taste. All of these wines are also arranged in themed three-taste flights. They're grouped by varietal, region, flavor characteristics, or in many cases simple whimsy.

So Va de Vi is definitely hit and miss as far as the goes--some of the flavors are distinctive and the ingredients are great, but between the drastic underseasoning and slightly less drastic overcooking there's room for significant improvement. Check it out, have some wine and few plates--I just don't know if I'll be back.

Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar
Cuisine: Pacific Rim-influenced Continental small paltes
Price range: $4-$16
HFF's cost for two (six plates, three cheeses, four wine flights, tax, tip): $180
Reservations: 925-979-0100 or
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Walnut Creek, Ca 94596

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