CONFESSIONS OF A                                                                  
A San Francisco Girl's Down and Dirty Adventures in the Culinary Playground

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Va Va Va Voom! (Va de Vi -- Walnut Creek, CA)

When I first moved to San Francisco, I was cast in a show in Walnut Creek. This was in 1998, and there were few dining options outside of chain establishments. Were it not for the (now closed) Oakville grocery across the street from the theatre, I may well have starved.

Fast forward to now, where WC has become the new Bev Hills. I mean, they have a fucking Tiffany for Christ's sake. They've also managed to find themselves a little bit of good food along the way (although the town as a whole still tends to gravitate toward the safe and repugnant -- P.F. Chang's anyone?).

In the past year, I did two shows in WC, as well as running the summer program for a well known theater company that is located in CoCo. And a girl's got to eat.

Va de Vi
had been getting good buzz, but Jon and I were skeptical. I mean how good could it be, right? They'd have to dumb it down for the community, or the doped up soccer moms would take their business elsewhere. Happily for all of us, we were wrong.

Va de Vi's cuisine is difficult to pin down. Chef Kelly Degala certainly keeps you on your toes. There are Asian and Latin influences in many of the dishes, but I wouldn't call it fusion (mostly because that term is so fucking tired). Instead, I'm going to call it equal opportunity small plates.

The menu changes often, so I'll talk about the things that stand out for me, since the last time I was there was about two months ago (dining in between shows and still in full hair and make-up so I actually did, in fact, look like a whore).

Our first visit, we sat at the bar. We ordered some clams, but ended up with mussels without an explanation. This was OK, because we like mussels, but we found it curious that nothing was said. It just so happened, however, that the GM, Bob Cascardo was sitting next to us. He noticed and when we got our bill, we were not charged for the clams/mussels. He said "I know you still liked them but we didn't tell you and that was wrong of us." By the way, we never expressed dismay over the mix up. Nor did we voice our confusion at an audible level. So he was just on it, the way a good GM should be.

We returned twice after that visit, both times with friends. Jon went once with his mom and sister and without me (bastard!). I have a reputation to uphold, so I don't bring my friends to crappy places. This is why I took them to Va de Vi. The two groups of friends and the relatives all had very different culinary sensibilities, but I was confident that they'd all love it. They did.

OK -- food. The first thing that comes to mind is the shrimp and avocado lumpia with ponzu and wasabi cream. This dish is so tasty that on a visit with G&A, we immediately ordered a second dish once we had finished the first. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, these little bites will be a home run with pretty much anyone.

Anything with ahi also shines. Chef Degala is Hawaiian, and, well, they know their shit when it comes to tuna. There is a tartare AND a tataki (the menu is big and varied and can more than support this) but the real star is their ahi tempura roll. I swear I saw this on every table on our first visit. It wasn't until our third visit that we actually ordered it and I have to say I know why everyone loves it. Who doesn't love ahi? And who doesn't love fried things? Freaks, that's who. Add a bit of orange cream and wasabi and you're good to go.

Pork belly. Mmmm, mmm, mmm do I loves the pork belly. Va de Vi takes Kurobata pork belly and glazes it with black soy and honey. I really, really enjoyed this. Like I almost rubbed my face in it enjoyed it.

Another thing I want to rub my face in are the croquettes with serrano ham, yukon gold potatoes and sweet onions. I happen to like plain old croquettes but when you flip it by throwing some ham in there? And serrano ham at that? Plus they've got a smoked paprika aioli for dipping. You know you want it.

Perhaps the cutest dinner item are the soup shots. We ordered this only once, on our first visit. This was because both of our return visits involved other people and it's not a dish for sharing. On the first visit, though, we got a lobster bisque. A tall shot glass is filled, and it's big enough for two people to take two large slurps. The soup was perfectly executed and it was a really nice way to have some soup without making a whole course out of it. We love soup and order it whenever we can, but it usually doesn't have a place on a small plates menu. I loved the soup shot idea as it translated the small plates concept for a non-traditional item.

The thing that Va de Vi excels at, as you can probably see by now, is taking items that people are relatively familiar with (and therefore comfortable with) and then making them a fuckload more interesting. Take the Dungeness crabcakes for example. You hear crabcakes and you either a)yawn or b)feel guilty because you really like them but don't want to appear "common." We don't really have that problem because Jon looooves crabcakes. But if you do have that problem than Va de Vi can solve that shit for you. Their cakes are light and bright with a nice citrus butter, some avocado and a bit of aioli. Totally worth it.

Now a bit of full disclosure: one of their chefs reads my blog. I said hello on my third visit and we got some pretty sweet treatment. This included some of the best big eye sashimi I've ever had topped with five kinds of caviar. And while we were wowed by the love we were shown, and the food was excellent, it did not change the opinion I had formed before that visit. I had already been wowed and I already knew the food was excellent so while I felt like a total rockstar, I was pleased to see that the food is *always* good.

Now here's where we fucked up. BIG TIME. On our first two visits, we didn't order dessert. Quite frankly, I expected the dessert to pale in comparison to the super delicious savory portion. Poor Va de Vi had a lot stacked against them with me -- I mean, Christ, my bias is all over this post between doubting them because of their geography or because of their enormous menu (it really is impressive that they can do so much so well). But boy, did I love that they proved me wrong time and again. These desserts kicked my ass.

We went for the dessert sampler, which was a greatest hits kind of deal. And while most things included seemed fairly benign, we were impressed with how well they were executed.

First there is an itsy bitsy Valrhona chocolate souffle. Light, airy, delicious. The macadamia nut tartlet had me concerned as I don't like super rich desserts. Fortunately for me, the mac nut custard that filled the tart really brought out the flavor, rather than the oily-ness of the nut. Also included were profiteroles filled with pastry cream with chocolate and caramel. Decadent and sublime (take that Beard Papa!).

One of the most important things to note is how truly fucking amazing their wine list is. You can choose to do a flight of three wines (with no flight exceeding $21) or choose to get one of the wines individually. Should you care to taste the wines one at a time, you can choose a 3 oz. pour or a 6 oz. pour. I mean, you can just go crazy with that shit! Not only that, but the wines are really very good. Imagine my agony when I visited between shows and was relegated to drinking lemonade.

Service is friendly and knowledgeable. When we were crunched for time, they more than accomodated us (despite it being a busy Saturday). I totally wanted to make out with them.

Va de Vi made my tenure in the Creek far more bearable. Were it not for them, I would have subsisted on supermarket sushi alone. In fact, I kind of find myself sort of wishing for more Creekside work, just so I can eat there some more with a reasonable excuse to drive over the bridge and through the tunnel. That said, I'm sure my ass will find it's way into one of their seats before long, whether I have an excuse or not. Your ass should too.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld


Blogger Guy said...

Daaaang, did you know you wrote 1512 words right there? That right there, is a lot of words. I am, impressed.


5/30/2006 2:13 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

Biggles -- My Alinea post was 5,096:)...

5/30/2006 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joy...that was mad crazy flattering. Thanks...and come back soon!

6/01/2006 11:54 PM  

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