Flights of Fancy 

Upscale Va de Vi is a great wine bar whose small-plate flavors are equally intoxicating.

Midway through my meal at Va de Vi in Walnut Creek, our pedestal of a table was snugly tiled with four appetizer plates, six wineglasses, two water tumblers, and a couple of saucers for my friend and I to dine off. And there was more on the way. We began to eat with a sense of urgency.

Va de Vi, the $1 million early-retirement project of Dale Raaen and John Walz, opened in downtown Walnut Creek this March. The two novice restaurateurs had left an international consulting firm and were looking for new pursuits. Inexperience often sends these kinds of amateur business ventures to a quick, ugly death, but Walz and Raaen invested wisely in a couple of talented pros. Now they're reading packed reservation calendars and rave reviews.

Va de Vi means "It's about wine" in Catalan, and even if the food weren't good the restaurant would make a great wine bar. Its hundred-bottle wine list ranges from the populist (oak-saturated Cabs) to the recherché (a lovely anise-tinged Zweigelt), organized into cross-varietal, cross-national categories like "Burly -- Big & Bold Reds." Va de Vi's sommelier, Brendan Eliason, unleashes his smartass sense of humor in his descriptions of Va de Vi's sixteen flights, three three-ounce tastings of whites, rosés, or reds.

I loved his flights -- you spend anywhere from $11.25 to $33 to play with three distinct wines, seeing how each morphs and mates with every dish.

Chef Kelly Degala is out to prove that everything goes with wine. Degala, who was born in Hawaii and first made his name in Walnut Creek as opening chef of Ono Mazé, taps the cuisines of France, China, Italy, Hawaii, Spain, Japan, the Philippines, and -- well, I stopped counting after that.

When I reviewed Ono Mazé in 2002, I thought Degala's food looked gorgeous but sometimes tasted clunky and overblown. Something happened to him in the interim, though, that matured his palate and refined his technique. Now he plates up consistently elegant miniatures.

That isn't to say that he hasn't stopped trying to intoxicate diners with flavor. Take his lobster bisque shooter. Looking at the shot glass of pumpkin-colored cream, you'd swear you'd misspent your three bucks. But Degala suctions every molecule of flavor out of dozens of lobster shells, reducing the stock into a caramelly, potent liqueur. Two slugs and I had to switch to water.

You'd think ahi tartare would be a summery dish. Not in Degala's hands. Soy and sesame oil gave his coarsely chopped tuna the meatiness of a porterhouse, with enough heft to stand up to the kimchi'd cucumber slivers that ringed the plate. His steak didn't fare so badly, either -- a thinly sliced, gamy hunk of Oregon grass-fed hangar steak crowned with sautéed wild mushrooms, on top of a couple of tablespoons of creamed corn. After Degala had finished braising Filipino spareribs in a meaty, peppery adobo sauce, every sinew melted off the bone, the juices enriching a mound of garlic fried rice.

Degala can do light, too. A brassy but not overpowering mustard vinaigrette coated all the elements of a Niçoise salad: tiny fingerling potatoes cooked in water and vinegar, a nest of pickled red onions, meaty grilled ahi loin, tiny capers, and frilly baby lettuces. He left a little crunch in grilled asparagus, supported in every way by a salad of greens, idiazabal cheese, and serrano ham.

A couple of dishes got lost somewhere between concept and execution. One too many things went into Va de Vi's mussels: chorizo. White wine, saffron, orange, and fennel merged into an aromatic, lightly fruity broth, but the spicy, earthy sausage floating amid the mollusk shells stood out like a rugby player in a Balanchine ballet. My breath skipped when I first saw the lobster risotto, out of which rose the top half of a lobster shell, the antennae curled into elegant spirals. After my experience with the bisque, I braced myself for a full-flavor assault, but it didn't happen. The risotto didn't have much more than a whiff of crustacean and freshly chopped basil, and the chunks of butter-poached lobster meat on top came out a little chewy.

But small-plates meals are like Internet dating. Dish not perfect? You've already ordered six more. I drowned my disappointment in fries, Micky D-style thinnies strafed with freshly chopped parsley and garlic, and finally moved on with a fillet of roasted wild salmon. The creamy corn risotto it came with was perfumed with just enough truffle oil to ground the flavor of the sweet corn and match it with the char-edged meat.

A complete meal for two -- seven or eight dishes -- plus two flights of wine can set you back $120 to $150. For that money (well spent, mind you), I earned the right to a few complaints. One: There's no protocol about the progression of the small-plates meal. Many tapas chefs look over each ticket and arrange the courses so diners start with the lightest dishes and finish with the richest ones. But on my two visits the kitchen simply sent out whatever was ready: Steak followed Niçoise salad, and then came the fries, and much later the mussels. The calamari I'd specifically asked for first? What calamari?

Complaint number two: the variable service. The busers and food runners were on it, clearing away each plate pronto to slot new ones into the mosaic on our tiny table. On my first night our waiter also kept his eye on our table, and boy, did we know it. But on my second visit, our waitress had been assigned too many tables or had never quite clocked in. We lost sight of her for 45 minutes, which became a problem when we realized we were never going to get our squid without her help.

My huff deflated some once we nabbed her and secured the silky, thinly battered calamari. Then dessert swept it away. I felt so strongly about the profiteroles that I did something I never do: I ordered them twice. The pastry chef waits until the last minute before piping a soft custard into just-baked pâte à choux. The baseball-size creampuffs crackle on the outside when you bite into them, then give way to an airy, eggy interior. We cracked the pastry crown on our ramekin-sized peach-blackberry cobbler, letting the dab of vanilla-scented whipped cream melt inside, smoothing over the tartness of the stewed fruit. If you think ahead, order the thirty-minute chocolate soufflé, lighter than a flourless chocolate cake but just as decadent.

Va de Vi's owners have created a beautiful space, anchored on one end by a high, mirrored bar and on the other by a marble counter from which diners can spy on the kitchen. Wine motifs carry through on the ceiling, covered in arched wood slats, and the back patio, enclosed in a barrel-like ring of wood. These days, the room is as cluttered with diners as your table will be with plates. They've come to get lit with wine, tipsy with food, inebriated with conversation, and drunk on atmosphere.


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