Seven to Watch
As it is every year, the difference between the winners and runners-up was razor thin, with several restaurants missing out on the top-7 by a matter of points. Below are the highlights and critiques from our judges about these fine establishments (in alphabetical order).
“You don’t have to get on a plane to have great French food,” says Sara Settegast. Just head to the unassuming corner of this downtown Lafayette strip mall for all the classics: boeuf Bourguignon, moules frites, chevre chaud, escargot, crème brulee, and terroir-driven wines. What you get is an intimate, sophisticated dining experience that doesn’t break the bank.
Best Dish: Le Cassoulet du Chef, a lovely earthenware crock filled with giant amargo beans, house-made garlic, foie gras sausages, rich seared pork belly, and a perfectly braised duck confit plated tableside. I could have eaten a whole crock of the beans alone, cloaked in their rich tomatoey sauce. The prix fixe menu is also a steal!
What They’re Doing Right: Offering the textbook French bistro experience (when was the last time you saw duck a l’orange or Floating Island’s on the menu?) without the stuffy atmosphere or pompous service.
Needs Work: Wine list. Very good offerings from France at the $50-80 and above category but more affordable wines are limited, as are wines by the glass.
Defining Moment: When we called to say that we were stuck in traffic and we’d be late, the charming, thickly-accented man who answered cooed, “No problem madame. We will be waiting for you and hold ‘ze table for you as long as you need.”
The centerpiece of Blackhawk Plaza's trio of new restaurants opened in the last year by Matthew Silverman, Laurus has made a strong debut. Judges mentioned the grilled skirt steak, an impressive wine list, and the desserts as standouts.
Best Dish: The skirt steak was cooked perfectly on the mesquite grill and had just the right hit of smoky flavor.
What They’re Doing Right: A fairly priced wine list with something for everyone.
Needs Work: It’s a large restaurant that lacks a sense of coziness.
Defining Moment: Witnessing a baby duck trying to hoist itself up a miniature waterfall to meet its mother. Just precious.
For familiar food with a little sophistication, this is the spot for a fun, casual night out. The vibe balances its urban aspirations (Metro) and suburban tastes and location (Lafayette), and it’s impossible not to enjoy the restaurant’s lovely outdoor patio.
Best Dish: The paper-thin, deliciously tender chicken in the chicken Paillard combined with heirloom tomatoes that were obviously the pick of the litter, fresh from the farmer’s market.
What They’re Doing Right: Providing a lively spot with solid, diner-friendly food at an affordable price.
Needs Work: Appetizers were pretty hit or miss: the salmon/avocado tartare and peach bruschetta didn't wow us.
Defining Moment: When my dining companion and I both sighed in relief simultaneously as we bit into our respective entrees.
This is a restaurant that lives up to its stellar reputation as a one-of-a-kind dining experience with excellent service and quality food. Whether you’re mingling at the bustling cocktail bar, seated at a romantic table for two, or watching the masters up close at the sushi bar, you’re in for a fresh, innovative take on traditional Japanese.
Best Dish: The Ozumo roll packed with snow crab, cucumber, maguro, avocado, and the nose-clearing, throat-warming spicy aioli sauce. WOW!
What They’re Doing Right: The low lighting and live DJ create a hip atmosphere matched by a wide variety of choices for sushi lovers and robata fans alike. Great for a girl’s night out or a larger group going out on the town.
Needs Work: Lower prices, so I could afford to go back! But not anything else. It is a fun spot for dinner.
Defining Moment: When the super attentive Sushi chef Eddie created an innovative salmon belly roll and called it the “named after you sushi roll!”
Peasant and the Pear
There’s something very likeable about this restaurant, whether it’s the welcoming staff and homey decor, or the reliable menu, where what you order is what you get. The food is old-fashioned and accessible with large portions at a mid-range price.
Best Dish: The grilled pork chop was expertly cooked, smothered with sweet balsamic cherry reduction sauce that balanced the lighter taste of the meat. The mashed potatoes have some chunkiness to them, not creamed into oblivion like a lot of other restaurants, and the tender sautéed spinach with garlic was great too.
What They’re Doing Right: Very nice people, who are happy to be there to the point that the customer feels welcomed as if into a personal home. You get the feeling the staff is proud of their restaurant; they are happy when you’re happy.
Needs Work: Portion control is a little off. How often do you hear that the portions are actually too large?
Defining Moment: Overhearing a well-groomed older woman saying “I’ve eaten nothing but half of a yogurt today in anticipation of dinner tonight.”
Va de Vi
This Diabloland favorite needs no introduction and continues to impress with its fun vibe and great wine flights. Meanwhile, the small plates—which were impressively portioned and affordable—won over the judges. “Va de Vi has a diverse menu with plenty of excellent choices,” says Lynn Char Bennett. “Whatever you order, you won’t go far wrong.”
Best Dish: The lechon (crispy pork belly) was unctuous with crisp skin and savory-sweet goodness atop a small rice cake coin. The flavors and textures come together in a way that pays homage to both Asian and Catalan cuisine ... Check out the dessert tasting for two: it’s totally worth it at $15.
What They’re Doing Right: Giving downtown Walnut Creek a bustling yet intimate bistro. It’s casually elegant without the stuffiness.
Needs Work: The service could be a bit more attentive. We had to request a change of plates—a no-no for a small plates restaurant.
Defining Moment: Feeling completely nourished on meat and wine, laughing at my friend’s story, and exchanging high fives with a nearby 6-year-old. Yeah, this place rocks.
This new Walnut Creek restaurant got some major points for its “stylish,” “sleek,” and “urban” design, but don’t overlook the menu of international small plates from chef Robert Sapirman, which earned plaudits of “excellent,” “addictive,” and, of course, “yummy,” from our judges.
Best Dish: That charred steak with the fresh Brentwood corn ragout would have to win, with my ahi in the arancini sauce being a very close contender.
What They’re Doing Right: Mood. Vesu has created a swanky, sultry lounge for people watching, right in downtown Walnut Creek.
Needs Work: I would have loved to see a few more small plates options that were vegetable-based. It's a very meat-focused menu.
Defining Moment: When the corn soup was poured into our bowls at the table, as if we were in one of the fanciest restaurants in Paris. It doesn’t feel overdone, it’s just cool; I’m into the white china on the black tables.