Va de Vi has a new chef, and the wine and food are more fun than ever.
Photography by Joe Budd
When Va de Vi’s new executive chef, Shane McAnelly, came on board, he was given specific marching orders: Don’t worry about cooking any one style of food, and definitely don’t worry about pairing particular foods with certain wines.
“The cuisine is pretty much wide open here,” says McAnelly. “And as far as wine pairings go, it’s really more of a free for all: You drink what you want to drink and eat what you want to eat. There’re no rules here, and that’s how they want it.”
That didn’t come as much of a surprise to McAnelly. After all, the Martinez resident, who came over in April from the cutting-edge Zero Zero in San Francisco, has counted Va de Vi as one of his go-to dining spots for years.
Instead of telling diners what to order, the cozy but ultrastylish Walnut Creek restaurant has always opted for a more DIY approach, cranking out an adventurous menu of kick-ass (and cross-cultural) small plates, with wines ranging from the simple to the sublime offered in quantities as small as three-ounce tastes. The whole setup says, “Try me; taste me. Have fun. Play around.”
It’s kind of like a high-end carnival for adults. And with McAnelly’s bold new vision giving renewed life and direction to a restaurant that took off with a bang seven years ago, Va de Vi offers diners some exhilarating rides. By October, McAnelly will have overturned nearly the entire menu, minus a few holdout favorites like the seared black cod, bringing a hyper-seasonal philosophy and hands-on approach. Under his direction, Va de Vi has started making pasta, curing meats, and pulling fresh mozzarella, all in-house. And the new dishes? They’re complicated, but not in an architectural or fussy way; rather, they layer multiple pure flavors, often including a subtle touch of spice.
McAnelly’s pickled shallots on hefty Little Gem lettuce just about zing off the plate in a creamy avocado dressing. One fried thin slice of lemon in the crisp, light fritto misto is like a trip to the magical land of, uh, fried lemonade.
A baked summer pasta with chewy, bouncy spirals of house-made cavatelli and delicate hand-pulled mozzarella holds out a wonderful, lingering heat, which gives the simple heirloom tomato and basil sauce a nice kick.
McAnelly’s ponzu sauce, daikon radish, and Fresno chilies throw a wild party for the blood-red seared New York steak in the beef tataki. The Korean-style barbecue short ribs offer a richly satisfying hit of smoky, salty, sweet, and char, while the plump grilled prawns nearly bust out of their crisped pancetta wraps.
So, what wine would you drink with this unruly bunch of bigger-than-life personalities? All of ’em. Or as many as you need to bring out the decadent richness of those short ribs or to tap the spice in the beef tataki. You could choose a flight or, better yet, pick your own flight of wines in taste-size pours.
Among the awesome wines at Va de Vi is a spunky 90-percent Tempranillo from Spain’s Rioja, a silken Bordeaux from Napa, and a wonderfully balanced blend containing four traditional Rhône varietals from Berkeley’s Donkey and Goat winery. Not to mention a knockout lineup of whites, including a flight that is all Spanish and Portuguese, and one that is Italian with lovely Arneis and Friulano.
Va de Vi’s consulting wine director, Jill Taylor (she also serves as general manager and wine director at Danville’s Mangia Mi), eventually offered some of her own favorite wine-and-food combinations (see Explorations) … but we had to prod her. Because really, the whole point here is that if a certain combination speaks to you, you should go for it. If it doesn’t, don’t. The fun is in exploring your own preferences and preconceptions, and experimenting each time you get a chance. Eating and drinking can be an adventure sport. Va de Vi is the perfect place to play it.
Contact: 1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com. Hours: Lunch and dinner daily. Price: Small plates, $3–$15. Alcohol: Wine, beer, and cocktails.
Va de Vi’s consulting wine director, Jill Taylor, shares some of her favorite food and wine pairings.
Food: Wild arugula salad with K& J Orchard stone fruit, Marcona almonds, manchego cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette
Wine: 2010 Laxas Albariño Rias Baixas, Spain.
Notes: The Albariño has aromas of almonds, peaches, nectarines, and citrus, which go great with the salad. “It’s not a coincidence,” adds Taylor, “that this Spanish wine works well with the richness of the Marcona almonds and the dryness of the Manchego cheese, which are also from Spain.”
Food: Ahi tartare of sashimi-grade tuna blended with lemon zest, sesame oil, and soy sauce; topped with wasabi tobiko and served with sesame rice crackers
Wine: 2007 Roblin “Les Ammonites,” Sancerre, Loire Valley, France
Notes: This Sauvignon Blanc, with its hints of grapefruit, “plays into the lemon zest of the tartare,” says Taylor, and accents Japanese herbs and spices and pickled onions in the dish. The minerality of the wine allows the tuna “to stand out.”
Food: Chinese duck confit steamed buns stuffed with star anise duck confit, hoisin sauce, green papaya salad, and cilantro.
Wine: 2009 Bodegas, Navarro Lopez Rojo Garnacha, Spain
Notes: You probably wouldn’t expect to drink a Spanish red with duck confit steamed buns, yet there it is. Taylor says a candied cherry flavor in the wine matches the sweetness of the hoisin. The wine also allows the duck flavor to linger and the green papaya to come out. Says Taylor, “On paper, this is not a standard pairing,” but in practice, it’s a “winner.”