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Casual Chic

Vesu mixes the relaxed and the refined in downtown Walnut Creek.


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All Images by Mohammad Gorjestani

At one table, a young man sports a baseball cap and a full-arm tattoo so fresh, it’s still sheathed in plastic wrap. At the next is a gent 50 years his senior, wearing a tailored golf shirt, sweater vest, and white flat cap.

Perhaps Vesu, the sleek new spot occupying the old Sherman Clay Piano space in downtown Walnut Creek, has reconciled our split-personality desire to dine both casually and in style. First restaurants became cafés, then cafés morphed into bistros. Now, we have lounges—“Cushion for two?”—with Vesu tossing together refined and relaxed like a warm duck salad.

The waitstaff is in bistro black; the napkins, tables, and chairs are black; even the killer flatiron steak is served up black. But the atmosphere is light, as inviting and open to the cool summer breeze as it is to peckish passersby.

The spare yet warm interior uses clean lines and contemporary elements of concrete, eucalyptus, and brushed aluminum to create a decidedly adult atmosphere, with communal areas both in front and back. Raised tables in the bar blend into a banquette-lined dining room, which flows into a back space that is easily made private (there’s also a semiprivate lounge in front, set off from the bar). Co-owner Christopher Velez says the metropolitan design was inspired by Morimoto in New York, the Slanted Door in San Francisco, and Joya in Palo Alto (Velez worked with San Francisco-based interior designer Bellusci Design). The gentle nightclub sensibilities build on Walnut Creek hot spots such as Maria Maria, Bing Crosby’s, and Va de Vi.

Meanwhile, the menu’s focus on fun-to-eat small plates with influences from across the globe allows the kitchen to strive for perfection, without becoming too serious or self-important. Presentations are flawless and playfully arranged on an eclectic collection of white plates that are rarely round. Twice, a friend and I ordered six small dishes for dinner—more than we needed, but not by much.

Vesu may be a bit pricey—our six stellar small plates plus dessert came to a little under $100—but executive chef Robert Sapirman makes sure you get your money’s worth. Most recently running the show for Bradley Ogden (Parcel 104) and Michael Mina (Arcadia) in the South Bay, Sapirman has serious chops, and that shows in his sophisticated small plates. The salt cod croquettes, pork arepas, and carne asada sopes have bold yet restrained flavors and arrive in perfect little packages of two or three. The one small plate that doesn’t lend itself to sharing is the corn bisque, poured at the table over a garnish of fried garlic chips, avocado cubes, and a single sliver of hot chili—mostly because you won’t want to part with a spoonful.

The night I ventured into the entrée section, I discovered Sapirman’s versatility. That charred flatiron steak was the size and shape of a stick of butter, and I ate it as such, in eight delicious bites, as if each rosy slice was measured by the tablespoon. The sides of crisp asparagus, crusted halves of new potato, and a thick béarnaise sauce made this a classic. A mushroom hot pot, on the other hand, was all New Age: clusters of wild mushrooms swimming with seaweed above a trio of sweet fava bean dumplings.

The food reflects the same relaxed yet refined aesthetic captured in the ambience, proving Vesu could be a concept with legs. 

Contact: 1388 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 280-8378, vesurestaurant.com. Hours: Lunch Thurs.–Sun., dinner Tues.–Sun. Price: Small plates $8–$15, entrées $17–$25. Alcohol: Full bar.

At A Glance

What makes it special: Nightclub sensibilities with four-star food.

The space: Sleek yet communal, combining hip design inspired by top urban eateries with a fun interior that inspires interaction, including a communal washroom outside the bathroom.  

When to go: Great for a late light dinner. A new happy hour special has $3–$5 appetizers and drinks.

Don’t miss: to share: The fresh chickpeas fried in their jackets with lemon and spice. Small plate: Crispy salt cod croquettes with fennel and garlicky rémoulade. Entrée: Signature charred grass-fed flatiron steak on summer corn ragout.

Bonus: Vesu mixes up innovative cocktails, an unmatched bourbon selection, and a smart international wine list—and it offers even better desserts.


Behind the Review: Rookie Restaurateurs

How did two people from Martinez with no experience in the restaurant industry create an überurban eatery? Vesu, by siblings-in-law Christopher Velez and Melisa Suitos, needed much more than a cool-sounding name. Suitos’ advertising background helped, particularly her experience with wining and dining clients in Manhattan. And Velez’s career as a building engineer allowed them to transform a defunct piano store into a fully equipped restaurant (with the aid of Oakland's Arcsine Architecture). Velez explains below.

Atmosphere
• The goal was not just to open a restaurant in Walnut Creek but to open the restaurant to Walnut Creek, reflected in a triad of windows that open fully onto the street, and a seamless floor-to-ceiling glass entrance.

“We wanted a communal sense, intermingling, interacting. You totally engage with the space just by walking by.”

Finding a chef
• Chef Sapirman wowed with his food’s freshness, simplicity, and an intense focus. “His passion is just uncanny. Unparalleled. Very infectious.” In a private tasting, Sapirman beat out several top chefs.

 Service
• Unlike a cook’s skill set, Velez says what a waiter brings to the table is intangible.
“You look for that certain charisma, something you can’t teach. You have to use your intuition, your sixth sense.” 

—C.F.

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