Viognier — Still Full of Vim and Vigor

Short ribs elegantly presented at Viognier restaurant.

It wasn’t long ago that the notion of a restaurant operating inside a hotel doomed it to second-tier status.

While that no longer holds true, the idea of a fine-dining restaurant inside a grocery store still prompts some disbelief.

But when Viognier opened inside the gourmet market, Draeger’s in San Mateo 15 years ago, it made a convincing case that unlikely scenario could work.

After all, the restaurant was opened by none other than Chef Gary Danko, who later left to open his own eponymous restaurant in San Francisco. He was followed by Chef Scott Giambastiani, who is now an executive chef at Google. Chef Preston Dishman, former chef-partner of the General’s Daughter in Sonoma, took over the restaurant, named for the aromatic grape varietal from the Northern Rhone region of France, in 2008.

Recently, I had a chance to dine as a guest of the restaurant. Although, I’ve eaten at the restaurant a few times over the years, this was my first time since Dishman took over.

Although some may consider it a bit strange to enter a grocery store to take an escalator up to the second-floor restaurant, I love the juxtaposition. It gives me an excuse to roam around the store, which is packed with every ingredient imaginable — from fresh galangal to quail eggs to an amazing selection of cheeses from around the world. It has to be so well stocked for the top chefs who teach cooking demos in the kitchen classroom adjacent to the restaurant.

Sprays of flowers grace the tables at the restaurant.

Enter the doors to the restaurant, which shut out the noise from the rest of the store, to find a dining room awash in warm wood, damask banquettes and big sprays of flowers in vases.

On a Tuesday night, the first week after the restaurant was back in operation after a short winter break, the dining room was nearly full.

While all menu items can be enjoyed a la carte, most folks opt for picking selections for three courses ($55), four courses ($69) or five courses ($85). Wine pairings are an additional $29, $38 and $47, respectively.

Classic oysters on the half shell.

My friend Pam and I started with the Fanny Bay oysters served on the half shell with classic mignonette and cocktail sauce, as well as the day boat scallops, seared perfectly and accompanied by shiitakes, cauliflower, fennel and bits of crisp brown sugar bacon. A curried parsnip puree added a touch of complexity.

Plump scallops with a gorgeous sear on them.

Risotto done up with maitakes and English peas.

Smoky pork belly.

Next, creamy-earthy risotto with English peas, roasted maitakes and speckles of black truffle.

That was followed by squares of meatier-than-usual pork belly, full of smoky flavor. It was pork belly for those who want to indulge without the guilt of the usual juicy fat cap. A crunchy dice of chicharrรณns topped it, along with a scattering of caramelized Brussels sprouts leaves.

Simple yet satisfying, Hawaiian walu.

Hawaiian walu, a firm yet flaky fish, sported picture-ready grill marks and a nice charred flavor.

Slow-cooked short ribs were not spoonably soft, but still tender in its natural jus.

Butterscotch meets pumpkin in this pudding.

Beignets accompanied by orange caramel sauce.

Viognier takes the usual butterscotch pudding and mixes in pumpkin. It was less sugary tasting than straight-on butterscotch pudding. Dig deep into the glass past the gingersnap crumbs to find chocolate cremeux at the very bottom for a parfait that keeps delivering.

An espresso-size cup of spiced hot chocolate accompanies cinnamon-sugar dusted beignets that were warm, though slightly denser than most.

Best yet, if you time it right, you can end the night with some grocery shopping downstairs before you head home, as the store stays open until 10 p.m.

Other Places To Try In San Mateo: All Spice for Modern Indian Flavors

And: Luke’s Local — A Local, Sustainable Convenience Store in a Cal-Train Station

And: The Attic for Contemporary South Asian-Filipino Food

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