San Mateo’s Viognier Undergoing Changes

Scallops with bacon vinaigrette at Viognier.

Scallops with bacon vinaigrette at Viognier.

 

San Mateo’s Viognier restaurant sometimes gets forgotten about.

It’s only when someone brings up the name that you think, “Oh, yeahhhhh, I remember that place…”

After all, when it debuting in 1997, it was a big deal. It made a statement by opening on the second floor of a grocery store, of all things, albeit the uber gourmet Draeger’s. And it made an impression when it lured the illustrious Gary Danko from the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco to open the restaurant.

After Danko left to open his eponymous Michelin one-starred San Francisco establishment, Viognier went through a succession of chefs.

Executive Chef R.J. Subaba in the kitchen.

Executive Chef R.J. Subaba in the kitchen.

The latest one comes with impressive credentials, too. Executive Chef R.J. Subaba has cooked at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Murray Circle at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Madera at the Rose Wood Sand Hill in Menlo Park, and the Village Pub in Woodside. He’s joined in the kitchen by Executive Pastry Chef Katelyn McCulloch, formerly of the Plumed Horse in Saratoga.

When I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant in December, the restaurant offered only tasting menus. But Subaba says a la carte options will debut soon. A new wood-fired grill also was recently installed.

With holiday decorations and a roaring fireplace, the dining room, which can feel a little utilitarian, gained a cozy appeal. Service can be a little haphazard at times (silverware missing on occasion when a course was set down), but the food makes up for that, showing a guiding hand in the kitchen that’s full of promise.

The dining room.

The dining room.

The bar.

The bar.

At the time, the restaurant offered either a three-course ($79) or seven-course chef’s tasting menu ($135), with wine pairings an additional $55 or $105, respectively.

Chef Subaba offered to just cook for us, sending out his favorite dishes for us to try.

I started with one of the barrel-aged cocktails, the “Rye Be A Rascal” ($14), a potent blend of Rittenhouse Rye, pear, apple shrub, and Angostura Bitters.

The barrel-aged rye-based cocktail.

The barrel-aged rye-based cocktail.

Parker House rolls soon arrived, fluffy and wonderful, with both herb butter, and a can’t-miss house-made ricotta whipped with honey.

The amuse was a Brussels sprouts half, charred and caramelized Vietnamese-style with fish sauce.

The veggie-based amuse.

The veggie-based amuse.

Parker House rolls.

Parker House rolls.

Fry quinoa and even a junk-food junkie will succumb to it. The crunchy grain added pop to a salad that incorporated beets three ways — fried like potato chips, roasted to showcase their candy sweetness, and raw in paper-thin slices. More house-made ricotta, this time flecked with dill, tied everything together with herby creaminess.

Beet salad with fried quinoa.

Beet salad with fried quinoa.

Dungeness crab salad with a cheesy crisp on top.

Dungeness crab salad with a cheesy crisp on top.

Dungeness crab was cloaked with a crispy cheese frico on a bed of arugula, apples and oranges. It was ever so lightly dressed so that the sweetness of the crab was front and center.

Pumpkin soup is poured at the table into a bowl with crisp pumpkin chips and creme fraiche mousse. The fragrance of cloves was evident as the stream of soup hit the plate. It’s a comforting soup, and fun to eat, as your spoon picks up bits of added crunch and creaminess along the way.

Pieces of roasted pumpkin, fried pumpkin and creme fraiche mousse.

Pieces of roasted pumpkin, fried pumpkin and creme fraiche mousse.

In goes the clove-scented pumpkin soup.

In goes the clove-scented pumpkin soup.

Fried oysters was the only miss of the night. The breading was soggy, so my husband ended up tearing off the doughy exterior to just enjoy the oysters with the perky pickled green strawberries on the plate.

On the other hand, the seared Hokkaido scallops was one of my favorites of the night. They were cold-smoked, and drizzled with warm bacon vinaigrette, which makes just about anything taste more delicious. Add in the sweetness of Tokyo turnips, and this dish hit every note.

Fried oysters.

Fried oysters.

Potato gnocchi with preserved truffle.

Potato gnocchi with preserved truffle.

Herb and potato gnocchi were supple and wonderfully earthy from trumpet mushrooms, as well as preserved black truffles. A bit of mustard added a lively sharpness.

A shot of litchi-passion fruit soda followed as an intermezzo. I only wish it had come after our main meat dishes, rather than before.

A fruit soda intermezzo.

A fruit soda intermezzo.

Braised Kurobuta pork ribs were fall-apart tender, almost like carnitas without the crispiness on the edges. The meat lay on a vivid stinging nettle sauce. Pickled fennel and a mustardy slaw were a nice counterpoint to the richness of the meat.

Wonderfully tender pork ribs.

Wonderfully tender pork ribs.

Wagyu coulotte aged for two days in koji.

Wagyu coulotte aged for two days in koji.

Even from Wagyu, the coulotte or triangular sirloin cap is a less marbled cut, so Subaba ages it in koji (a natural fungus) for two days to help tenderize it. It definitely does the trick as the meat turns ever so buttery tender and robust in flavor. It’s served with potatoes fried in Wagyu fat (yes!), as well as an onion that’s meltingly sweet.

A regal take on a grasshopper pie or Thin Mint cookie.

A regal take on a grasshopper pie or Thin Mint cookie.

Pears and chestnuts.

Pears and chestnuts.

McCulloch’s desserts are lovely and delicious. Her take on Grasshopper pie features a Valrhona entrement shaped like a giant pill capsule, bracing mint ice cream, tiny mint meringue kisses, and mint gel. There’s a lot of chocolate going on here, but miraculously it remains a light-tasting dessert, thanks to all the refreshing mint and the fluffiness of the mousse.

Next, a dessert all about the holidays — mascarpone chestnut mousse with a center of pear puree. Creme de maron chestnuts, chestnut-flour tuilles, compressed pears, and slightly boozy rum-pear gelee. It’s elegant, and so reminiscent of Christmas time, that you can imagine eating it after taking in a production of “The Nutcracker.”

Pate de fruit, and macarons.

Pate de fruit, and macarons.

Cranberry truffles.

Cranberry truffles.

Eggnog macarons, pate de fruit with the deep beery and puckery taste of cassis, and cranberry-white chocolate truffles, ended the evening sweetly.

It’s nice to see a new team reinvigorating the restaurant and bringing it the attention it deserves.

Tataki

Another Place to Try in San Mateo: All Spice

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2 comments

  • I haven’t had a fried oyster in ages! They’re good, aren’t they? May need to find some this weekend. 🙂 Sounds like a terrific place — thanks!

  • I used to eat here fairly often back in Danko’s day and shortly thereafter. You’re right – I haven’t thought about it in a while. The new dishes sound wonderful. Here’s hoping it gets re-discovered.

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