San Mateo’s Viognier Undergoing Changes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Another Place to Try in San Mateo: All Spice