Flexible, friendly Bistro Vis à vis adds charm to Bon Air Center

This is the unedited version of the review that was posted to the IJ earlier this week: http://www.marinij.com/lifestyles/ci_19803737

It is not every day that you enter a restaurant where the host is also the chef and sommelier. At Bistro Vis à vis, you will find Soo Young Kim bustling about this 30-seat restaurant and wine bar, a whirl of activity and seemingly endless energy. Co-owner with her partner Erich Lichtblau, Kim, who previously wore the chef, owner and sommelier hats at Sooze Wine Bar in Petaluma, took over as chef in September to bring the food more in line with her vision of light, fresh and seasonal cuisine in a casual, neighborhood spot.

Renamed Bistro Vis à vis about 15 months ago after six months as NewZ, Kim, with executive sous chef Cory Rapp (recently of Spruce in San Francisco and Waterboy in Sacramento) on hand since November, cooks in a style that more closely resembles California cuisine with a healthy helping of Asian flavors. A trained biochemist, Kim pairs a scientist’s mind with a chef’s hands to create elegant simplicity on the plate.
Shrimp bisque ($6.50/cup), aromatic and delicate with a light hand on the cream jug, finished on the back of the palate with a kick of Piment d’Espelette and a hint of chives. A gently wilted spinach ($11) salad with cherries, caramelized onions and bacon, was surprisingly light and sweet-tart from the interplay of the sharp vinaigrette against the cherries.

Kaffir lime-infused scallop cakes ($12), served with a spot-on lime-inflected Thai papaya salad and coconut curry sauce, danced with the intermingled flavors of the bright citrus, warm spices and mouth-tingling red chilies. A happy accident, according to Kim, who came up with the recipe after a day with too many left-over sand dabs and a Kaffir lime tree at home bursting with ripe fruit and fragrant leaves; it is now a best seller.

Yes, the mildly seasoned fish tacos are back by customer demand and are available at lunch ($11 for two) and dinner ($17 for three). The cornmeal-crusted basa was that ideal combo of crunchy outside, flaky and tender inside. More inspired were the halibut cheeks ($26). Panko-crusted and meltingly tender, a yuzu aioli gave the meaty fish pop while the truffled shallot vinaigrette added dimensionality to the dish.
Duck Breast ($25), dressed for the season with almond-farro pilaf, roasted pears, and a pear-red wine gastrique, arrived with a crisp skin, medium-rare center and tender, toothsome appeal. So, too, the Cornish game hen ($19), with blue lake beans and the creamiest celery root puree I have ever eaten.

The American Kobe flat iron steak ($27) with blue cheese butter arrived medium rare (though the server forgot to ask how we liked our meat prepared), and the accompanying Brussels sprouts and a portobello and shiitake bread pudding, perfect wintery partners, overshadowed the beefy star on the plate due to the sheer size of the side portions.

The dessert list is short and changes regularly but a seasonal fruit plate ($7) with pistachios, Mandarin orange and kiwi among others, is always in style, though I wished for a drizzle of honey alongside the fresh cream.

The room is fairly casual with darkly colored, burnt sienna walls, high white wainscoting, pendant lights and an open kitchen with a 5-seat wine bar. One wall is lined with dark banquettes while diners seated opposite on mahogany-colored chairs will appreciate the coat- or purse-hooks behind each table. Napkins are cloth and care is taken to replace your modish long-stemmed silverware after each course.

Don’t be surprised, too, if the chef walks over to meet you or to discuss wine or food or any other topic of interest that day. Kim and Lichtblau, who live within walking distance of the restaurant, are part of the charm of this friendly neighborhood restaurant and make it a point to know their customer’s and their special quirks and requests. Can’t eat cow’s milk? No problem, they will make the al dente risotto – Dungeness crab and Royal Trumpet mushroom on the day we visited ($22) – dairy-free. No gluten? Let’s swap the almond-farro pilaf for risotto or add some extra sautéed chard. Visit often enough and they will have prepared the service team in advance of your arrival.

Her flair for creative, accessible bistro cooking is clear once you start eating yet Kim carries her passion for wine on her sleeve. Sure, you can order any wine on the extensive menu you like – there are 46 options not including dessert selections, mostly from the USA and Europe, all available by the glass, carafe or bottle – but why not have Kim pair your wine with your food?

She may nudge you down this path anyway; should you inquire about the wine menu, tastes of whites and reds that work with your selected dishes might start flowing your way, simplifying a sometimes fraught decision. (That bio-chemistry background is a perfect match for the challenge of pairing wine flavors with food flavors.)

This is a real bistro, serving simple, delightful dishes with a well-built, interesting wine list and a hands-on owner in a modest space. The high quality ingredients and attention to flavor almost act as a foil for the large portions. Bistro vis à vis is full of little touches, bonuses that add an oft-forgotten old-school charm. It is how a bistro should be.