Stalking Chef Vargas at Bistro V (Sebastopol)
Passing through Sebastopol last month, I decided to stop at Bistro V for dinner. A few months ago, we had been wondering where Chef Rick Vargas had landed after leaving Stoa, and discovered that this restaurant was in the works.
It was early on a Saturday night and I had no problem getting a table. There's also seating at the bar. By the time I left, the place was nearly full, so reservations are advised. I had a window table overlooking the garden fronting the Gravenstein Highway.
With Chef Vargas' experience at Stoa, I focused on the vegetable selections on the menu. I had settled on two appetizers: spring vegetables with housemade puff pastry and, because it was still a bit nippy outside, the cassoulet. My waitress apologized for failing to tell me that neither of these were available earlier. While eager, she was somewhat green, stumbling over the description of specials, and failing to mention some that I overheard another server recite for a distant table. I scrutinized the menu again to choose the beet salad, $8.50, and one of the day's appetizers, duck empanada with corn salad, $11.95. I was determined to have duck confit in some form! My waitress snatched the menu away and dashed off before I could tell her what glass of wine I wanted even though she failed to ask. When she passed my table again, I ordered a 3 oz. pour of Christopher Creek "Catie's Corner" Viognier, $4.25. It was good but served very cold, much too cold for this grape variety. I enjoyed the house-baked rustic bread while I waited --- chewy crumb and a heavy crust with rhino hide-like crackles.
The beet salad was wrong in so many ways. The menu description said it would have red and golden beets, poached egg and aioli. I had ordered the Viognier because I like that grape with golden beets. Pink, probably chiogga, beets had been subbed for the goldens. The salad was served on a chilled plate and the contents were icy cold. If the frisee greens were dressed, it was not enough to be tasted. The flavor of the chilly beets was surpressed by the frigid serving temperature and the sprinkle of sea salt became the primary taste. The aioli did not complement the beets at all. The weirdest part was the ice cold poached egg. At refrigerator temperature, the soft-cooked yolk was an unappetizing goo. I couldn't figure out this dish at all and don't know why I ordered it.
My waitress had brought out the warm empanada when I'd just started to taste the beets. I told her that I wasn't ready for it yet, and she replied that I should feel free to take my time and she'd just leave it on the table. I tried to help her do the right thing by asking her to keep it warm for me. She then answered that it didn't need to stay warm. So, I spoke to her more firmly, insisting that she return it to the kitchen in order for it to be served at the proper temperature.
Things did start to look up when the duck empanada reappeared. Duck confit, black olives, and sultanas were encased in a thick, chewy bread dough. This was quite calzone-like. I really enjoyed the alternating weave of salty and sweet with the richness of the savory duck meat. The fresh corn salad was lightly dressed with tomato water and good olive oil and its crunchy fresh texture was a nice contrast to the empanada. It had weeped a bit during its wait to be runnier on the plate than when first presented. I never did figure out the identity of the dots of green puree on the plate. Maybe cilantro.
For dessert, I tried the Austrian-style apple strudel with handpulled leaves served with a scoop of Screamin' Mimi's Madagascar vanilla ice cream, $8.50. Served warm, this was very good, but that's pretty steep for dessert in these parts. As I gazed at the johnny-jump-ups in the garden, I had wondered if some would show up on a plate, and here they were. My one quibble with the strudel would be the blizzard of powdered sugar over the entire plate. It's impossible for the servers to get this to the table without leaving unappetizing finger smudges on the plate (see photo). Also, the powdered sugar drifts onto the table cloth, my clothing, and makes a mess of the servers' black aprons.
Total with tax and tip was $41. The menu here is pretty conservative, and two of the three dishes were well executed. Service should be better for the price. I wouldn't hesitate to return, but might make that for lunch when the prices would be lower.
We tried this restaurant a week ago. We were served by the assistant manager who was very knowledgeable about the menu and the timing of the dishes was perfect.
We both started off with the onion soup which was by far the best version we have ever had both in the US & France. A rich broth with carmelized onions and not overpowered by a thick layer of cheese. We were hopeful of the next course which was mussels that we both ordered.
The mussels arrived and they tasted acrid and off to me. The broth was enriched by cream & leeks. We told our server immediately who took them back without any problem. The chef/owner came out and said he agreed on the texture and assured me they were not off. He said he was going to take them off the menu as this had happened before.
They were very concerned and brought out a cheese & fruit plate gratis which was designed to cleanse the palate.
We ordered salads and my husband had a fantastic Greek salad that was shaped into a tower. I had a rather pedestrian Caesar salad that was not worth the price. I wished I would have had what my husband was eating.
They then brought a black forest cake out on the house and the owner's wife checked on us who is the pastry chef.
Ofcourse I would have liked the meal to be better but I did appreciate the concern of the owner and his wife to acknowledge the error and to try to do the right thing.
I would try it again as I think the restaurant has very good potential and an interesting menu.
It's funny the beet/poached egg salad came up for us too. The chef came out and told us he made an extra one by mistake and did we want it. We said no. I thought it was a very odd combination and would not have ordered it.
Chef Vargas certainly has an interesting background from carnivorous Joe's to vegetarian Stoa. I almost ordered one of several pasta entrees, some were vegetarian. The steak seemed to be popular with customers who seemed to be regulars here. They rotate the cut, and I'm sure Vargas knows his meat.
The other interesting thing is the Latin twist. Besides the empanada I had, one of the entree specials was a Peruvian seafood stew. I overheard it described as being spiced with either aji rocoto or panca, one of the native chilis. I really liked the empanada plate. The corn salad had just the slightest piquancy to warm up the flavors. There was a flan made from a family recipe on the dessert list. I hope to see more of these kind of dishes as Vargas gets more comfortable in his new surroundings.
re: Melanie Wong
My wife and I and another couple had dinner at Bistro V about a month ago. Our experience was that it was pretty good overall with some really great stuff. My wife had the ravioli and she really liked it, very light. I had the lasagna and it was pretty good, not great but better than average. Had a botle of viognier (sorry, don't remember whose) that was very nice and then a glass of pinot noit with the main course. Didn't try the cassoulet as I was more in the mood for a salad (baby greens that looked and tasted like Rafter's so they were great)lightly dressed which is the way that I like it. Overall, I'd go back, reasonable prices, pretty good food and a decent wine list.
Thanks for the pasta critique!
I forgot to mention that I was happy to see 3 oz. and 6 oz. by the glass pours on the wine list. The list is a little limited right now, but well priced. It's mostly local wines, but one import that I was shocked to see what a Jurançon moelleux, a rather obscure dessert wine from the southwest of France. I can't recall the producer. I was curious to find out what dish they recommended with it, as it was on the dinner wine list and not marked as sweet. But I didn't have the right rapport with my server to discuss it.
Oh, tried the new Mambo yet? If you have, please start a new thread and subject line to tell us about it.
Thanks for posting, I'd wondered where you'd ended up eating!
Was the assistant manager a man? The man who was behind the bar when I came in took care of a couple tables. It was his description of the specials that I overheard, unfortunately after already placing my own orders. He was much more knowledgeable. Other servers seemed more confident as well. I think my server might have been new, and I was making her more and more nervous as the evening progressed.
I was there shortly before you, I think. It seems as though the menu is in flux since there were so many specials offered and some things having been axed. The copy of the menu I was handed was a mess with smudges and grease marks and I assumed that there would be reprinting soon.
I didn't know that there was a husband and wife team in the kitchen. The in-house baking and the dessert menu are pretty ambitious for this location and size of place. I noted the handpulled strudel leaves, phyllo, and puff pastry offered.
It sounds like they handled your concerns well under the circumstances.
re: Melanie Wong
We were in Sebastopol only for one night (Sunday) and our choices therefore were more limited. The assistant manager was a woman who truly was very knowledgeable about the menu and made no issue of the return of the "off mussels". Yes Chef Vargas and his wife are co-owners and co-chefs. Sounds like based on your experience there is some work to be done before the restaurant hits its mark.
BTW we had a wonderful breakfast in Occidental at Howard Station. What a picturesque setting and ambience - interesting menu. My husband had a tofu ranchero and I had berry pancakes. They served really good coffee too. A big thumbs up for that restaurant.
I do remember a woman who arrived to work a little later who was talking with one table about the tastings she'd been holding to make wine list decisions. Bet that was the assistant manager you speak of.
Thanks for letting us know about Howard Station, it's been around for a couple years and we haven't heard much about it here.