La Vie (SF) - great crab, longish review
Had an excellent dinner last night. I rarely venture to the Richmond to eat – the parking issue is a major barrier – so while I had enjoyed a dinner at La Vie a year or two ago, this was my first return visit.
The "La Vie-style" roast crab is my favorite Dungeness crab preparation. I definitely like it better than the one-dimensional garlic/butter bomb at Thanh Long... I think I like it even better than the chili crab I had in Singapore. Roasting solves my number one problem with Dungeness crab - the soft, almost watery consistency that results from steaming or boiling. With roasting, the flesh has a denser and more satisfying texture.
The second problem I frequently have with Dungeness crab is that the sweet flavor quickly becomes cloying - I need something else to balance it out. Just garlic and butter don't do it for me. The La Vie special has a deep brown topping – I charged my dining companions with the task of figuring out what exactly goes into it – we couldn’t figure it all out, but there’s definitely (chicken) egg, and bits of crab, butter, shallots, garlic, and ginger – the result is a fantastically savory dressing for the sweet crab. Garlicky, but not overwhelmingly so, and with a generous proportion of ginger that provided the needed contrast to the richness of the crab. Of the five of us, three had been to Thanh Long, and the other two had been to PPQ - consensus at the table was that this crab was superior to the ones we'd had at the other two restaurants.
We also ordered the coconut curry crab - it was good, but we all preferred the "La Vie style". The curry tasted like the yellow Japanese curry, with some coconut millk – I’m not a huge fan of that style (it tastes too much of raw turmeric for me) – and it overwhelmed the glass noodles that accompanied the crab. (I've had the pepper crab in the past as well - I liked it more than the coconut curry crab, but not as much as the "La Vie style")
The garlic noodles are soft, even a little bland – the menu says they’re seasoned with coriander, garlic, and parmesan. They did have a generous amount of crispy browned garlic bits, but the other seasonings were more muted. On a previous visit, LA CH'er Cicely and I were convinced that the parmesan was the stuff from the green Kraft cans - this time, I wasn't so sure. I liked that they weren't too aggressively seasoned - the crab and topping are savory enough as it is, and I liked having something a little bland to reset my palate. When topped with the little bits of crab scraped out of hard to reach crevices, the noodles were delicious.
Everything else we had was great as well:
Glazed quail – excellent – crispy skin, tender meat, sweet and gingery glaze. Served with a tamarind-dressed salad.
Bahn khot a.k.a. “shrimp cupcakes” – these had a more deeply browned crust than Tamarine's, and a less pronounced coconut flavor (overall, it had less intrinsic seasoning, as Tamarine's are meant to be eaten as is, while La Vie's are meant to be eaten with nuoc cham). These were served with lettuce wraps, herbs, and nuoc cham. Delicious.
Beef in Lot leaves – seasoned beef stuffed grape leaves, served with the same lettuce, herbs, and nuoc cham. Savory little mouthfuls, also delicious.
Calamari salad – bright, well balanced. I reserved some for the crab course to help clear my palate.
The green beans with preserved mustard greens - the beans were perfectly tender-crisp, and the gentle acidity from the mustad greens served as a good counterpoint to the richness of the crab.
After dinner, we walked over to Aziza for drinks and dessert. This was actually my first time to Aziza, and I look forward to going back – loved my drink (“Almond” – with tequila, amaretto, lemon juice, smoked salt rim, toasted almonds). Desserts were excellent as well – I have a thing for orange flower water, so the dessert of citrus scented with orange flower water, paired with a light honey and orange flower water mousse, and cubes of prosecco gelee called my name. Also enjoyed the fuyu persimmon dessert – small dice of persimmons, paired with cinnamon-dusted phyllo disks and a fantastic yogurt sorbet that would bring Pinkberry to its knees.
Overall, a great evening... totally worth the pain of finding parking (admittedly, last night was a relatively easy night, with so many people out of town... I think it only took 15 minutes of circling before I found a spot.)
Parking isn't impossible at least early in the evening.
I stopped in at La Vie a few months ago after not having been there in many years. I had a great raw beef salad and hot and soup soup. Guess next time I'm having the crab. Service, as in the past, is a cut above.
How much was the La Vie crab?
La Vie is often overlooked due to location and the boom in Vietnamese places. It did however make the Chron's top 100 1 or 2 years and deserved it. Very consistent, very good food but the decor is basically "nice neighborhood" and I think that's where it has lost out a bit.
re: parking, as mentioned, earlier is easier...before 7 p.m. There's two public metered lot along Geary in that around 21st and 19th...free after 6 p.m.