Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


Restaurant Reviews :


Postscript: Chef Andew Trice III left Vivaca in early 2002. The restaurant closed in early 2003. Andrew Trice moved to Savannah GA to open a barbecue restaurant, Angel's Barbecue. I visited savannah in 2006, soon after Angel's opened. Angel's is located in a tiny antique coach-house on an alley with only a few tables. Although oriented towards take-out, one gets a great sense of the flavor balance at which Trice excels. The pork butts are perfectly smoked, not too heavy, and the house barbecue sauce shows balance between spice and acidity, not too sweet nor overpowering. Excellent!

Vivaca Grill before Jan 2002

by Robert Rich, Autumn 2001, for City Search

Vivaca Grill has become a regular place for my wife and me to introduce our friends to fine cuisine. Don't let the bland interior fool you, the chef here is one of the best in the region. Andrew Trice III moved to Vivaca from Chez TJ, a top Mountain View French restaurant whose reputation grew during his six year tenure. Trice brought his exquisite sauces and classic duck confit to Vivaca, where he has allowed himself to branch out of French classicism into a blend of European, California and Cajun influenced cuisine.

(Trice's Culinary Academy cohort Steve Long opened Vivaca, and helped design the kitchen. Long invited Trice to share dinner duties around 2000, and the two excellent chefs traded off between lunch and dinner for over a year. When Steve Long moved on, Vivaca focused more on dinner with Trice the solo chef.)

Among the specialties of the house, you should not pass up the torchon de foie gras. Few California restaurants bother to prepare and age their own foie gras from scratch, and Vivaca's torchon exhibits the delicate balance and subtle richness that only the best French imports can provide. The foie gras arrives at the table with toast points, figs and a sauce of onions carmelized in ruby port. All of Andrew Trice's sauces exhibit a balance and delicacy that shows his obsession with classical technique. One of his most perfect creations must be the noisette of lamb with Rossini sauce. The lamb tenderloin is seared medium rare, lightly seasoned and delicate, sliced thinly and topped with a reduction of madeira wine, stock, and black truffles. The shredded duck confit is another specialty of the house, and appears regularly on the menu. Sweet yet delicately savory, the confit arrives alongside thinly sliced tender medallions of duck breast, on flagiolet beans or black lentils with a kierch bigarade sauce (a subtle sweet-sour reduction made with light cherry liquer.)

Among the daily specials that come and go at Vivaca, the brown Windsor soup may have impressed us more than any other. In his efforts to research the gems of past cuisines, Andrew Trice proved to us that a classic English dish could reach a level of subtlety that we usually only expect from the French. We stopped joking about boiled beef and pasties when we tasted this sensuous blend of beef, onion and herbs, somehow transformed into a nutty sweet delicacy after hours of slow cooking and carmelization.

Vivaca frequently features special dishes with a Cajun slant, influenced by the chef's Louisiana heritage. Unlike some of the screaming dishes that some people imagine, Vivaca's approach to Creole emphasizes the French background, with flavors developed through slow cooking, complex herbs and spices, and fresh ingredients. Some of the simplest dishes have left the deepest impressions, such as the black-eyed peas offered at New Years'. Vivaca's Cajun-style creations walk the line between spicey and subtle, with just enough of an afterburn to remind you that you're still alive, but not so much that you can't enjoy the flavor of your other food. The chef's excellent gumbo occasionally appears as a soup special, and stands as one of the best gumbos I've ever tasted.

I won't go on in detail about each of the memorable dishes that we have tried at Vivaca - grilled sturgeon with a light buerre blanc, lamb Brillat Sevarin (stuffed with foie gras and black truffles), broiled acorn squash halves filled with escargot, seared ahi pot au feu in wild mushroom broth - but I can best summarize the style of Vivaca's kitchen as balanced and subtle. The flavors within the sauces balance each other with classic finesse, just as the menu balances European tradition with western hybridization. Unfortunately, neither Vivaca's decor nor service staff reach out to the adventurous diner, making it easy to choose one of the safer dishes on the menu (like sundried tomato pasta or New York steak). In that case, you might never get to know what makes this place unique. Make a point of asking about the daily specials, as they often reflect the chef's current experiments and historical research. If nothing else, order Vivaca's duck confit, then talk to the chef. You'll want to return for more.