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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Tableau Vivaca: Decorative panels add a touch of glass to the New American standards at Vivaca Grill.

Vivacious Vivaca

Savvy entrepreneurs give American food a good grilling in the dining landscape of Mountain View

By Christina Waters

SPARKLING WITH metropolitan attitude, Vivaca Grill has put a bold culinary stamp squarely in the middle of downtown Mountain View. Parting the sea of ethnic eateries that once defined this corner of Silicon Valley, Vivaca glows with confidence and (gasp) a non-Mediterranean menu. The brainchild of California Culinary Academy graduates, Vivaca's spacious dining room showcases the work of Steven Long (2030, Piatti) and Andrew Trice III (Chez TJ). So even though the menu was filled with New American standards--grilled salmon, crab cakes, roast chicken, New York steak--our evening's meal was anything but standard.

Glimpsed through gorgeous leaded glass panels, a stylish bar adjoins the main, high-ceilinged dining room. Delicate blown-glass lamps spotlight a row of booths, while huge "flying saucer" chandeliers hover unlit (they're too bright to turn on, a waiter revealed). Decor is austere, despite the caramel wood chairs and tweed upholstery. The menu's already on the mark.

My partner chose an elegant Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir '98 ($8) and I a Peterson Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel '96 ($7) to go with the excellent Acme baguette. I could have done without wafers of butter embedded with too much salt, pimento and garlic chive.

No matter, our appetizers were lovely. An order of the ultra-fresh dayboat scallops ($11.50) provided delicate, moist shellfish quickly seared in balsamic vinegar. The effect was deft and delicious, enhanced by a central thicket of shaved fennel, celery root and green apple. A terrific conspiracy of textures and flavors. The house salad ($5.50) offered a simple, sensuous bouquet of little lettuces and a vigorous champagne vinaigrette. Tiny, ripe tomatoes added visual and oral punctuation. Every bite was worth savoring. How refreshing not be overwhelmed with giant portions--thoughtful, not bovine, seems to be the sensibility at Vivaca. I sense a realistic revival of nouvelle in the making.

We were impressed with the pan-roasted sea bass ($18) and a charismatic duck "three ways" ($22). Defying cliché, both dishes managed technical sophistication yet great restraint. Despite its mild-mannered menu listing, the pan-roasted sea bass was a knockout. A monolith of firm, milky-white bass came perched on layers of edible texture. Deep green spinach gave way to a pearly tweed of silvery quinoa and black beluga lentils--tiny gems of subtle flavor and crunch. The fish was wonderful crowned with a froth of crisp fried shallots. Exquisite miniature carrots and daringly al dente green beans massaged the concept.

Although the virtuoso presentation gives the kitchen a chance to strut a bit, the impact is still as clear and distinct as Descartes' idea of God. My duck was treated with respect and flair. A fan of rare duck breast lay on a field of French flageolet beans cooked in an homage to Boston baked beans. A terrific foil for the game meat, the beans worked just as well with a slice of intense duck sausage and a portion of confit. Again, this was all perfectly portioned--not daunting. This Burgundian entree worked beautifully with the zin, but just as well with my companion's second wine, a Jaffurs Santa Barbara County 1998 Viognier ($9) that opened into an opulent chorus of lychee and violets. The duck's reduction sauce, filled with raspberry intensity, tasted like liquid velvet. We were purring loudly by the end of the meal.

Choosing from a small listing of desserts, we split a turban of warm apples topped with crusty biscuit and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream ($7). It looked terrific, all lightly drizzled with caramel sauce--even the accompanying blackberry and strawberry slices were impeccably ripe. I would have loved firmer apples, and more of the cobbler topping. Call me greedy.

Vivaca has opened with a serious splash. It feels smart, the food comes out looking great and the menu is welcoming. I look forward to expanded appetizer and dessert offerings, some decor tuning and a little more confidence--and smiles--on the part of wait staff.

Vivaca Grill
Cuisine: New American
Address: Corner of California and Castro streets, Mountain View
Phone: 650.318.8010
Behind the Food: Executive chef Steven Long, chef de cuisine Andrew Trice III, and sous chefs David Man and Sylvia Polanski
Entrees: $16.50-$23
Extras: Full bar

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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