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May 13, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Living the Parisian way Living the Parisian way (May 13, 2005)@12subhead:La Vida serves up mixed bag of traditional dishes

By Dale F. Bentson

If you have ever wandered through the neighborhoods of Paris, along the quiet back streets of Montmarte, Montparnasse or the Marais, you might have stopped for a pastis, a cafe au lait or a gentle repast at a cafe very similar to Bistro Vida in downtown Menlo Park.

The deep burgundy walls, polished wood floor, high ceiling with French posters and large mirrors are inviting, stylish and as relaxed as those gem-like Parisian hideaways. If only the food could be ratcheted up a notch or two to match the genteel ambiance.

"Vida means life and life is about food," according to chef/owner Ali Elsafy. "It is the center of everything: celebrations, weddings, anniversaries, business meetings and casual gatherings of friends."

Elsafy's experience is broad-based, having worked his way through kitchens from Paris to New York to the Bay Area. His singular philosophy is to present home-style French fare that is simple and affordable. Since opening in 1998, prices have scarcely budged at Bistro Vida.

For starters, the sauteed sea scallops ($9) were sweet and fleshy amid a coarse chopped tomatillo sauce. The four plump bivalves, which are rich in omega-three oils and low in calories, were a perfect way to whet the appetite. The crab cake ($8), however, was dry, devoid of flavor and what scant sauce there was did little to enhance the overall blandness. The bed of mixed greens that the crab cake rested on could have helped but needed more vinaigrette to give it some snap. The dish was dead on arrival.

Pan roasted quail ($8) was finger-licking tasty with crispy skin and easy-to-remove meat. The little bird sat atop a generous pile of well-dressed fresh greens. The potato leek soup special ($6) during one visit was distressingly thin, with the pallid look and consistency of day-old dishwater. The server never asked why we scarcely ate any.

Duck pate ($10) was grainy and flavorful yet not overly fatty. Accompanied only with crisp cornichons and a bed of greens, it would have benefited from a little pot of Dijon on the side. The stale toast that was served with the pate was not as good as the table bread.

Entrees achieved similar mixed results. Salmon ($18.50) was a nicely grilled, generous chunk of flaky, pink fish. I would have preferred the excellent French fries to the unremarkable mashed potatoes that accompanied -- the salmon and potato consistencies were too similar for my taste buds. Sauteed fresh spinach added visual but no new taste or texture.

Moules frites (mussels and French fries) ($15) was a generous bowl of thickset bivalves in a broth heavily laden with onion and not much else. It was certainly what one might find in a neighborhood bistro in Paris, but my over-privileged palate hoped for a richer, more flavor-infused sauce -- something that I would have wanted to soak up with a chunk of baguette. Instead, a few spoonfuls ladled onto the tongue were sufficient.

The excellent French fries (pommes frites) are cut in-house daily and deep fried in oft-changed canola oil. Accompanying many entrees, the fries are also available as a side dish ($4).

Complimented with mashed potatoes, the beef stew ($17) was made from tender chunks of slow-cooked beef in a hearty brown meat stock. The soothing stew and a glass of red wine and I was ready to curl up for the evening.

More comfort food was the coq au vin ($17). Marinated for two days, the supple chunks of chicken had been stewed in red wine sauce with mushrooms, onion, celery and tomato paste. Nothing fancy here, both the beef stew and the coq au vin were just well-prepared, straightforward dishes.

One of my favorite French dishes is cassoulet ($19), a dish that originated in southwest France in the 14th century. A traditional peasant stew of beans, sausages, pork and duck flavored with a variety of herbs and vegetables, what makes cassoulet so wonderful is slow cooking and the marrying of flavors. At Vida, it was as if the disparate ingredients had been added to a base of flageolet beans just before serving. There was no cohesion to the dish. It was more casserole than cassoulet.

Desserts, except for crepes, were $6. Creme brulee was exceptionally egg-y and tasty; the burnt sugar top was wafer thin. Tarte Tatin, the ubiquitous French upside-down apple tart, possessed barely adequate flavors of fruit and butter -- a tad too doughy, a tad too sweet. The large Profiterole (cream puff) was drizzled with over-sweet chocolate sauce.

The fresh strawberry crepe ($8.50), however, was terrific. The rolled thin griddle cake housed the berries and caramelized brown sugar. The warmed crepe blanketed a scoop of vanilla ice cream that melted and oozed from the bottom. A perfect dessert for the spring season.

The service at Vida was better than any Parisian bistro I have frequented. Professional, friendly and knowledgeable, no want festered long. At one dinner, the bread basket was spontaneously replaced with a warmer, fresher version mid-meal.

The wine list caused me some distress. One evening I ordered a particular bottle. The waitress returned several minutes later and informed me that the restaurant was out of that wine. I chose another. She was soon back with news that the wine list was being revised and that selection was not available either. I tried again. Same result. The waitress was as embarrassed and uncomfortable as I was frustrated. I finally ordered a rose, any rose, and the issue was finally resolved although the rose served was not the one listed.

What I gleaned from the printed wine list was that choices are limited but well priced. Only the California selections are identified by winery, French selections are generic to the region from which they hailed. A dozen or so wines are available by the glass, $7-$12. Corkage fee is $12. The restaurant boasts a full bar.

Bistro Vida conjures images of neighborhood cafes tucked away down picturesque Parisian byways. It is a place one wants to linger, a cozy corner for families, friends and lovers. With a little upgrading in the kitchen, this jewel could really shine.
Bistro Vida Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots Alcohol: full bar Children: yes Outdoor dining: sidewalk Party and banquet facilities: yes Take out: yes Catering: yes Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: good
Bistro Vida 641 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park (650) 462-1686

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