A small bit of research reveals that Pres a Vi, one of the new restaurants in the reinvigorated Presidio, has its roots in the suburbs. (Va de Vi, its older sibling, is located in Walnut Creek.) Unfortunately, a small bit of dinner will tell you the same thing.

I made my way to Pres a Vi on a rainy night about 4 months after it opened. Perhaps because of the weather, I noticed how hard it was to find. It’s hidden amongst a handful of cookie cutter office buildings, and if you’re approaching by car — as I assume most dinner-only visitors to the Presidio are — signs are few and far between.

When I finally arrived, it was to a room full of warm, red-hued woods and fabrics that evoked a sophisticated, cozy cabin. The place was bustling with birthday parties, a young bar crowd, and several tables of baby boomers having dinner, but it wasn’t loud. Though the room is quite pretty, it’s also fairly common by San Francisco standards. Long bar populated with pretty-somethings? Check. Open kitchen? Check. Ubiquitous communal table? Check.

My friend was late to meet me, and the host treated us with some pretty fierce attitude when we checked in nearly 15 minutes late. I can empathize with the frustration of late arrivals, but to be fair, I had checked in earlier to let him know I was waiting for my friend to park. He was rude then, too.

When we sat down, we didn’t have a wine list — a pet peeve of mine — so I caught the eye of the nearest waiter. His reply when I asked for one was gruff and annoyed. Okaaaaay.

When he returned, he explained, “There’s a certain way we have to present the wine list.” He then proceeded to run through the list of flights, which come in tastes of three and can also be ordered by the glass or by the bottle. “And if those aren’t enough, there are 400 more in here,” he finished, handing over the wine book.

The owners of Pres a Vi are clearly proud of their wine program. The name of the restaurant, in fact, loosely translates to “captivated by wine” in Catalan. It’s encouraging to see so many offerings by the glass (48 plus 2 for dessert) and the bottle list hits on most of the world’s major wine regions, so it’s understandable that they’d want to brag a bit. But come on: the first thing most people want to do after a hard day’s work is order a drink and relax. Forcing your customers to beg for the wine list is shortsighted and inconsiderate. If it needs presenting, so be it, but have the hostess do it.

Service was amateur throughout the meal. There were long waits for drinks when the food was already served, a food runner who handled our request for more wine by fumbling over how he wasn’t authorized to take our order (well, go get someone who is!), and a plate of pork belly that was inexplicably served before both seafood courses.

On to the food. There were some lovely tastes from Chef Kelly Degala’s small plates menu, which hop scotches all over the world. Like the restaurant, the plating was gorgeous, and the long rectangular dishes showed off our first two courses beautifully. We started with hamachi teradito ($14), slices of sashimi topped with micro arugula, anju pepper aioli, and blood orange oil. Citrus and spice were about all I could taste. Together, they were a flavor bomb that brazenly overpowered the hamachi (which may not have been a bad thing, since I detected a bit of fishiness from it here and there). The wild mushroom-ricotta ravioli ($10) were better. The sauce was wonderful — a silky, subtle sherry brown butter with a hint of lemon — but the fried shallots were soggy from the sauce, and the fried sage leaf was greasy.

The best thing about the Singaporean BBQ style kurobuta pork belly ($10) was the interplay between the tart and crunchy green papaya salad and the sweet honey-soy glaze of the pork. But the meat itself was chewy in a way that unctuous belly shouldn’t be.

The pork was followed by grilled prawns satay ($10) with a Thai red curry sauce and soy-maple glazed black cod ($15). Both were fine, but not good enough to erase the disappointment of the preceding dishes. Throughout the meal, I kept wishing we had spoons to take better advantage of the sauces that accompanied nearly every plate, since they’re one thing the kitchen does exceedingly well.

For dessert, we opted to share the cookie plate ($15) from the tasting part of the menu. I love the concept of dessert tastings, smaller portions of several things meant to be shared. It gives you the opportunity to indulge your sweet tooth without ending up like Kirstie Alley, and to sample more things from the menu. Unfortunately, the cookies were lackluster. The chocolate chip lacked enough chocolate oomph as did the chocolate meringues, and the coconut macaroons were greasy.

Both of us walked out of the restaurant deflated. I have heard good things about Va de Vi over the years, and it’s made the Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list the last three, but it’s clear from my visit that Pres a Vi is not living up to the family name.

Pres a Vi
1 Letterman Drive
San Francisco
(415) 409-3000
Open 7 days a week

Pres a Vi: The Black Sheep of the Family 21 April,2007Catherine Nash


Catherine Nash

I grew up in the South where it was common for a meal to include more platters of food than people. I survived on a childhood of sausage biscuits, fried chicken, fried clams, ham rolls, shrimp cocktail, pickled peaches, homemade ice cream, and lemon tarts, and I thought that getting your tomatoes from a paper bag your neighbor left on the doorstep or knowing the name of your favorite corn was normal (Silver Queen was mine). Now I’m a San Francisco-based freelance food writer who’s been published in Olive magazine, Best Food Writing, the Oakland Tribune, The Onion, Northside San Francisco and other local publications. As most of my attempts to reproduce childhood favorites in my own kitchen have ended in crushing disappointment, I eat out four to five times a week and cook healthy meals when I’m at home.

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