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The rumor that members of the kitchen staff from Chez Panisse eat at Vi's in their off hours remains, alas, just a rumor. Calls to Chez Panisse and its employees were answered with demurrals, and inquiries by other means, including but not limited to lurking around the Berkeley landmark's kitchen door, staking out staffers' homes on their evenings off, and eating numerous meals at the Chez in a futile attempt to detect telltale Vi's leftovers in the oxtail consommé, also yielded no answers.
At Vi's itself, there are no autographed pictures of Chez Panisse staff. In fact, few concessions are made to any such potential clientele, with the notable exception of a full complement of nice Navarro wines at very reasonable prices, as well as the elusive but delicious vintage Navarro nonalcoholic grape juices. This is a pleasant change from the month-old box of Peter Vella in many another Vietnamese restaurant's fridge -- although the question of whether wine is actually desirable with pho must be resolved by each diner for him- or herself.
Of course, there is no reason that a wayward Panisseur or two wouldn't head over to Vi's. The food has the unmistakable pungency that means "authentic." It's a terrific restaurant, but not for everybody. Few concessions are made to the American palate, even (or especially) one that is accustomed to Americanized Vietnamese food. Nuoc mam, the classic condiment made from the fermented intestines of small fish, is abundant here: As dishes are brought to the table, each releases a cloud of fishy steam. (Still, many of Vietnamese cuisine's more outlandish ingredients are not on the menu at Vi's: no goat's blood sausage, pig brain, deep-fried saury skeletons, or pickled duck feet.) This is not refined food, but it's hearty, heavy, and haimish, with interesting combinations of seasonings.
The cha gio, deep-fried spring rolls ($4.50), are good, packed with pork and noodles, though they rely on the dipping sauce for savor. A more flavorful choice is the banh cuon ($4.50) -- onion, mushroom, and pork in a roll whose thick wrapper has the slippery consistency of a noodle. These are given wonderful flavor by the steaming process and topped with crisp-fried shallot strings. The chicken salad ($4.75) is a pile of sweetly dressed shredded cabbage with peanuts and fried shallots, topped with a grilled chicken breast chopped into strips. The chicken is a little fatty and highly flavorful, and the salad is sufficiently large to serve as a meal or a split starter.
Vi's has an impressive arsenal of pho. Pho, as has been discussed in these pages before, and as I'm sure you know anyway, is the Vietnamese spicy beef noodle soup, served in a bowl the size of your head and traditionally eaten for breakfast. Vi's special pho ($5.50) contains pretty much all the parts of the cow that aren't otherwise occupied: rare flank, well-done flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, and meatballs. For $4.95, you can get a less anatomically comprehensive serving, with your choice of just rare flank, both rare and well-done flank, or meatballs. The pho is excellent as well as plentiful, with a rich, well-spiced broth. Some may find the fish sauce a bit too prominent, but add some cilantro leaves, close your eyes, and it will all come together. Fresh sweet basil and a light hand with some of the tableside condiments can help you customize your bowl of pho to suit your needs.
In addition to the pho, which is made with rice noodles, Vi's offers an assortment of soups made with mi, or egg noodles, a regional specialty, and chicken stock. The superstar of these is the combination soup, which includes prawns, crab, fish cake, fish balls, barbecued pork, ground pork, chicken, and a wonton ($6.25; $5.75 without wonton). Less imposing, and quite delicious, is the version with just pork -- barbecued pork, ground pork, and bacon ($4.95). The meat is tremendously succulent, with a deep smoky-sweet flavor. Also available are a braised duck soup and a curry-tomato-beef take.
In addition to soups, Vi's has a number of rice and noodle platters. Included in this category is the lone vegetarian option, mockingly named the "vegetarian deluxe," a disappointing hillock of brown, greasy tofu and vegetables, with decent flavor but little else to recommend it ($5.95). At the other end of the spectrum is the combination pork platter ($5.95), a delectably overwhelming plate containing shredded pork, a pork cake, and your choice of a pork chop or a barbecued pork kebab. The kebab is amazing, with a smoky, brittle crust that yields to reveal juicy, tender meat with terrific flavor. The pork cake is interesting, a steamed concoction of ground pork, thin rice noodles, egg, and tofu, with a mellow salty porky taste. And the shredded pork is dry little garlicky flakes, which, tossed with the underlying rice, give the latter a wonderful, subtle tang.
As I've said, Vi's is a fine restaurant, but not a restaurant for everyone. The authentic flavors may be off-putting to people weaned on restaurants that cater to the American palate. But Vi's is there when you're ready -- offering a more traditional taste of Vietnam to those who want it, and possibly, though this is unconfirmed, the staff of Chez Panisse. Celebrity sightings may be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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