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Vee Vee

Style and substance, hold the meat
Rating: 4.0 stars
April 2, 2008 6:07:12 PM
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“VEE” IS FOR VERY GOOD Shrimp and scallop cakes put their crab brethren to shame.

Vee Vee | 763 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain | Open Tues–Sun, 5:30–10 pm
AE, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up slight threshold bump | 617.522.0145
The Vee and Vee here are owners Kristen and Dan Valachovic. Their double victory is that they’ve turned a vegan-pescatarian short menu into a variety of deeply satisfying dinners, and they opened their restaurant with a recognizable style in the kitchen and a subtle mastery of flavor undertones and overtones. More remarkable, they have set their price points consistently below other bistros at this level of accomplishment. (It’s not as if seafood and top-of-the-market vegetables are cheaper than meat these days.) My usual gut response is happily to save the money. At Vee Vee, I say order more expensive wine!

Food starts with an oily Italian round loaf cut into sticks that are soft and dense inside, crusty on the ends. With unsalted butter, this is terrific. The first appetizer to set the style is roasted acorn-squash soup ($6). It’s less sweet and lighter than I expected, with subtle squash and cream flavors. A dab of crème fraîche, more sour, gives it a contrast and a third flavor. Another masterpiece of subtlety is the salad of romaine, olives, preserved lemons, and parmesan ($6). Yes, this approximates Caesar salad, but the lemony vinaigrette is a less weighty dressing, the olives are more fun than croutons and less obtrusively salty than whole anchovies, and the parmesan is real and not dominant — in sum, it’s a salad that refreshes and sharpens the appetite, unlike the usual crunchy sleeping pill.

Wild mushroom pâté ($6) is full of woodsy-mushroom flavor in a base that tastes like cream cheese. A shrimp and scallop cake ($8) is burger-size; it’s meatier but blander than the average crab cake, though a peppery chipotle mayonnaise (more fire than smoke in this sauce) makes up for that.

My favorite entrée was codfish ($20), for the sheer luscious freshness of the fish, as well as the wheatberry-shitake “ragout” and garlicky escarole. But the most impressive piece of work is quinoa pancakes, escarole, and spicy somarillo sauce ($14). Vegetarian platters are usually a problem for chefs who are trained on the American meat-starch-veggie platter. What’s going to be the big item standing in for that hunk of meat or fish? Here the quinoa pancakes, perhaps bound with egg whites, have the density to satisfy, and the light tomato-chili sauce makes it like eating, say, veal scallopini. This is a platter that would hold up versus any animal-food bistro platter in Boston.

The only dish I thought needed work was skate wing ($18). The breading of cornmeal was too gritty and distracting, even for a well-flavored seafood, as was the pesto sauce. The underlying purée of Jerusalem artichokes wasn’t distracting enough and lacked flavor. On the other hand, I would eat the sweet braised pearl onions from this dish in any course, anywhere, anytime.

Given its low-to-moderate food prices, Vee Vee would like you to order beer or wine, and has stocked lots of serious temptations. Blackfly stout ($5) from Maine is a remarkable bitter stout, with fascinating herbal and peppery overtones. Ferrari-Carano’s Sonoma County Siena ($11) is a blend of red grapes that have never met before — sangiovese from Tuscany cut with malbec from Bordeaux via Argentina, and a little zinfandel from Croatia via California. The result is a wine with the body and elegance of Bordeaux blends and a fruit/anise aroma unlike anything else. Château De Maimbray Sancerre ($9) is a classic French white, with plenty of acidity to balance seafood and a slightly bitter finish. The practice of opening different bottles for by-the-glass service is excellent; the practice of pouring glasses from 200-milliliter laboratory beakers filled to the 150-milliliter line is not. I’ve accepted the extra mark-ups on wine by the glass when it comes poured, or is poured from a tiny carafe. But seeing the lab ware with the volume markings is an unfortunate reminder for those of us who can do the math. The teas ($2) include “Equal exchange” roiboos, the most tea-like of all tisanes. On the coffee side, Peru Vienna decaf ($2) was very good and attractively priced.

Desserts, the easy course for vegetarians, are well priced but not quite perfect. Espresso crème brûlée ($5) would be, if we overlook that it isn’t actually crème brûlée. It’s coffee-flavored custard topped with chocolate like a large bonbon, with some candied orange peel on top. Chocolate bread pudding ($5) is really pieces of bread, bound together with pudding and topped with a chocolate sauce. I like it this way; some diners expect it to be made of chocolate bread or chocolate custard. The poached pear ($6) is impeccable, and its sauce of crème Anglaise is subtly flavored with chai — nutmeg and pepper come through the best — and vanilla. The homemade biscotto it’s served with is another way to get at that sauce. And a piece of ripe Blu del Moncenisio cheese, the Piedmont’s answer to gorgonzola, is a little too strong for this dish, but place it on a cheese plate with some Muscat grapes and it will prompt a lot of questions.

Service at Vee Vee is as good as it should be in this small room, formerly the Cha Fahn Restaurant. The new owners have brightened up the feel of the place by losing the tall chairs and partitions and painting the upper walls a salmon red. The initial crowd was local, and even this review won’t change that entirely, if they stick with a half reservations/half walk-ins policy that works in the South End. There aren’t quite as many alternatives in Jamaica Plain as in the South End, but there are almost enough.

Vee Vee has some of the typical flaws of its low price point — tables are crowded together, for instance — but also has the crucial element of restaurants that charge a lot more: a chef with a style. I bet many customers won’t even notice that there’s no meat on the menu.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com .

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