It was my food-loving friends at Sony Pictures in Culver City who first alerted me to the extraordinary little restaurant which had opened directly across from the studio and opposite Culver's City Hall. "Café Vida has become the commissary of choice for many of us here at Sony," my friend told me. "We eat breakfast and lunch there, and now many of us are also coming for dinner." When I inquired why the onslaught, she explained: "First, the food is healthy organic California with a wonderful Latin flair. The indoor-outdoor setting, in its own building, is pleasant and romantic, and they serve wine, beer and Soju. But it's the utterly delicious cooking which is the real draw. Come see for yourself." So I did....last week I met some friends there, and now CAFÉ VIDA (9755 Culver Blvd., Culver City (310) 287-0140) is also my café of choice for a casually elegant meal.
If you haven't been to Culver City lately, you will be stunned at the profusion if new eateries which have burgeoned in the city center. I arrived at the block next to Sony just at 6 pm, and there was a public valet parking guy waiting to take my car. As I walked down the block to the café, I was stunned to see a half-dozen restaurants side-by-side....from Wildflour pizza to a French cafe to a Sake joint...but I kept walking to the end, and there was this little building which had been designed from the ground up by an architect named Phillip Spencer, who was seated across from me this evening. "I chose soothing moss hues, and juxtaposed them with quartz and exposed wood grain (from an old barn), and we topped it off with a double-height atrium." Phillip waxed poetic, and I listened with respect: Vida means life, and I was inspired by the colors and moods of the rainforest. I wanted the interior to create a sense of the vibrancy of life through organic color and texture." Well said, I thought.
But it's the food which is the real draw here. One of the three partners, Mexican former ad executive Luis Castaneda, here this evening, had suggested a tasting menu, and as dish after dish emerged from the kitchen, my friends and I looked at each other with astonishment and shook our heads with pleasure. A Vegan Rosemary Carrot Soup was a tasty starter, but it was the Shrimp Ceviche Cocktail which followed that made me sit up....cucumber, avocado, fresh salsa, the shrimp in a lime vinaigrette with a crispy corn tostada. Kale is the hottest ingredient in town, but the Chopped Spring Kale Salad was unique: organic kale, organic quinoa, Granny Smith apples, orange wedges, toasted almonds, parmigiano and a lemon-sherry vinaigrette. Unlike any other salad in town., and I ate every shred. A Pan-Roasted Organic Chicken followed, and I turned to my companion and exclaimed that the fowl was juicy and not overcooked. Luis told me that it was a Petaluma chicken, with shell bean ragout, kale salsa verde and naural jus. Then came the kicker: a Skirt Steak of grass-fed Meyer Ranch skirt steak with the famed Argentinian chimichurri sauce, served with sautéed farner's market vegetables and organic mashed potatoes. My adjacent friend, Felicia Tomasko, the editor of two popular yoga magazines, exclaimed that the meat was juicy yet not undercooked, and the sauce was delectable. Our final main course was equally delicious: a Salmon Teriyaki Bowl, with grilled salmon over peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, zucchini and bean sprouts with a teriyaki sauce. We both noted that glaze was perfect, the salmon still pink in the center, and it was a dish which would have done any three-star place proud. A butterscotch pudding with whipped cream finished off the sensational meal.
I sat down with Luis to find out more about the place, and he told me that it was the third in a group he and his partners, Marcelo Marolla and Francisco Cornejo, had...the first opened 13 years ago in Pacific Palisades and the second inside the Spectrum Club in El Segundo. "We are dedicated to serving low-fat, organic and vegan options..but this is a seasonal farm-fresh menu. My partner, Chef Francesco, is a 20-year professional chef from Jalsico, Mexico, and Marceloo is a restaurant vet from Argentina." I mentioned that I had read up on the places on Yelp and that usually-difficult website had give them a high 4.5 rating. He laughed and went on: "You have to taste some of our other dishes, the Grilled Chicken Chipotle Quesdadilla, the Tofu bowl, the Shrimp Chipotle Soft Taco.. We have daily specials with fresh fish, pasta, and vegetables. We serve a Peach Iced Tea made with fresh peach juice and mint, and our white sangria is sensational. Our juice bar serves a range of fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies." Luis then told me that they never use heavy oils or sauces.....it's unpretensious cooking that tastes amazing, looks great and feels right in price. Café Vida uses only hormone-and-antibiotic-free chicken and meat, zero trans-fat oils, and no processed foods! Also, they use top-of-the-line filtration for water and drinks, organic coffee and espresso drinks, and real maple syrup.. I noted that there was a steady stream of people picking up food to go, and Luis said that about 30% of their business was take-out. "We offer on-line ordering for take-out, and also catering." Yes, this is healthy....and absolutely delicious food in a lovely setting. A visit to Culver City will now be a regular stop on my restaurant journey.
Café Vida is open 8 am to 9 pm Sunday through Wednesday, and 8 am to 10 pm Thursday through Sunday.
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