You could call Vif a cafe, a coffee shop, or a wine shop. It's all of these things, but it's also something more. Open for a little more than two years in Fremont, Vif offers a rare kind of nourishment in Seattle. And while it might be a stretch to call Vif a restaurant, its food is certainly restaurant quality.
"Our business model does not fit the restaurant model," says co-owner Shawn Mead. "We're like a cafe plus."
Vif is the vision of Mead and Lauren Feldman, who met in 1999 while working at Cafe Campagne, where Mead was the wine director and Feldman was the pastry chef. The two became friends and, in Feldman's words, have been "spinning ideas ever since."
The inspiration for Vif came while the two were traveling in France. Feldman says Vif is modeled after a type of business that's common there but rare in the United States. "It's called cave à manger—basically a wine shop where you can get a bite to eat."
Mead and Feldman avoided calling their business a cave à manger because, says Feldman, "no one knows what that means and it sounds a little elitist when you use words that no one understands."
"Already no one understands the name Vif, so there's that," adds Mead. In French, the word means alive and bright. It's appropriate, since Vif has large windows that let in plenty of light, even on the grayest of days. And "warm" and "lively" are perfect descriptors of Vif's food, which is executed by Feldman.
The dishes are simple in composition and feature high-quality ingredients. But it's the details—the small elements of lavishness in every dish—that really make the food wonderful.
The carrot salad ($7) is a haystack of sweet, shredded carrots from Local Roots Farm flavored with za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix that's both woodsy and citrusy. Slivers of almond and glistening, jewel-toned pomegranate seeds add crunch. The labneh—strained yogurt that's thick and creamy—underneath takes the dish to the next level. I dragged my finger across the plate to make sure I got every last bit.
Vif's open-faced sandwiches, or tartines, are similarly compelling. The one topped with avocado ($6) is exquisitely done: a generous amount of buttery avocado spread on thick Columbia City Bakery toast, topped with a deep-purple sauerkraut that's fermented in house, adding a pleasantly sour and crunchy component. For two extra dollars, you can get it with a perfectly fried egg, whose liquid-gold yolk forms a rich sauce and makes the dish a colorful feast for the eyes.
The tuna salad tartine ($8)—which is heavy on the tuna, but otherwise light and bright—is served on earthy, crusty rye bread from Sea Wolf Bakers. What's most striking, however, are the big flakes of sea salt: a generous scattering that enhances the flavor of each bite. If the weather permits, eat it outside on Vif's patio, where the sun makes the salt flakes sparkle and everything in the world seems like a small miracle.
Savory yogurt ($9), while humble, was something of a revelation. While I regularly make savory sauces and spreads from yogurt at home, it never occurred to me to make an afternoon meal out of it, the way I do with fruit, honey, and nuts in the morning. Vif's house-made yogurt is delectably thicker and more tart than most, and it makes a wonderful base for a bowl that holds lacinato kale, shredded raw beets, pomegranate seeds, and crispy grains of brown rice. Fragrant dukkah—an Egyptian mix of nuts, seeds, and spices such as hazelnuts, coriander, cumin, and sesame—also adds crunch, as well as a wonderful flavor that makes your tongue buzz a bit.
As a neighborhood spot, Vif has developed a devout following. "We ask our regulars to let us know if they're going on vacation, so we don't worry that something bad has happened if we don't see them every day," says Mead. And for a long time, those regulars have been asking for more food and more hours. (During the week, Vif is open Tuesday through Friday until 7 p.m., and closes earlier on the weekends.)
So earlier this month, Feldman and Mead debuted Wine Bar Weekend, with dinner service and an expanded menu of heartier dishes. It was successful enough that they're planning two more in November and December, and if all goes well, says Mead, they'll do it on a regular basis, possibly monthly or weekly.
Mead recalls something a restaurateur friend once told them: "When you open your place, you have an idea of what it will be. But then you invite the public in, and that interaction changes what you become."
While Feldman and Mead are listening to their customers, the conversation goes both ways. The owners are still very dedicated to their wine shop.
"It's really hard to establish a brick-and-mortar wine shop," says Mead. "Right now, our other streams of revenue support the wine shop, which is highly specific to natural wines. Not only are we doing a model that's really unique, but a model that focuses on a style of wine that is very unique."
"Natural" is term used to describe wines made with grapes harvested by hand, fermented with yeast native to the growing region, and free of any flavor or color enhancers. Because grape harvests are different each year, each natural wine is unique. Or as Mead puts it in a tag on a bottle of white wine: "This Bourgogne Blanc has some really good fruit in it and they don't make much. It's a little unicorny."
Both owners knew that a major component of getting their natural-wine business off the ground would be education. To that end, they offer wines by the glass, with options that change daily. It's a smart way to get people to try new wines.
As customers have grown to trust their taste, Mead and Feldman have begun to buy more and more wine. Mead says retail wine sales have grown significantly in the last six months.
If things continue this way, hours might extend, staff may grow, and Vif can continue to evolve.
"Both Lauren and I are pretty humble people, but we knew we were making something special. Our intention was to bring something new to Seattle," Mead says. "And we did."