The gimmick of the tiny dinner-only bistro is BYOB. When my husband and I heard there was a corking fee, we expected an upscale eatery with a snippy sommelier to open our wine. Instead, we were greeted -- while still standing in the strip-center parking lot -- by a perky hostess in baggy jeans and a La Vista T-shirt that read "bigger, better, fatter" on the back. The "fatter" refers to a popular chicken-breast dish called the Big, Fat Chick. Not exactly a politically correct name, but it loudly trumpeted the casual nature of La Vista.
The hostess took our names, grabbed our bottle, corked it and hollered to a busboy for two glasses. We were still in the parking lot. She then poured the wine and told us to have a seat in the lounge, which was two rows of plastic lawn chairs lined up in a parking space! There, a group of Gen-Xers mingled with the Tanglewood set, all with grocery bags full of beer and wine at their feet. (Incidentally, if you forget your own libations, a liquor store conveniently located next door can help, but be aware that the owner knows a thing or two about supply and demand.)
Most of the cafe's seating is on the sidewalk, providing a full view of passing cars against the backdrop of Fountainview's Apartment Row. Inside, the cramped corner space is trendy chic: an open kitchen, checkerboard floors, muted wall tones and hip minimalist photography. We opted to stay outdoors, mostly because of my claustrophobia. As much as we loved the ambience, we didn't expect much from the meal. The menu was heavy on pizza and pasta. Like most foodies, we had moved away from that fad and onto the soon-to-be-passé trend of New American comfort foods. So imagine our surprise to find specials such as braised lamb shank ($19) and grilled pork chops ($16).
My husband, who had sworn off restaurant pork chops because they never compare to his home-grilled version, succumbed. He was glad he did. The tender, well-seasoned chop included the trendy but cumbersome bone and was served with onions and mushrooms in a hearty brandy broth. It was towering atop one of the best sides I've ever encountered: Billed as mashed sweet potatoes, the side was actually mashed potatoes with sweet potatoes and cheese mixed in. Some excellent grilled asparagus rounded out the plate.
I couldn't resist ordering the Big, Fat Chick ($12), given the rock-star T-shirt treatment it was afforded. The size of the grilled chicken breast lived up to its name; it was also surprisingly tasty, probably because of an herb-infused marinade that made it juicy as well as plump. The same technique was used for another big seller, the grilled salmon (market price, $15 when we dined), which was simple but fresh and thick. Both entrées were served with some standard but well-prepared sides of sautéed spinach, roasted potatoes and grilled zucchini.
The second time we visited La Vista, we decided to give it the ultimate litmus test, to see if it really compared to one of our driveway parties. We took a group of kids. Unfortunately the experience couldn't measure up to our neighborhood romps -- or even our first visit to La Vista. I should note that the problem didn't lie with the cafe. Our waiter couldn't have been more accommodating, sending in a rush cheese pizza order while the grown-ups were still looking over the menu. But sadly La Vista doesn't come equipped with a VCR or Nintendo so that we could send the pint-size diners away when they were done eating. We did, however, let them run amok along the massive strip-center sidewalk, a tactic that worked for a while.
Meanwhile, we dined on another comforting meal of mostly meat and potatoes; our friends sampled the Italian dishes. Especially tasty was the ravioli in tomato-cream sauce, which was spiked with just the right amount of vodka and sprinkled with fresh basil. This can be yours as an appetizer ($5) or entrée ($9). Less appealing was the capellini tossed with tomato, mushrooms, basil, garlic and grilled chicken in a white-wine sauce ($9). Its faults were mostly aesthetic: The mushrooms added too much moisture to an already soupy mix.
Once again, the hearty fare ruled. I sampled the house specialty, beef tenderloin ($15), which was grilled for a rich, smoky flavor and then, I would swear, braised to make it more tender. It arrived swimming in a port wine sauce studded with apricots and cherries. As I devoured it, I marveled at how well the combination worked -- and this from a girl who never wants so much as an apple chunk in her chicken salad. For our next visit, we're committed to trying everything chef-owner Greg Gordon claims as special on the menu.
To judge by the dessert menu, La Vista's after-dinner treats would appear startlingly simple. Then the delicacies arrive at your table. A warm, wholesome bread pudding ($4.50) was chock-full of pine nuts -- yes, pine nuts -- as well as chocolate chips, and smothered in a rum sauce with bits of mango. And in a town with too much tiramisu already, we found the area's best ($4.50) here, creamier, cheesier and more chocolaty than any I've tasted. Another crowd pleaser was a thick homemade brownie ($4), oozing with hot fudge and topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Those desserts were the perfect ending to a couple of near-perfect nights -- except for one thing. We discovered from our waiter that La Vista doesn't "do coffee." What the hey? we thought, our caffeine-free brains swimming in confusion. No booze or coffee? All was quickly forgiven when we saw the bill. We thought it was a mistake. We've spent less at the neighborhood Ninfa's on kids-eat-free night.
With or without the sedatives and stimulants, La Vista has captured my heart. Sure, the sidewalk cafe is too brightly lit and the plastic tables don't have so much as a votive candle on them, but to people like us, everything about the place sets the mood for a lovely evening out. Simply said, La Vista is downright charming.
Rumor has it that regulars don't want the world to discover this two-year-old hideaway. Judging from the crowds waiting for tables on weekends, La Vista already has plenty of patrons without the publicity. But sometimes a higher moral authority takes precedent: To keep this place under wraps would be a crime, if not a sin, against foodies across the city.
La Vista, 1936 Fountainview, (713)787-9899.