Upper crust

Birmingham's Café Via has lovely dishes, a cozy interior and a terrific patio

May 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Although it has most of the features I like in a restaurant — excellent food, professional service, even a patio — Café Via is a little hard to warm up to. Its four small rooms are so obviously designed to appeal to a class accustomed to luxury that they're easy to make fun of. The Freep's Sylvia Rector used the words "lavishly decorated," "traditional" and "refined" to describe the Café's floral upholstery, Chinese screens, big sink-down armchairs, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and oversize heavy silverware. Do those terms apply to the fake bookcases with fake books? What about the hallway vitrines that Birmingham jewelers can rent for $150 a month to show off their wares, just so no dinner hour is wasted without a shopping experience?

But no matter, the food's the thing. The appetizers and entrées my friends and I sampled were superb, if firmly in the price range of gentlemen accustomed to dining in tie and jacket and their ladies who lunch. The feeling is a bit Grosse Pointe.

One of the Café's best features is its large patio, covered with sage-green canopies and provided with heaters for the transitional months. (It opened March 2.) Outdoor seating is needed because there are only 15 tables inside, plus a tiny bar and a few seats for drinks in that crowded hallway. The small rooms give an intimate feel — if a public place can be intimate — that's the opposite of the big and noisy, open-space design that's more popular these days.

Just as the rich are thinner than the poor, their portion sizes are smaller too. Think there's a connection? Café Via's patrons follow the French way of dining: less quantity, higher quality. All dishes are lovely to look at. A starter of beef tartare, for example, is puréed baby-food fine and surrounded by little heaps of black olive, finely minced red onion, some crescents of hard-boiled egg and minced capers. It's fun to combine them in different permutations. Chicken liver terrine is also ultra-soft; the tiny spot of mustard on the side is grainier. A beautifully red-gold tomato bisque was less successful, more bright-rich than tomato-y. Other starters are crabcakes, calamari, mussels, caprese and — here's where "traditional" comes in — shrimp cocktail. Our server — perhaps mindful of clients' upper-class waistlines — asked, "Would you like bread?" It's uninteresting (soft) but served with an excellent sharp yellow olive oil.

Entrées — chef Jay Gundy aims to please, and does. A linguini concoction with shrimp, mussels and spicy Italian sausage was so complex and deep it was hard to believe the simple menu description: "tomato, basil, garlic, lemon."

Goat cheese ravioli were cute as could be, big yellow circles on an orange background, and the sweet squash and tart cheese were sprinkled with pine nuts, which make anything good. Alaskan halibut was served with excellent ricotta gnocchi and fava beans (Can anyone read the words without thinking of Hannibal Lecter?).

Grilled salmon is served with an inspired combination of lentils, bacon and spinach, which is salty and sets off the rich brightness of the salmon. Mine was brought flaky and medium rare as ordered.

The small portions I referred to above are not universal — your traditional gentleman does like his big slab of meat on the plate. For $38 you can get a pound of bone-in rib-eye (with frites, cognac and peppercorn sauce) or three lamb chops that you'll surely want to take home one of, so you won't feel so extravagant. Those chops are incredibly tender, served with a purply wine reduction that calls up images of port sipped by aging British aristocrats in a real library with real books.

Dessert, house-made, can be a chocolate mousse tart with a hard-to-cut but melt-in-mouth shortbread crust, served with bright, fresh raspberries or a pretty boring panna cotta with far too few gooseberries. Strawberry shortcake and apple pie are especially popular, reinforcing the general theme of time-testedness.

No dinner reservations are accepted, and waits of an hour and a half are cheerfully announced as if this were a normal course of events. The café is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].