Posted On: 05/01/2009
People were worried this past January and February. Tanking economy and dissolving retirement savings aside, it was the closing of La Dolce Via, if even for remodeling, that had people biting their nails. Given the state of said economy, not to mention a recent spate of restaurants abruptly closing, they feared the popular Forest Park Southeast bakery-café would remain shuttered. The signs were present before the closing – slow business, a building in need of repairs, rising costs – all of which had owner Marcia Sindel contemplating closing down for good. But that would hardly do for regulars hooked on her fresh fruit scones and fluffy, flaky quiche, not to mention Sunday brunch and weekend dinners.
In March, when the sign on the front door flipped from “Closed” to “Open,” there was a collective sigh of relief almost as audible as when The Shaved Duck reopened earlier this year. What emerged from those two months offline were stone tile flooring, a handmade bar, marigold-colored walls and a revamped kids’ area. In fact, newcomers may think the space needs remodeling. One thing you can say about the décor – especially the surplus gray conference room chairs – is that it won’t distract your attention from the food.
Now it’s the Web site that needs remodeling; it still shows old photos, promotes Kaldi’s coffee (Chauvin is now in the pump-jug) and, except for the days and hours it’s available, doesn’t even mention dinner as an option. Given that La Dolce Via has been serving dinner since 2006, that’s surprising. Given that Sindel teamed up with chef Ramon Cuffie, respected for his cooking prowess at Bar Italia and JaBoni’s, it’s even more surprising. Before the remodel, Cuffie spent more time in La Dolce Via’s kitchen. Today he mostly consults on the menu and occasionally picks up a pan, so don’t go looking for him on the line on a regular basis. That job goes to Sindel, whom Cuffie taught to prepare many of his recipes. And she’s doing quite well, thank you very much.
By day you order breakfast or brunch at the bar, choosing coffee drinks and food from several white boards. (Note: All syrups are house-made, which, according to the barista, “ups the deliciousness factor.”) At dinner, servers come to you, bearing more big white boards listing the evening’s offerings. (White boards seem to be the main form of communication at La Dolce Via.) We had a very satisfying brunch one Sunday with blueberry pancakes and two egg scrambles – spinach-Cheddar-tomato and a pork loin and Parmesan – but dinner is the concern for this review.
Fans of Cuffie’s cooking will be pleased that his deceptively simple, direct style – a style focused on letting fresh available ingredients speak for themselves – has transferred well to Sindel. The dinner menu is market-driven and changes at least weekly so you may never eat what I had during my visits, but count on two or three solid entrées and a handful of “small plates,” which can be shared as an appetizer or eaten as a main meal for lighter appetites. I hope the beet salad is still around when you visit: a plate of field greens, mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and three varieties of beets – red, golden and candy-cane striped – tossed in balsamic vinaigrette. I also hope you fork out the extra four bucks to get your salad topped with two plump, pan-seared sea scallops. Those first-of-the-season beets, along with mashed potatoes, accompanied a beautiful portion of fresh halibut, perfectly seared – crusty exterior, succulent middle – and bathed in herb butter.
Don’t expect fancy-pants presentation: heavy white plates; forks and knives wrapped in cheap paper napkins; wine served in either juice glasses or wine glasses reflect the café’s casual, mismatched style. But none of that mattered when I tucked into the pork loin, locally procured, roasted simply with salt and pepper, and served with mashed potatoes and spinach. Homey and delicious. Same for the swordfish, this time paired with haricots verts and more spuds. But no matter how good it is, the protein-starch-vegetable comfort food trio can get boring. When it’s available, try some pasta. At first, I was underwhelmed when I saw tortellini on the menu and prepared myself for another standard issue of cheese-filled pasta, peas, mushrooms and prosciutto in a bland, heavy cream sauce. To my surprise, the tortellini was meat-filled and the creamy, luxurious sauce was spiked with hints of nutmeg, a spice often used in Alfredo sauces.
Another surprise: an affordable wine list with an interesting selection by the pour or bottle. Not surprising was the quality of desserts: a light coconut chiffon cake layered with vanilla bean pastry cream, banana cake with cream cheese frosting, and limetta made from lime-infused sponge cake, tart lime curd and slathered with sweet whipped cream mixed with lime curd. Then there’s the zuccotto, La Dolce Via’s dramatic-looking signature dessert made from chocolate and vanilla sponge cakes cut into a star pattern, filled with whipped cream, chopped almonds, hazelnuts and bittersweet chocolate before it’s misted with brandy and amaretto. Just get it.
Ambiance aside (white tablecloths and candles at dinner would do wonders), La Dolce Via aligns itself with the true bistro concept: casual café serving up everything from homemade pastries to elegant, simple, full meals and good wine. In short, it’s worry-free dining.
For sommelier Glenn Bardgett’s review of La Dolce Via’s wine list, visit the Reviews section of www.saucemagazine.com.
NEW AND NOTABLE
Don’t-miss dish: The menu’s ever-changing, but don’t miss any fish dish, the three-beet salad or the zuccotto for dessert.
Vibe: Funky, low-fi, eclectic, casual setting. Friendly staff with good taste in music. Children welcome.
Entrée prices: About $16 to $20
Where: La Dolce Via, 4470 Arco Ave., St. Louis, 314.534.1699
When: Breakfast and lunch: Wed. to Fri. – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat. – 1 to 2 p.m. (lunch only); Pastries and coffee: Wed. to Sat. – 2 to 6 p.m.; Dinner: Thu. to Sat. – 6:15 to 10 p.m.; Brunch: Sat. –
9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sun. – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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