Via Vita: A Euro cafe right at home in Bellevue
The menu at Via Vita Café & Wine Bar in Bellevue spans breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, and offers a satisfying experience at each meal.
Special to The Seattle Times
|Black truffle mac and cheese||$11|
|Wild King Salmon||$26|
Via Vita Café & Wine BarFrench/Italian
1032 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Hours: Breakfast 9-11 a.m. Tuesday-Friday; lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat-Sun; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$/$$$ (lunch $8-$13; dinner starters $6-$9, small plates $9-$14, entrees $14-$28
Drinks: Affordable French/Italian/Spanish wine list, most available by the glass.
Parking: Free in garage (entrance on 106th Avenue Northeast)
Sound: Moderate to loud
Who should go: If you live or work nearby, drop in for morning coffee and a croissant; gelato or a glass of wine; a light lunch; or an indulgent brunch or dinner.
Credit cards: All major
Access: No obstacles
Not long ago Jan Lawrence wore a hard hat to work. Now, as proprietor of Via Vita, she wanders from table-to-table at lunchtime in a chef's coat. At night she leaves the cooking to others "more creative" and dons a smart leather jacket to greet dinner guests.
Construction project accountant to restaurateur seems an unlikely leap, but back in the day Lawrence managed several Seattle restaurants. "Working on big buildings and watching Bellevue go vertical" she says, made her want to do something that preserves a neighborhood feel. "We have to be more than big box restaurants and corporations."
Her frequent travels inspired this Euro cafe and wine bar, "an Italian piazza filled with French furniture," housed in a glass-walled corner of Bellevue's Belcarra apartment building.
The pastry case grabs your attention first. A baker arrives at 6 a.m. to stock it with muffins, sticky buns, brioche and croissants that shower the plate with buttery golden brown crumbs. For brunch a slice of that fine-textured brioche is embedded with saucisson a l'ail, a peppercorn-studded garlic sausage, and embellished with a poached egg and hollandaise speckled with chopped piquillo pepper.
A miniature brioche bun and a smidgen of chocolate-orange butter accompany omelets. So do cubed potatoes crisped in duck fat. The omelet I had was a thin, fragile, lightly browned wrapper for smoked salmon, fresh spinach, feta and caramelized onion. The petite portion sizes are refreshing and very European: food this rich is best consumed in moderation.
Dainty panini are pressed supermodel thin. The Tuscan version holds spinach and slivers of roasted chicken dabbed with basil aioli. The price includes a green salad, or a cup of soup du jour, which that day was a sturdy vegetable broth harboring chick peas, carrots and celery.
Peas, carrots and chunks of roasted chicken packed a classic potpie whose airy puff-pastry hat might have floated away, had it not been tethered to a sumptuous béchamel sauce. White cheddar sharpened the elbows in macaroni and cheese subtly perfumed with black truffle, though burnt-tasting breadcrumbs detracted from the pleasure.
By day, customers cluster at small round tables up front, where daylight pours through windows two-stories high. Larger tables are set farther back, amid honeyed walls hung with art. A curved wine bar rimmed by a curlicued railing becomes a hub in the evening, when cloths drape the stone tables and faux votives flicker in their wire and glass cages.
Dinner entrees depend on the chef's whim — and the chef. Italian Max Muller, a guest chef cooking on one of my visits, devised a terrific "tapas" of beef tenderloin on herbed polenta with spinach and mushrooms sautéed in garlic. Spinach and ricotta filled his commendable cannelloni, rich with béchamel but lightened with marinara. Duck leg confit was spot on as well: crisp skin, supple flesh, a respectable demi glace, served with saffron-tinged rice and sautéed green beans.
Five nights a week dinner is in the hands of Timothy Chen, a UW student who worked his way up from dishwasher to cook and likes the work so much he may never finish nursing school. His beautifully burnished wild king salmon was moist and delicious, well-matched by a silky beurre blanc and a butter-rich potato purée.
I liked the touch of maple syrup sweetening the basil-balsamic dressing for a spinach salad loaded with crisp pancetta and crunchy croutons. The alluring spice and peppery heat in a pair of juicy lamb sliders, slippery with caramelized red onion and aioli, lingered long after the last satisfying bite.
There is no surcharge for the warm La Brea baguette, served with oil and vinegar. It's readily replenished by servers who occasionally get distracted: one peppered the tablecloth along with the house salad; another brought the croissant but forgot the jam.
For dessert, showy layer cakes beckon from the pastry case. Strawberry mousse shortcake layered and topped with fresh fruit tasted as good as it looked. But don't discount the freezer full of excellent house-made gelati and sorbets in flavors like salted caramel, strawberry-basil and mango-thyme.
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