The conversation between the two trim, elegant, and casually dressed couples seated at the next table was intriguing and hard to miss. The husband was bragging about his wife’s superior ability to get access to places and people she wasn’t supposed to by bypassing cordons of security. In this case, it was Elton John’s hotel suite during a Detroit concert.
After slipping past bodyguards, hotel security, and the singer’s staff using her uncanny ability to look as if she belonged, the husband explained, his intrepid wife walked right into Elton’s bedroom, sat down and asked, “So, how’s it going?” as if just catching up with an old friend.
That’s just a sample of the conversation — not to mention the great people-watching — you might witness while dining at this month’s restaurant choice, Café Via in Birmingham — the town’s latest addition. It’s a big-city style restaurant with a bustling bar and an impressive outdoor dining patio complete with a very large granite fireplace.
Café Via feels as though it belongs in Manhattan or Chicago. So Birmingham is an interesting location. Although it has long been home to many wealthy and famous people, Birmingham is still very suburban. For years, it also has worked hard to shed its old image of Mayberry RFD meets Greenfield Village. In the last few years, Birmingham has become a refugee camp for several big-city style restaurants that have no big, pedestrian friendly city in which to locate.
There’s The Townsend Hotel and its Rugby Grille, which are urban in look, feel, and reputation. But step outside, and they can seem out of place in trendy but still somewhat provincial Birmingham. The same goes for one of the better urban-style grills, Forest Grill, or for Chen Chow, 220 Merrill, and Forté, among others .
Café Via, with its urban flair, is different in that it has a rather tiny menu, yet the food is very good, even better than many other places like it. And it’s recommended with a caveat: Don’t go there expecting fine dining.
“We’re an American bistro with a European flair, but we are also definitely not fine dining,” says Carol Cahalan, general manager and partner, who spent several years working at 220 Merrill. “We purposely kept the menu simple. And we want people to enjoy us for an omelet or our burger, which we do exceptionally well.”
Café Via opened in March after two years of planning, Cahalan says, and it has been packed ever since. The restaurant takes no reservations, so in March the wait for tables was as long as two and a half hours. By April, it was down to about an hour on busy evenings.
Café Via is located inside a large, modern storefront complex on Maple Road, and is reached by following an outdoor walkway to an inner courtyard and the entrance next to the stone patio.
The interior has a Ralph Lauren feel, minus the polo player dotting everything. The eye soars up a good 15 feet to a couple of large, ornate crystal chandeliers with little pleated cloth shades on each light, and then down to a mirrored bar decked with shelves of sparkling glassware and large porcelain urns holding faux flowers.
The restaurant was designed by Ron Rea and is actually a collection of three rooms joined by a common hallway lined with faux library books on shelves and illuminated glass cases displaying various museum-type pieces.
It’s the new made to feel quite old, and it works.
Café Via feels a lot bigger than it actually is, which is quite tiny by most accounts. It has only 15 tables and seats 65 diners, plus another 10 at the bar. The arrival of warm weather adds another 30 patio seats.
“We’re operating under a bistro license, which limits the number of seats we can have,” Cahalan explains.
Food is not Café Via’s only product. It also sells style and a scene. As a perk of dining there, you get to immerse yourself in the people-watching, the energy, and the din characteristic of an intimate club. Put them all together, and it adds up to a worthwhile, very fun, casual evening. Take any one of the elements away and it wouldn’t work.
So, how small is the menu at Café Via? Five first courses, one soup, five salads, three pastas, six main dishes, the hamburger, and the omelet. But the cooking of Chef Jay Gundy, who worked previously at Tribute, the Whitney, and Fiddleheads, is superior.
Among Gundy’s appetizers, the sautéed shrimp with corn cream, peas, and sausage, is excellent. It’s served with micro greens, and the corn cream is slightly sweet and velvety, which works perfectly with the springy, slightly undercooked shrimp that’s balanced against tiny cubed pieces of fried sausage that, to us, tasted more like Serrano ham.
Likewise, the steak tartare is exceptional. It arrived at the table pre-mixed and accompanied by a tiny boiled quail egg and chopped red onion with capers on the side. We found the accompanying dried toast bits rather bland, and opted for the regular bread instead.
Also worth trying are the crispy crab cakes with a rémoulade sauce and corn salsa.
In main courses, everything we tried — a grilled chicken penne in a garlic cream, an osso buco with creamy polenta, and a dish of linguine with shrimp, mussels, and sausage — was perfectly prepared.
The standout dish on one of our three visits was the grilled salmon, which had a slightly sweet glaze, most likely maple syrup, and was served with stewed brown French lentils and bacon, and fresh-cooked spinach. The match in flavors was just terrific.
Likewise, a rack of lamb was perfectly cooked and came with a demi-glace sauce, roasted potatoes, squash, and cauliflower. The lamb was also the only drawback we encountered. One of the chops tasted rather mutton-like, while the others were fresher and lighter. When we looked at the size of the bones, it become clear that two chops came from one animal and one was from a sheep a lot older. The perspective on such small flaws is that, if those are the only ones in a restaurant that has just opened, it’s probably well on the road to being a success. My guess is that Café Via will be around for a good while. And it certainly deserves to be.
310 E. Maple Rd., Birmingham; 248 644-8800. L & D Mon-Sat.