Northwest Side Review: Vella Cafe
By Amelia Levin in Food on Jun 4, 2007 7:15PM
Here we go again. Another cute and trendy breakfast/lunch/brunch spot in the Logan Square/Bucktown corridor serving some good, but also some majorly mediocre food. Before we get too down on the newly opened Vella Cafe, however, let’s make one thing clear: the one-room eatery under the Blue Line Station at Western just opened a mere couple of weeks ago, so there are some obvious kinks in service and stock to work out. We just hope the kinks in some of the dishes are worked out too.
Owners Melissa Yen and Sara Voden got their great reputation by serving tasty paninis at the Green City Market on Saturdays in Lincoln Park. This Chicagoist reader was itching to try these highly-touted grilled sandwiches, but sadly, a big "not available today" sign sat right smack over the lunch menu on the chalkboard at the front of the room. (Inventory Kink #1). Always a fan of brunch, we instead settled for the sausage frittata panini (or “Panino” here). Sadly, again we had limited options - this panini was one of just two types for breakfast, the other being a vegetarian-friendly concoction with roasted tomato, cremini mushrooms and herbed cream cheese. In short, the sausage frittata was buttery and crispy on the outside and bland, bland, bland in the inside. Being panini "masters" Vella obviously has the grilling part down - extra-thin slices of sourdough-style bread are perfectly buttered and flattened on a press with big grooves like a giant, crispy, ruffled potato chip. But the egg frittata stuffing was oh so boring with hardly any salt or other herbs that would have added a kick. Although the description noted the presence of sausage, caramelized onion, "adjvar" mayo and butterkase cheese, a mild cheese that’s good for melting, we couldn’t taste any of these ingredients that sounded so deliciously enticing on the menu. Just a swap for a more pungent cheese like smoked gouda, a sprinkling of salt or maybe even some red pepper flakes could have served as the flavor savers. The accompanying side of potato “smashers” in the form of a mashed potato pancake, if you will, tasted dry and again, bland. Overall, a disappointment.
Next up: the egg scramble crepe, one of five crepe options with different stuffings like chicken sausage, cinnamon apples, bananas with chocolatey Nutella, and the old stand-by, cinnamon, sugar and butter. Same problem with the breakfast panini: great on the outside, bland, bland, bland on the inside. The crepe shell was as close to perfect as you can get: light yet toothsome. The velvety and tasty creamed spinach topping with diced roasted peppers and fennel was a nice touch. But what was supposed to be herbed eggs and asparagus on the inside, tasted more like just plain old, salt- and pepper-free scrambled eggs.
The big winner of the day? Amaranth pancakes - light and fluffy with just enough density to offer texture, topped with homemade, cinnamon whipped cream and lingonberry jam for a spicy, rich and creamy punch. Spread some of the vanilla butter served in a mini ramekin on the side, add a touch of maple syrup, and the pancakes were indeed heavenly. Here’s a secret: we really wanted the house specialty French toast stuffed with fruit and orange-honey cream cheese, but being a newbie restaurant, of course it was sold out by 11:30 a.m. Sunday (Inventory Kink: #2).
While our food selections might not have been the greatest, the place itself was comfortable, bustling yet not overly loud, and although most service is self-serve, coffee pots stayed full, bus staff kept the condiment station pristine, and the place overall remained clean and tidy despite being packed. We got lucky and beat a mid-day rush so our line to place our order and then sit down at our numbered table (think: Milk & Honey Cafe in Wicker Park), was short. The food took a little while to arrive, but again, we think, and hope, it’s just a kink. Light wood chairs and tables with sea-blue tops, aqua and light green-colored walls, and tall vases with cool dried plants lining the windows made for delightful, cheery, and well-lit surroundings. We sat elbow to elbow with two other couples but the patrons are friendly and keep to themselves. Many wore artsy gear in the form of retro tees, thick tortoiseshell glasses, vintage tops and cuff bracelets.
The lowdown: One thumb down for brunch except if you want good, strong Intelligentsia coffee and sweet stuff in the form of French toast, pancakes or banana/Nutella crepes. Thumbs up if you want paninis for lunch--smoked turkey and cheddar, balsamic portabella with gouda, and BBQ brisket to name a few. We will definitely be back for those, assuming they’re not out of commission this time. All in all, we have a feeling the grilled sandwiches - those that gave this place instant credo among the press - will be the main menu items carrying Vella on the road to popularity.
Vella Cafe, located under the Western Avenue Blue Line Station at 1912 N. Western, 773-489-7777, is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Tuesday. Most sandwiches and dishes are around $8. BYOB and Bloody Mary mix is in the house.