I recently chatted with Emily Mathews, who, in October joined partners Debra Szecsei and Jocelyn Alexander as a co-owner. Szecsei and Alexander bought the restaurant in October 2011. Mathews, a refugee from the tech world, came with no restaurant experience but plenty of enthusiasm.
Mathews knows cooking, though, and her pastitsio ($18) was the special main course one evening. The Greek dish, consisting of layers of ground lamb and beef, pasta, oregano, onions, spices, cheese, yogurt and a bechamel sauce, was piping-hot and delicious. The word pastitsio means "dirty kitchen" because of the many ingredients needed. Mathews' version should become a menu staple.
The kitchen is limited at Vino Locale, size-wise and function-wise. There is no massive multi-burner range, multifaceted grill or brick oven, nor huge exhaust system. Rather, the kitchen uses small appliances to complete orders. Much of the menu consists of cold plates that are assembled rather than cooked. Chef Andrew Chavez ably handles the kitchen details.
To start, the Mediterranean plate ($16) was composed of three Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, salami, prosciutto, Castelvetrano olives and slices of crusty French bread. (Gluten-free crackers are available.) It was ample for two, and I was impressed with the high-quality components.
Also offered were charcuterie and cheese plates, each $16. Half plates available for $9. With a glass of wine or two, a satisfying dinner.
There were other ways to start. One was four dates stuffed with goat cheese and roasted walnuts ($8) atop a handful of arugula leaves. The dates were tasty but, at $2 a pop, a tad pricey. One more date on the plate would have made me happier.
Main dishes were mouthwatering. The grilled chicken ($16) consisted of tender chicken breast with sweet bell peppers, herbs and spinach covered in a light cheese sauce. In all, a lot of cheese after we had just devoured the cheese-centric Mediterranean plate as an appetizer.
One final dish of note was the pulled-pork sliders ($12). The lip-smacking pork had been slow-roasted, with barbecue sauce, and served on three mini brioche buns.
I had the sliders for lunch one day. The plate came with nothing on it but the sliders. It needed a slice of pickle, a few chips, some kind of garnish. Plate appeal is important. First off, the presentation is more appealing. Second, the diner is immediately reassured that his choice was worthy, not skimpy. Third, with nothing else to nibble, there is no allowance for contrasting tastes, no pause that allows the palate to reload and respond to other textures and flavors. While the sliders were delicious, my initial reaction to the plate was, "Did I order the right thing?"
Food is half the equation at Vino Locale. Wine is the other. The restaurant features dozens of Northern California wineries available by the taste, the glass and the bottle. Pricing is reasonable.
I wasn't keen on a couple of the wines I tried, and wondered how critical the staff decisions are in making choices. The Sonnet, Tondre's Grapefield, 2009, Pinot Noir ($16 a glass, $50 per bottle) was not a wine I warmed up to. It was on the bitter side, stemmy, earthy and tannic. Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to coax; not all efforts are rewarded. Probably drunk five years too soon, it was not worth $16 per glass.
The Quinta Cruz, 2010, San Antonio Valley, Tempranillo, ($12 a glass, $38 per bottle) was better, medium body, with fruity overtones. Nothing subtle but fine with food. Finally, the 2010 Downhill Cellars Pinot Noir ($10 a glass, $32 per bottle) was light and fruity. While not a great expression of Pinot Noir (I didn't expect it for the price), it went down easy and I opted for a second glass.
Vino Locale has a splendid garden, lovely interior ambiance, tasty food, and a very friendly waitstaff. While it's not as chic as some of its neighboring restaurants, it's relaxed and tranquil, comfortable, almost like being invited to a friend's house.
431 Kipling St., Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch: Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m. -2 p.m.; Sat. noon-3 p.m, Dinner: Tues.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: yes
Private parties: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
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