Vino Locale nurtures local food, wine and art
In Italy, an enoteca is a place where lesser known local wines are introduced to the public. Over the years, many enotecas segued into restaurants that feature not only the local wines, but local foods as well.
Vino Locale, in downtown Palo Alto, has been a Bay Area version of that notion since 2004. Owner Randy Robinson was smitten with the idea after visiting enotecas in Italy.
"I wanted to introduce the idea of Euro-style dining to the area," Robinson said.
Not only does Vino Locale represent over 70 Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, the menu is comprised almost exclusively of meats, fruits, vegetables and cheeses raised in the greater Bay Area, using organic products as much as possible.
"Our meat is from Niman Ranch, grass fed. Our goat cheese is delivered from Harley Farms in Pescadero. We buy our seasonal, organic produce from Live Earth Farm in Watsonville," Robinson said.
Indeed, Vino Locale is about as locavore as any restaurant can be that's situated in a huge urban setting. Then again, this is Northern California and we are blessed with both grand agriculture and superb viticulture.
Each month, Vino Locale features a different winery. During my visits, the wines of Downhill Winery of Los Gatos were offered by the taste ($2-$3.50), glass ($6-$9.75) or bottle ($18-$30) for Rose, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Barbera or a Zinfandel/Syrah blend.
There were wines from other wineries ready to pour as well — reds, whites, Roses, sparkling and dessert wines.
Vino Locale is located in a 100-year-old Colonial Revival house on the 400 block of Kipling Street and is listed in the Palo Alto historical register. The houses on that block are a step back to quieter times, with front porches, lazy trees and flowering bushes.
The times aren't all that quiet any longer on that block of Kipling but Vino Locale has a secluded patio/garden in the back that isolates patrons from street noise and, on balmy summer nights, is a tranquil oasis that quickly soothes jittery nerves. It's a pleasant place to relax with a partner or a group of friends.
Inside, the diminutive three-room space is spartan but homey — bare wood floors and tables in two rooms, a tasting bar in the third. Artist-of-the month watercolors adorn the walls.
Vino Locale isn't a full-blown restaurant. They have a panini grill for making sandwiches and the remainder of the menu is assembled plates, salads and desserts. It's lighter fare that perfectly complements the local wines.
We enjoyed the crostini sampler ($12). Two each of feta herb, red onion and prosciutto, Asian mushroom mix, and hummus atop slices of toasted baguette. The crostini was well matched with Downhill Winery 2009 Barbera Rosato ($6 per glass), a dry, crisp, Rose.
Tasty chunks of mildly spiced Spanish chorizo ($8) were simmered in red wine and herbs. It's a tapa nearly ubiquitous from the Rioja wine region to Barcelona and beyond. In Spain, the wine would be sopped up with yeasty, rustic rolls. Here it was served with a French baguette.
The Mediterranean plate ($16.50) was a delight. The platter was loaded with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses — nutty Tarentaise, lush triple cream Mt. Tam, and peppercorn studded papato. There were meats as well, a dry salami, a rich coppa salami and a tasty sopressata. Olives, fruit, bread and crackers completed the platter.
It was enough for two for a light dinner or just a great plate of nibblers if you have something else in mind for a later dinner elsewhere. The 2007 Downhill pinot noir ($30 a bottle) went well with its subtle layers of cherry, spices and blackberry.
The Mediterranean plate combined, albeit in smaller portions, the essence of the artisanal cheese plate and the charcuterie plate ($16.50 each).
The grilled panini were all $9. I tried the smoked chicken on baguette and wasn't disappointed, although there was no garnish on the plate to heighten aesthetic appeal. The chicken was tender, the bread crisp and flaky.
There were other choices for panini: smoked ham, turkey and salami, chorizo, smoked turkey and a vegetarian selection.
There are three choices for desserts, XOX chocolate truffles ($2 each) made in San Francisco, Charlie's cheesecake minis ($2) from San Jose and the chocolate panino ($6). Twice I ordered the cheesecake, but neither time was it available.
The chocolate panino was likely the best of the lot. Creamy bittersweet chocolate was melted between slices of crunchy baguette on the panini grill. Hard to beat that deliriously wonderful bread and oozy chocolate combination.
We bought a taste ($1.50) of the Late Harvest Viognier from Poetic Cellars in Soquel to accompany the panino. It held just enough honeyed sweetness, satisfying without overwhelming.
There is one more element to Vino Locale — local art. Each month, different artists are featured. During my visits, the watercolors of Steve Curl adorned the walls while jewelry artist Lynn Fielder showcased her wares in a glass display cabinet.
Service can be rather slow as the waitstaff assembles the orders, busses tables, explains and pours wines. One evening, after a lengthy wait, I had to chase down the waitress to get the check. If you sit in the garden, choose an easily visible spot, as arm waving is permitted.
Vino Locale is a locavore's paradise. I couldn't identify any wine or food component that was grown or made more than 100 miles away. We live in an amazing region and Vino Locale reminds us of our good fortune.