As soon as we turned onto Highway 92, heading for Bella Vista Restaurant near Woodside, fog engulfed the car, and my heart sank.
The restaurant is heralded for its spectacular views, but the weather threatened to spoil our visit in that respect. Then, as we wound higher and higher up Skyline Boulevard, we climbed out of the fog and into another place -- and time.
Amid a stand of redwoods, Bella Vista suddenly appeared, its parking lot filled with cars and a glowing neon martini glass beckoning us in. From the outside, it looked more like a roadhouse than a fancy restaurant. But that appearance and the creaky wood floors and dark bar with stone hearth just inside belie what awaits.
Tuxedoed waiters bustled in the dining room, where tables were draped in white linens, and each was adorned with a vase holding a single long-stem rose. They seemed decked out to complement the glorious views from windows that run the full length of the wood-beamed room.
This 85-year-old restaurant was bought by the family of the current owner in 1979. Its period decor, the worn Bella Vista logos on china plates that have made many trips through the dishwasher and the classic menu with mostly French dishes and a sprinkling of Italian, which reads as though cuisine nouvelle never happened -- these are all part of Bella Vista's charm.
The menu offers items far less common today -- escargot, salmon en croute and steak Diane, for example. I was desperate to try tournedos Rossini -- a filet mignon topped with foie gras -- but decided that made no sense for a review, since the topping would become contraband in California on July 1, and the dish would go off the menu before my review would be published.
On both my visits, it took longer than usual to get menus once we were seated, but that could be by design. Without a menu to bury your head in, you appreciate what gives the restaurant its name: sweeping views of Redwood City about 2,000 feet below, the Bay and the East Bay hills beyond.
If you're so inclined, order a cocktail to savor while you drink in this view. But don't expect a bar menu. When I scarcely could call a single drink off the top of my head, the dashing bartender suggested a sidecar ($8), and I agreed. Served in a glass with a sugared rim, it offered the ideal balance of sweet and sour. A dirty vodka martini ($8) was smooth as silk. Cocktails are a better value than wine by the glass ($10-$12), especially since those choices are meager. The list of bottled wines is more inspiring, with French, Italian and New World choices, many in the $40-$60 range.
Among the items listed on the dinner menu, we found that portion size trumps provenance, and felt it somewhat liberating to choose a meal without negotiating a trendy, morally charged listing of "heirloom" this and "sustainable" that. At Bella Vista, it's all just food, and good food at that.
We started one meal with a special, tortellini al fredo for two ($12). It included, without a doubt, the most delicious al fredo sauce I've tried. Veal- and prosciutto-stuffed tortellini rested in a rich sauce hinting of nutmeg and lemon juice, which gave extra flavor and dimension. Be thankful there's a fettucine al fredo appetizer that's always on the menu.
A cup of summer squash soup ($6) tasted almost wintry, due to the robust stock. I would have preferred a lighter, brighter preparation, but it was tasty nonetheless. The bay shrimp salad ($10) had a generous portion of small, fresh shrimp atop crisp endive, asparagus and that oh-so-French ingredient, hearts of palm. The vinaigrette with it was lovely.
An intermezzo course of lemon sorbet was especially welcome after the al fredo and its intense sauce, to cleanse the palate. So I was ready for the salmon en croute ($31), another special, when it arrived.
The filet -- easily six ounces, maybe more -- was topped with a mushroom mixture called duxelles, wrapped in a flaky butter pastry and served with a mild white sauce. The salmon could have benefited from more seasoning, but it was cooked well, and the duxelles added zest.
La liaison is Bella Vista's elegant name for a very fine surf-and-turf option ($35): A petite filet mignon was cooked precisely to medium and topped with prawns bathed lightly in a delightfully understated bernaise.
For chicken curacao ($26), made with grapes and tangerines, the sauce was rather sweet with savory undertones from the stock.
Veal cooked with mushrooms and marsala ($28) was rather basic, but fine.
All the main courses we tried were served with a carrot purée and green beans that tasted as if they'd been blanched in butter. A wonderful wild rice pilaf came with everything but the veal, which was served with potatoes; those were good, but not nearly as tasty as the rice.
The dessert menu is simple: souffles in four flavors ($17-$19) or cherries jubilee ($17), each designed for two people because of the labor involved in making them. The souffles are brought to the table in ramekins, so you can see them in their light, puffy glory. They are then taken away and plated for serving. The chocolate souffle is flavored with chocolate throughout, but the others -- raspberry, strawberry and Grand Marnier -- are quite similar to one another, differing mainly in their garnishes. Of the two I tried, both the Grand Marnier and raspberry souffles were airy and lightly sweet, but my preference was the Grand Marnier ($17), for its simplicity and liqueur-spiked crème anglaise.
There were some hiccups in the generally good service. One evening we were about 20 minutes late being seated for our reservation. Another there was a very long wait between the appetizer and main courses, due to two large parties that clearly caused a back-up in the kitchen. The owner later explained that was something they plan to prevent in the future.
If you leave with leftovers, as you almost certainly will, waiters pack them in aluminum foil swans, a vestige of fine dining from days gone by.
Some might take this as a sign that Bella Vista is trapped in the past, but don't be fooled: Bella Vista is quite comfortable exactly where it wants to be -- which is what makes it such an easy restaurant to like.
Email Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
13451 Skyline Blvd.,
* * ½
The dish: Bella Vista, a dining spot high in the hills just outside Woodside, has incredible panoramic views of the Bay and a menu of classic French and Italian dishes.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$19; most main courses $26-$35 (some with fresh seafood higher); desserts for two $17-$19; wines by the glass $10-$12, by the half bottle and bottle $27 and up.
Details: This is an old-school, fine-dining restaurant, the kind your parents may have selected for a big night out. If you feel nostalgic watching "Mad Men," like mid-century design and enjoy dishes popular in the '50s and '60s, this place is for you.
Pluses: Portions are large and well prepared. Cocktails are very good. Views are stupendous.
Minuses: Service may be slow on busy nights. The selection of wines by the glass is limited.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-11:30 p.m.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.