It was Saturday night and I was a pound underweight. We had reservations at Vivo, the coolest of the hot new Italian restaurants, and I could eat anything I wanted. What more can you ask of life?
Jerry Kleiner (who also gave us Shelter) and his partners Dan Krasny and Howard Davis opened Vivo last fall at Green and Randolph, in the heart of the produce-market district. Although the food was initially inconsistent, I'd been impressed by the hard-chic decor and solicitous service and fascinated by the crowd of Ultimo- and Chrome Hearts-clad Eurotrash wannabes.
I'd never been to Vivo on a Saturday night, though. We had to edge in sideways. It was like putting a Melman-sized crowd in a veal-fattening pen. But hey, enjoying a leisurely dinner in an atmosphere of quiet elegance on a Saturday night is a 50s concept. Nowadays dining out is theater--and turnover is everything.
Vivo is theatrical as hell: black-painted ceiling, spot lighting, and handcrafted metal tables, chairs, and bar stools upholstered in multicolored leather. A metal staircase that looks like modern sculpture leads up to a second level where a solitary table, usually reserved for celebrities, enables its occupants to literally look down on the masses. Another level up is a new lounge, painted to look like a stage set, presumably to allow the masses to look down on the celebrities.
After surviving the traffic jam at the door, we were immediately seduced by an elegant granite sideboard of beautifully presented appetizers. We sampled the Antipasto della Casa ($4.95) of grilled vegetables and eggplant rolled with prosciutto and mozzarella, then breaded and sauteed--a nice variety of textures and flavors. The special salad of greens, endive, and guacamole with a balsamic vinaigrette ($5.50), though odd sounding, worked; the house salad ($3.50) of five greens had the same dressing. On the table was a bottle of olive oil infused with garlic, marjoram, basil, and oregano, so delicious it took away my nostalgia for butter. We were told the secret is to make it fresh every day.
But restaurant patrons don't live by bread alone. We tried to ignore the fact that the tables were so jammed together that the chain smokers next to us became part of our group--we had to include them in our conversation. We even tried to ignore the noise level, exacerbated by the blast of taped music. Could it be that the owners read about that study that found the louder and livelier the music, the faster people ate?
By the time the busboy cleared away our salads, wiped our forks, and put them back on the table, our crush on Vivo was over. At close to 40 dollars a person, you don't expect a greasy spoon, and you want a clean fork.
But at least at this point the food wasn't a problem. Salmon alla Serrape ($15.95), in a too-bland mustard sauce on a previous visit, was more assertive this time. On that occasion I'd also sampled Farfalle Primavera ($10.50), bow tie pasta with fresh vegetables in a light tomato sauce, and Tagliolini alla Vivo ($10.95) with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil--as good as pasta gets. This time the seared tuna ($16.95) and the grilled red snapper with lemon sauce ($16.95), both delicately seasoned and cooked to perfection, arrived with crisp vegetables and grilled potatoes to die for. My risotto with parmesan and fresh tomatoes ($12.95) was as consistently creamy and delicious as the risotto with saffron and broccoli I'd tried another time. The chicken breast with endive ($12.95), prepared on a wood- and charcoal-burning grill in the open kitchen, had a savory, smoky tang.
We'd just finished our entrees when my daughter and her husband stopped by our table. They'd been seated in another part of the restaurant, which happens more often than would seem possible until you know my son-in-law tips the headwaiter not to put them near me. They'd had a 7:30 reservation but were so rushed through cocktails, dinner, and cappuccino--Vivo considers itself too chichi to serve regular coffee--that there they were on their way out. They'd paid the sitter the four-hour minimum, and it was only 8:30.
My daughter, risking salmonella for a Caesar salad, had found it an oily, inedible, croutonless mess. (She swore she saw croutons at another table.) She'd sent it back, saying she couldn't believe the dressing was made on premises. Their waiter had shrugged, rolled his eyes, and admitted that it was purchased in bulk.
On a previous visit I'd ordered creme brulee ($4.50) on condition that it be the classic version, with a thick, hard crust. The waitress assured me it was. As they say in Wayne's World--not! Saturday night our zuccoto ($5.25), a dome-shaped dessert traditionally made with sponge or pound cake filled with sweetened whipped cream, chopped or grated chocolate, and nuts, tasted more like Boston cream pie and had a distinct chemical aftertaste. Our waiter proudly told us he had made it himself, buying the sponge cake at Omni and using a pudding mix for the rest. Let's give the Vivo staff tens for honesty--and the same for IQs.
Leaving was as much of an ordeal as coming. Coat-check facilities were downstairs, a deplorable new trend. We inched down steep, dark steps so narrow there was room for only one person at a time. Vivo also has a holding area down there for the overflow crowd waiting for tables. They call it a lounge. How relaxing.
Vivo, 838 W. Randolph, is open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to midnight Monday through Thursday, 5 to 1 Friday and Saturday, and 4:30 to 11 Sunday. Reservations are accepted; call 733-3379.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.