A friend describes Cafe Vignes as that "airy, arty loft restaurant with its concomitant airy, arty service people." And what else would you expect to find in the warehouse-cum-loft district just east of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles?
The cafe occupies a corner on the ground floor of one of the numerous buildings in the area that has been converted to lofts over the last few years. They've retained the industrial feel of the original structure in what might be described as warehouse chic decor--old brick and stark white walls, with exposed vent systems providing sculptural interest. A few pieces of art hang on the walls and green plants adorn the entrance and are spotted around the room.
Focal point of the restaurant is the kitchen, under an open post-modern pyramid of sheet-metal-clad wood beams. A light wooden floor, tables and bentwood chairs do little to soften the overall feeling or control the noise level.
Pick a Cool Day
Hot summer days are not the best time to visit this un-air-conditioned restaurant. Despite the expanse of windows on the front wall, one small fan does little to stir the air. On cooler occasions, however, we find the offerings of salads, quiches and entrees ideal for lunch or a light dinner.
There are five salads listed on the menu and usually one or two other daily specials. The chicken pasta-- fusilli , chicken, carrots, peas, mushrooms, green onion and pine nuts--got the best reviews. It has a creamy dressing spiked with black pepper.
Pepper also is ample in the red potato salad, along with celery, green onion, chopped sweet red pepper and parsley. In fact, pepper is predominate in most of the food at Cafe Vignes, although not necessarily a detriment.
A daily special pasta salad with penne, julienned ham, carrot and cucumber was certainly very passable, as is the regularly offered vegetable linguine. The restaurant gives the option of ordering a taste of either two or three salads, which makes a nice sampler.
The house salad is available solo, as part of the samplers just mentioned or as an accompaniment to the quiches and entrees. It seems to vary slightly from day to day, but is always made with an assortment of impeccable greens. Once, it contained shredded red cabbage, another time radish sprouts and toasted pine nuts. The creamy herb dressing is fresh and light.
Spinach and chicken quiches have good flavor but are obviously warmed by a microwave oven, which toughens their crust. The breast of chicken plate features a good-sized, still moist smoked chicken breast.
The same smoked chicken is used in one of the sandwiches, offered daily, but not listed on the menu. Have it made with the whole-wheat bread; the white bread that was served with the salads (only after we asked) was very disappointing.
Another sandwich choice is Black Forest ham. When one member of our party inquired about mustard, the waiter presented a plate with four different varieties, but offered no explanation of what each was until asked.
Which brings me back to my friend's statement about airy, arty service people. They won't set any record for attentiveness at Cafe Vignes yet can sometimes be surprisingly considerate with a little prodding.
The beverage section is by far the most extensive part of the menu. They offer ten varieties of imported and domestic beer, two designer waters, soft drinks, ice tea, espresso, cappuccino, cafe au lait, coffee and tea. A varietal white and red wine are offered in squat little wine glasses etched with grape vines and there are two white and two red wines available by the bottle.
I can't get very excited over the desserts--ice cream and a pastry of the day, which often turns out to be alligator. Once it was served cut in triangles with four beautiful fresh strawberries; another time it just arrived at the table as one big square.
There was a good looking apple pie on one visit, but it had disappeared by the time we inquired about dessert. When we showed our disappointment, however, the waiter came up with a substitute offering of a piece of very acceptable opera torte.
Cafe Vignes, 923 East 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-9709. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Street parking. Cash only. Reservations accepted. Salads, $2.50 to $5.95; entrees, $5 to $6.50.