We arrived for an early dinner, sans reservation, on a Friday night. Had we showed up a few minutes later, we -- like others -- would have been turned away. That is to say, the place was hopping. It's no surprise since Vistro in Hinsdale is the latest venture from Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-nominated chef Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant).
It's an approachable and down-to-earth spot. The ingredients -- like at his other ventures -- are seasonal and sourced from local farms. The difference is there's little-to-no name-checking, and the offerings are presented in a decidedly unfussy way. Plus, most entrees are less than $20.
Vistro112 S. Washington St., Hinsdale, (630) 537-1459, www.vistrorestaurant.com
Hours: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday (kitchen closes at 9:30), 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (kitchen closes at 10), closed Sunday
Setting: Rustic, kid-friendly, bistro-style storefront
Vistro is a place to gather among friends or family amid vintage-inspired light fixtures, tile and wood floors and a bustling bar area up front. To the back left is a visible kitchen counter with a wood-burning oven; the full kitchen is in back. Exposed brick walls? Check. Industrial-style ceilings? You bet.
The menu is full of familiar dishes diners will be comfortable with, yet some are presented in an imaginative way.
Take the house Armenian string cheese, for example. It may not offer a lot of visual "wow" -- it's basically wisps of salty, white cheese on a white plate -- but gosh, is it ever tasty. And, for lack of a better term, fresh. It's joined on the snacks portion of the menu by a selection of West Loop Salumi with eggplant caponata, fried pickles with dill-garlic mayo and a plate of aged cheddar and whole wheat crackers.
They're all pretty tempting, but we had set our sights on two other dishes instead: the crisp mixed lettuce and shaved fennel salad cloaked in bracing lemon vinaigrette and the substantial fish 'n' chips from the appetizer portion of the menu. The former was as simple and appealing as the cheese that came before it. The latter arrived with savory-sweet, corn-stippled mayo and batter that was airy, if a tad greasy. The chips had a nice salt and vinegar-like tang, and the fish (perch) was mild, flaky and super-enjoyable -- until we encountered some unexpected bones. Things happen, and the manager handled it like a pro; he swiftly took it off the bill so we could move on with the rest of our meal, unruffled.
Other appetizer options include wood oven-fired Brussels sprouts and acorn squash in bacon vinaigrette, toasted meat ravioli with marinara, and mac and cheese. The menu feels a little hodgepodge-y at times. No doubt, that's partly the point. Order a little of this, a little of that and know it will all be expertly prepared.
In line with Vistro's catchall appeal, there are pizzas and quesadillas with a changing array of ingredients. We kept it simple and tried the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil pie, which featured a pleasantly chewy, lightly charred crust. Had my dining partner been more adventurous, I'd have opted for the one with slow-cooked and pickled garlic, spinach, olive oil and fresh goat cheese.
We teamed that with the skirt steak, which was crowned with herb butter and marinated mushrooms and served alongside fries and broccoli topped with melted cheese curds. The steak was expertly seared and juicy, and it arrived sliced and ready for sharing, to our collective enjoyment. Unfortunately, the other components on the plate were a tad cold.
Other options include rainbow trout with a red cabbage pancake, pecans, roasted onion and apple-curry vinaigrette; fried chicken with collard greens and gravy; and a dry-aged burger topped with bacon, roasted onions and pimento cheese.
The dessert list is short and sweet, the main focus being soft serve ice cream, which can be customized thanks to a list of toppings. Vanilla is the standard, and it's joined by a seasonal option -- Kuri squash during our visit. I opted for a "twist" featuring the two, and I had it topped with a crumbled, house-made gingersnap cookie. It was fall in a bowl. Of course, the rich "cookie monster" dessert -- two triple chocolate cookies -- were good, too.
A trim wine list, house sodas, affordable craft and domestic beers and a small handful of seasonal cocktails complete the experience. In the end, dining here was a sophisticated-enough experience, without ever feeling overwrought. That's exactly what a neighborhood joint should be.