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A Simple Surprise

by B.A. Nilsson on August 28, 2013


Viola’s Café, 947 New Loudon Road, Latham, 786-9800. Serving breakfast 8:30-11 Mon-Fri, lunch 11-3 Mon-Fri. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: sandwiches and salads

Entrée price range: $6 (classic BLT) to $7.50 (Cuban pork sandwich)

Ambiance: hotel lunchroom

When you’ve spent any professional time in or around the restaurant business, you develop a passionate wish to discourage others from subjecting themselves to its vagaries. The ones who stand a chance of making it will have a passion that exceeds your discouragement. Say hi to Cindy Therriault and Scott MacPherson.

Each came into this biz from a wildly different occupation—she as an interior designer, he as an audio engineer—and decided that opening the long-dreamed-of café was a now-or-never proposition.

The unprepossessing space is the restaurant portion of the Monte Mario Motel on Route 9 in Latham, just north of the intersection with Route 7. “You’ve got to try this place,” insisted my friend Peter, who is a tireless gustatory bloodhound. What he seeks—what we all seek, I suppose—is the hideaway with limited hours and revelatory food. Taking Viola’s Café as it intends to be taken, as a simple lunchroom with homemade fare, it comes awfully close.

Enter through the hotel and a solid door with an unprepossessing sign (dining room) is your gateway; there’s also an outside door. Inside is a room as sunny as the weather allows, with a handful of tables and counter seats. Although they didn’t have breakfast in mind when they opened, the hours were added for the convenience of the hotel, “and they’ve been so good to us I don’t mind coming in what’s really only an hour earlier to do this,” says Cindy.

An egg and cheese breakfast sandwich is $2.75, or a dollar more if you add bacon or ham. A slice of the “garden medley” quiche is $3.50, and there are chalkboard specials you also can see on the café’s Facebook page.

One of the lunch specials when I visited was a meatball sub ($6.50), for which Scott takes culinary credit. “I make them with beef, pork and veal,” he explains, “and I make sure not to overcook them.” They’re classically arrayed in a hoagie roll on a bed of good tomato sauce and a topping of melted mozzarella, and those meatballs were as tender as promised, which was a complete surprise in this context. You don’t expect it.

Which is also true of the Cuban pork sandwich ($7.50), which has become Peter’s favored lunch fare. I’m a Reuben man, I must confess, and I’ll order that Monte Cristo when none of my family is looking. But Viola’s doesn’t feature such excesses, and the Cuban pork offers a just-as-good panoply of flavors in the layers of pork, ham, pickles and Swiss.

The classic grilled cheese requires sliced tomato; here it also includes bacon ($6.75) and is built with your choice of cheese. A grilled ham (they bake their own) and Swiss is also $6.75. All the meat in the deli sandwich selections is roasted in-house, and you’ll find extras like seasonal chutney on the baked ham sandwich ($6.75) and cranberry relish on the roast turkey ($6.75), which also sports fresh greens and NY cheddar. There’s a classic BLT for $6, a turkey club to further your bacon requirements for $7, tuna salad with cucumber slices for $6 and roasted red peppers and goat cheese, with onion, capers and pesto, for $6.50.

Take a look at the veggie sandwich ($6): Its cucumber and tomato are but a vehicle for edamame hummus, which we sampled separately. The edamame purée tugs the chickpeas-and-tahini base in a sweeter direction than more common mates like roasted red peppers, and gives the mixture an amusing shade of light green.

The mere fact that Viola’s offers deviled eggs ($1 for two halves) calls for commendation; that they’re a visit to the time-tested, Joy of Cooking days of yore makes them a necessity.

Caesar salad is available with ($7.50) or without ($6) grilled chicken breast; a mixed green salad ($6) includes tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and homemade croutons, although Cindy is more than willing to accommodate your variations. A tasty, pasta-based Italian side salad ($3.50) was offered the day we visited, and offset the somewhat dreary sandwich accompaniment of potato chips. A homemade soup ($3.50) is offered every day, and in this case was a delicious, straight-ahead minestrone.

You’ll finish, of course, with homemade cookies ($1 for two), which I’m sure will be as good as the oatmeal-raisin variety we sampled.

Cindy and Scott hope to ease into some kind of dinner service, possibly starting with takeout items—a move that I’m sure would be encouraged by a growing lunch business. Viola’s is simple in every respect except for the food itself. It’s served simply, fairly disposably, in a space that looks as good as it does thanks to Cindy’s design talent. And the location? It’s a quick turn from a northbound lane. First time may be tricky. Thereafter, it’ll be a pleasant habit.