Taste Test: Via Loma
In March 2009, we polled users of our 7 Nights  website about what kind of restaurant they’d most like to see open in the Burlington area. A third of all respondents were desperate for a tapas spot. Less than a year later, in February 2010, Rob Minichiello  announced that he would open Via Loma  the following month.
The Boston native began renovating the building at Main and South Champlain that previously held Bosnian café Euro Corner . He encountered a wave of bad luck, ranging from a bum business partner to contractor problems. By the time Via Loma served its first meal in late October, restaurant watchers were salivating.
I was among them. But after two visits, I’m no longer feeling quite so eager. Now I’m just a little hungry, and also a bit annoyed.
Right before we were originally set to run this story, Minichiello called to inform me that the entire menu had changed, and whatever I wrote would be out of date. In fact, he said he didn’t have ingredients to prepare any of the dishes I’d tasted at my two meals, so a photographer couldn’t shoot them.
When I returned to Via Loma, I did find some new dishes on the menu, now typed instead of handwritten. While I didn’t stay for a third meal, I saw no evidence of a complete overhaul. What I found was a restaurant that appeared to be afraid to embrace its own concept.
When I first entered Via Loma on a cold Saturday night, its warmth was a comforting refuge. I was seated with a view of a rough-hewn wood chandelier that, with its trappings of gold, looked like it had been retrofitted from a pirate’s chest. The acoustics of the small space, which has no soft chairs or other absorbent surfaces, occasionally made it difficult to engage in conversation. But the setting gave the overall impression of a tasteful combination of modern and old-time Spanish décor.
I found the service eager during both my Via Loma meals, if still a tad green. On my second visit, it went somewhat over the top when a manager recognized me and took it on herself to come to my table and describe each dish as it emerged from the kitchen.
Even special treatment couldn’t save me from some exposure to major faux pas that night. My server explained at the beginning of the meal that dishes came in two sizes: Pinchos, she said, were large enough for sharing, while tapas were “literally like a small snack.” Too bad she got it backward.
I ordered the lamb bocadillo hoping for two lamb burgers but received only one. I asked for a second and waited. Around the 25-minute mark, I was ready to cancel the second slider, but my server had disappeared. When the manager presented me with the small plate, 40 minutes after my request, she graciously offered to buy it for me.
While not the traditional baguette sandwich I expected from its name, the lamb bocadillo was worth a wait. A fluffy bun with crispy edges housed a juicy patty of sweet lamb spiced with cumin. I wanted to thank the Moors for bringing me this wonderful slider.
The plate’s other elements were slightly less successful. Slices of fennel were unevenly cooked — some were tough; others melted in my mouth with the taste of licorice candy. Home-fry-like potatoes reminded me of toasted marshmallows, crisp outside and delightfully soft inside. They were seasoned solely with dried oregano; a little salt would have been greatly appreciated.
The lamb slider is one of the dishes that has been revamped since my first visit. Now called a “Basque sausage,” the ground lamb dish retains the fennel, but, according to the new menu, has lost the potatoes in favor of white beans and a brandy-and-veal demi-glace.
I am a sucker for Catalonian pan de tomate. The simple bread rubbed with garlic and tomato can be enchanting, and I’ve had great renditions thereof at Bluebird Tavern in Burlington and Tasca in Plainfield. This one missed the mark. The underseasoned tomato-and-garlic jam spread on crispy bread evoked school-cafeteria French-bread pizza. The ham was a nice touch, but there wasn’t enough. No matter — it’s no longer part of the dish.
A $4 portion of sweet and spicy almonds was among the more successful pinchos. (The price has since been lowered to $3.) The sugar- and paprika-coated nuts were addictive. I also couldn’t seem to stop eating my $6 large plate of sheep’s-milk manchego cheese. Through its slightly powdery texture emerged a wonderful, mouth-coating umami creaminess. Warm, olive-oil-coated bread was a fine vehicle for the cheese, though a minute or two on the grill would have enhanced its character.
Cheese added sparkle to other dishes, too, such as a pairing of fresh figs and Cabrales blue — one of the casualties of the menu change. The chunks were almost pure blue and surprisingly smooth and subtle, until a fiery note akin to horseradish kicked in. Too bad the advertised sherry syrup was missing. “Normally, it always has it on there,” apologized our server. It took almost 20 minutes to get a splash of syrup, which was a pleasantly effervescent addition to the plate.
Many pinchos at Via Loma come in hard-to-share sets of three (while tapas come in sixes), and my favorite dish overall was one of them. A trio of meatballs, the albóndigas were formed from coarsely ground grass-fed Highland beef and seasoned with oregano. The tomato sauce in which they resided didn’t pack much punch, but the thin slices of melted manchego on top bloomed with creaminess in each bite.
Another meaty option, pork spareribs with sherry-paprika glaze, was less successful. The $7 dish smelled of overcooked pork, and, indeed, the first rib disintegrated when I tried to lift it. The second piece had the opposite problem. The tough meat was difficult to tear off the bone and left my teeth full of stringy flesh. The earthy flavor was pleasant, but not quite worth the effort. A teensy corner of crumbly toasted cornbread was a nice addition to the plate, but the best element was a pile of perfectly crisp, tangy pickled onions.
Via Loma has a small list of beers — most of them local — and wines — mostly Spanish. The first night I dined there, I was told all but one of the former had sold out, and several of the latter were missing, too. I ordered an unusual quaff called calimocho. The half-red-wine, half-Coca-Cola mixture is known as a workingman’s specialty in Spain. I was disappointed to find that, in that ratio, the Coke lost its carbonation, leaving me with mildly sweetened wine from Spain’s Castilla y Leon region. The $8 drink had a slightly buttery mouthfeel and a sour aftertaste.
The same dessert special was offered both nights I visited Via Loma. The servers described it as a plum with citrus crema, which I assumed meant crema Catalana, the orange- and cinnamon-infused Spanish take on crème brûlée.
My “dessert for two” turned out to be a minuscule half plum sitting in a shallow pool of citrusy crème Anglaise studded with three orange sections. What was the difference between this and a single serving? “That’s a smaller portion in a smaller bowl,” explained the server. The plum tasted pleasantly of mulled wine, but this was hardly a $6 dessert.
Via Loma has room to grow, no question. As servers learn the menu and procedures, the issues I experienced should clear up. However, judging from the reactions of diners at tables near mine, the consensus was clear: Prices were simply too high for the size and home-style quality of the dishes. The bill from my first visit was $41.07 before tip for three pinchos and one tapas plate.
The menu could also use more variety. The point of tapas dining is to try a wide range of focused dishes. Currently, Via Loma offers fewer than 20 rustic small plates, plus one nightly special entrée for two. A glance at the menu of my hometown tapas favorite, Barcelona in Greenwich, Conn., reveals 41 streamlined options, not including the selection of salads and large plates.
Adding more classics to Via Loma’s menu could be a good move. Albóndigas and a Spanish potato and onion omelette known as a tortilla (slightly soggy when I tried it) were only available as specials when I first visited. Now both are on the regular menu, which seems like a step in the right direction.
With only fleeting hints of the Spanish language on the menu, and few dishes that packed the unconventional ingredients (baby eel, anyone?) associated with traditional tapas, I got the sense that Minichiello might have kept his menu simple and approachable for fear that bolder dishes would scare newbies in a tapas-starved small city. My advice is to be brazen. Burlington diners are a sophisticated crowd ready for big flavor, Spanish-style.