If you can't afford a lakefront condo even in this tanking housing market, worry not: The Lake Vista Cafe provides a meal's worth of spectacular views with no fear of foreclosure. From the cafe's home atop Monona Terrace, the panorama of Lake Monona is gorgeous even on a cloudy day. Tucked away six stories above John Nolen Drive, Lake Vista Cafe provides a cozy little aerie.
Lake Vista is self-seat, order-at-the-counter, but the food is brought to your table, and we were attended throughout our meal by more than one friendly server. To start your meal or just snack while you watch the boats meander by, you can choose from several appetizers including tandoori chicken skewers, deep-fried mushrooms, fried clams and calamari. We tasted the roasted garlic-white cheddar crostini topped with cherry tomatoes and slim ribbons of basil, which were savory but unremarkable.
Much better were the Caribbean plantain fritters, a special of the day. Three golden, cushiony fritters were served with a spiced coconut dipping sauce and a bay shrimp salsa. The fritters were well seasoned and crispy, the sweetness of the plantains complemented by the pretty green coconut sauce. Our server mentioned that the chef would like our feedback on the fritters since we were the first of the day to order them, a request that pleased me (especially given that he didn't know I was already composing some feedback in my mind anyway). I appreciated that the chef was engaging diners in improving the food. The best appetizer, though, was the homemade french fries. These rival Madison's best pommes frites, and are served with an addictive, creamy tomato remoulade (a mayonnaise-based condiment similar to aioli).
Lake Vista's entrees cover a nice range from basic (salads, Chicago dogs and burgers) to dishes that feature a more complex set of flavors. The Creole crab cake sandwich brings back the tomato remoulade, and the adobo tilapia in the fish tacos was flaky and tasty but not too spicy.
Burgers and hot dogs garnered both praise and criticism. The salty all-beef Oscar Mayer dog would taste much better grilled or simply cooked longer for more flavor, while the hamburger's dense, slightly mushy texture did not impress us. Using better meat could make this burger a great one, because for very reasonable prices, Lake Vista does a lot with easy-to-overlook aspects of the meal. The cafe makes its own hot dog and hamburger buns, which are smeared with Parmesan butter and toasted before serving; the Worcestershire sauce is also made in-house. Details like these can elevate picnic food to something more memorable.
To finish off the meal, Lake Vista offers simple biscotti or fruit as well as a few fancier desserts. The chocolate coffee custard reads more like a silky, solid mousse, but that wasn't at all a bad thing. The "lemonade pie" is a serving-sized graham cracker crust piled with a lemony whipped cream filling that manages to be both rich and light at the same time. The honey cream market tart, crowned with glazed berries, looked fetching but tasted slightly chemical. Although the desserts are not huge portions, each was decadent enough to share and still leave us satisfied. I have to admit, though, that my fingers kept wandering toward what was left of the french fries; that remoulade was hard to ignore.
Although some areas of the menu still need a little improvement, Lake Vista has quickly become my new favorite summer hangout. The view is just that good. The fries don't hurt, either.