Bay Area Restaurants
San Leandro Restaurants
Note: Check out the 2006 review
Given the dearth of good restaurants in San Leandro, I was quite happy when I read about Vila Cereja opening up at the old Jake's Lion Club location (where we never got to go, oh well). I was also excited to see that they'd be serving a pan-European menu, as that hopefully meant I might be able to try dishes altogether new to me. My expectations weren't too high, however. This is San Leandro, after all, and my general feeling after going to dinner there on a Friday night in early October 2004, was that the restaurant was good for San Leandro but not a destination in itself. That's too bad because Vila Cereja certainly has potential. Maybe it just needs to find itself.
The restaurant itself is attractive, though it seems it hasn't decided what it wants to be. Its large dining room is divided into two parts, with a large fireplace in the front room, where the L-shaped bar area is. Its black leatherette chairs and booths and yellow walls almost give it an elegant look, which contrasts with the television sets in the bar area (visible throughout the restaurant) turned on to sports. It's almost like Vila Cereja hasn't decided whether it wants to be a nice restaurant or a neighborhood hangout.
The prices, however, are more in line with the former. The menu includes a series of small plates, averaging $6-12 for the more substantial ones, a few salads ($6.50-9) and sandwiches ($8.50-11) as well as four large plates ($14.50-27). It featured Mediterranean and Asian dishes as well as classic American fare such as burgers.
We ordered several small plates, a salad and a large plate so we got a good idea of what the kitchen can do. The Spanish Style Almonds ($4) were very good, crispy and tasty though there weren't very many in the small cup we were served. A Mediterranean Sampler ($6.25) featuring Middle Eastern spreads served with pita looked nice, with each spread coming in its own small bowl. I liked the hummus, which was darker and spicier than most, but my friend Regina didn't like it. We both agreed that the baba ghanoush was too garlicky and had little other flavor. The muhammara was so spicy that it completely overwhelmed any other flavor. The fried zucchini ($6) was more successful; the strips were crispy and flavorful and not in the least soggy.
We all loved the Portuguese steak ($10), a New York steak with a port wine and chunky serrano ham sauce that gave it a great flavor. It was our favorite dish of the evening and our only complaint was that the portion wasn't larger. Unfortunately, it's not available as a large plate either. Less successful was the Greek Lamb chop ($12). I liked the crust but the lamb chops themselves weren't very flavorful. They could have used at least some more salt. The Cuban Guava Pork Back Ribs ($9) were very tender though I think they needed more pizzaz.
A general complaint about these dishes is that they all came with the same mixed green salad as a side. It was good, but it got boring seeing and tasting it time after time after time.
The Ricotta Spinach Mousse Pasta ($8.50) that Regina ordered wasn't available that evening, so instead she got the Tomato and Bleu Cheese Salad ($7.50). She liked how fresh the fat slices of tomato were, but thought it had too much dressing. Boris was very pleased with his Choice Filet Steak ($27), which was very thick and he found to be very tender. I thought it was under-salted myself. He also liked the garlic mashed potatoes.
I had a glass of cola with dinner, which was flat and had an off flavor - it also came in a very small glass. Mike had a glass of the merlot, which he liked - he found it to be rounded with a good buttery flavor and aftertaste. Regina enjoyed the sangria, which was quite sweet.
There were four choices for dessert in addition to a cheese plate. The desserts don't seem to be made in-house. I had the cappuccino chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup and liked it; it was quite dense and had a very strong flavor. Regina had the berries with creme fraiche ($4.50). The berries consisted of strawberries and big plump rapsberries; she liked the fruit but thought they needed more creme fraiche.
Mike went for the cheese plate ($8.50). It looked nice, though the cheese portions were a little on the small side. We both thought the Stilton was great, but then again, it's my favorite blue cheese. Mike liked the Petit Basque cheese but wasn't awed by the Manchego with quince jam. The accompanying candied walnuts were real winners, however.
The restaurant was very new when we went and the waiter was clearly in need of training. Not only did he not know the menu well, but he hadn't even heard the word "tapas" before. He had to go back a couple of times for more information, and didn't tell us the pasta wasn't available until after we were done with several other dishes. He had no idea what wines by the glass were available and he seemed to know nothing about different types of wines (e.g. a merlot vs. a cabernet) and at that time at least they didn't have a wine list. He was trying to learn and be helpful, however, and hopefully by now he's learned a thing or two.
The bill came to $140 after tax but before tip. Not a bad deal but not a great one either - in particular considering the size of the portions. I think I will give the restaurant some more time to develop before trying it again.
1045 MacArthur Blvd.
W-F 11 am-11pm, Sa 5-10 pm, Su 5-11 pm