A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose?
Eating at the new Rose's Cafe is a little like sitting in your grandmother's rocking chair after she's passed away: It's still shaped like her, it still smells like her and feels like her, and you can't quite avoid the uncomfortable sense that it still very much belongs to her -- and not whoever has inherited it.
For seventeen years, Rose's Cafe operated out of a casual, almost divey spot at Seventh and Quebec. But somehow, that odd space worked for the odd couple who'd created the restaurant. Rose Casabona is Vietnamese, while her husband, Tom, is Italian; he did the cooking -- both Italian and Vietnamese dishes -- while she did everything else at the modest, homey eatery.
This past September, however, a falling-out with their landlord forced the Casabonas to move -- and they settled on the large, 175-seat space that had housed the Normandy for almost three decades. Although the couple remodeled extensively -- they redid the floors, painted inside and out, and filled the walls with Asian murals and art -- anyone who's spent time at the Normandy is likely to feel its presence, like a culinary ghost that stubbornly refuses to go to that great frying pan in the sky. Rose's seems like a toddler swallowed up in grandma's chair. The space doesn't fit -- not yet, anyway. Since the new Rose's opened two months ago, Rose still scurries around like she used to, but now there's a tense line across her forehead. And when Tom pops out to see how things are going, he glances around with a slightly dazed expression, as thought he's not yet sure how he came to be there.
In fact, both Casabonas admit that they're still trying to adjust to the new space. "At first it felt very, very big," says Tom. "We're starting to get used to it, though."
"We try not to fill the place up," Rose adds. "The kitchen can't handle it. So we seat fewer and try to take good care of the people we can accommodate."
That hospitality is one Rose's hallmark that hasn't changed. Another is the food: It's still well-prepared and generously portioned. And while the prices have gone up a bit over the years -- you'll find cheaper Vietnamese and cheaper Italian elsewhere, but not necessarily better Vietnamese and Italian, and certainly not at the same place -- there's such pride in presentation that, at times, the new Rose's feels like the same old Rose's.
And some of the changes are for the better. For the first time, Rose's has a liquor license, and the Casabonas have transformed the bar into a snug, welcoming lounge with tables for eating and huge, high-backed barstools for hanging out. In the dining room, there's now space to move between tables; diners were sadly cramped in the old, sixty-seat locale. But with more space and more tables, Rose points out, "There's more work!"
Fortunately, the Casabonas have help. Their son, Timothy, works at Rose's; between Timothy and a couple of veteran servers, the food gets out in a timely manner and with minimal fuss. Although we experienced a few glitches during our recent meals there -- the pacing between courses was occasionally off, and some of the staffers seemed mighty nervous around pricey bottles of wine -- overall, the staff knocked itself out to get the job done.
It helps that many of the dishes are knockouts. The egg rolls were a close-to-perfect Vietnamese version, fried crispy and served with the typical accompaniments of fresh lettuce, cucumber slices, sprouts and mint, with a sweet and spicy nuoc cham. The calamari had been breaded with a light touch, its accompanying cocktail sauce sparked with chile powder. In keeping with the yin/yang duality of the menu, Tom makes a mussel appetizer to match each cuisine: The steamed version had the taste of the Mediterranean, with garlic and chopped tomatoes putting the punch in a thin broth of olive oil and white wine, while the Vietnamese mussels were all Asian, with lemongrass and chiles the main flavors in a broth made from sesame oil and fish sauce.
The Italian standbys were the least interesting dishes at the old Rose's, and they're the least interesting at the new -- there's nothing novel about their preparation. But then, that's one of the reasons Rose's has such loyal fans. They know that when you order chicken almondine, you're going to get chicken breasts thickly coated with sugary almonds that have been glazed with butter and orange marmalade, with a side of mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. And when you order seafood linguini, it's seafood linguini you will get, with a hefty helping of noodles and the usual sea-faring suspects slicked by a thin, oily marinara.
Rose's really shone, though, on the fish dishes that other Vietnamese spots can't seem to master. Our Vietnamese catfish, deboned and soaked with lemongrass-tart sesame oil, had been pelted with chile peppers and just-cooked onions; the seafood curry relied on a deeply layered curry powder -- heavy on cumin, heavy on coriander -- to enliven a coconut-rich sauce that boasted the flavors of the sea. But Rose's noodle bowls -- another Vietnamese specialty -- were a big disappointment. Way overpriced ($10 at lunch, $12 at dinner), they were no better than the enormous bowls that you can find at numerous places along Federal Boulevard, sometimes for just half the cost. Although the components were fine, fresh and moistened by a well-constructed liquid with the intensity of a slow-simmered, multilayered concoction, with undercurrents of anise and a gentle touch of lemongrass, that didn't disguise the fact that you were paying a lot for what was basically a big bowl of noodles.
As though Rose's unusual Vietnamese-Italian pairing weren't enough, in a nod to the Normandy, it now offers a trio of filet medallions sautéed with shallots and button mushrooms (it would help if the mushrooms were wild instead, because that would add more depth to the dish) in a cognac-sweetened, Dijon-sharpened cream sauce. While this dish doesn't come close to approximating any of the rich fare the Normandy served in its heyday, it may appease some of that restaurant's fans. "We've kept an amazing number of our regulars from the old location," Rose says. "And I've been amazed that we seem to be seeing some Normandy customers, too." Indeed, lunching ladies who never would have ventured into the old Rose's are now spending time in the new one, looking confused but hopeful.
As we were after a few meals at Rose's Cafe: There's just something incongruous about eating $12 noodle bowls in a stiffly formal setting. Rose's doesn't need to give up the ghost of its predecessor, but it'll have a better chance of survival if it can make some kind of peace with its past.
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