Cafe Society

A Rocky Romance

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Because of the restaurant's layout -- filling, as it does, one fairly sizable early-1900s bungalow and the duplex next door that was absorbed at a later date -- the space is broken up into several cozy rooms with tables tucked away in corners or along the walls. Most of the rooms have fireplaces and are decorated in French-manor-farm style, with dark wood accents, shelved antiques, muted pastel wallpaper in floral prints and candy stripes, and oversized wine bottles stacked everywhere like the aftermath of a classy party at the home of a very rich alcoholic. All of the tables have candles, flowers and stiff, white tablecloths set with vintage Syracuse china and all the appropriate stemware -- from toasting glasses to brandy snifters, according to necessity.

I understand the backstage mechanics of setting a mood; I know the emotional hocus-pocus that can be worked with peach-tinted recessed lighting, the flickering of a good fire and the rattail snap of a server sharply shaking out a linen napkin before laying it gently across a lady's lap. And I could easily see how, had we been the focus of all this enchanting legerdemain on our first visit, we, too, might've been charmed by Tante Louise's legendary spell -- only we weren't seated off in some cozy corner. We weren't surrounded by antique knickknacks and oversized wine bottles, and we weren't treated to the gentle, unobtrusive care of a skilled waiter in soft shoes. No, we got stuck in a hallway, at a table jammed between a fireplace and a broom closet with big chunks of paint nicked off its frame from thirty years of chair backs being banged into it. We had a wonderful view of a staircase, a bus sink and the backs of the heads of people who seemed to be having a whole lot better time than we were; a mumbling, glassy-eyed server may have been just fine on the night shift at Denny's, but he didn't quite have the chops for fine-dining service.

Laura, playing dumb, quizzed our server about the tatsoi salad: "Tat sooey, am I pronouncing that right? Could you tell me what that is?" She elicited this bored reply: "Yes... ta-soy is a buttery green, rather like a spinach, which the kitchen prepares with crispy pancetta and a citrus vinaigrette."

In fact, the salad (officially pronounced ta-tsai) was pretty good, touched lightly with an orange-cranberry dressing that accented the soft greens without being overpowering, and tossed with garlic-toasted pepitas (fancy talk for hulled Mexican pumpkin seeds). Unfortunately, the "crispy pancetta" wasn't, and it had been so heavily crusted with pepper that it resembled chewy, peppered pork jerky. Along with the salad, we enjoyed an appetizer plate of half a baby Maine lobster, removed from the shell, curled as if napping on a bed of creamy, delicate sunchoke purée inside a ring of what that menu called a mâche and tomato confit vinaigrette, but tasted more like a smooth cloud of tomato-infused crème fraîche.

Had the circumstances been different -- had we been at a nice table in a nice room with a server who showed even the least bit of concern for how our meal was progressing -- a lengthy stretch between courses might've been, well, nice. The wife and I could've held hands and whispered sweet nothings to each other. But as it was, we occupied ourselves by rolling our eyes at the guy at the next table who had to burp loudly after every course, and taking bets on how long it would be before Lurch the Waiter stumbled back up the stairs and realized we were still around.

The Colorado rack of lamb was done perfectly, medium rare as ordered, with four little lollipop-cut bone-in chops set against a mound of soft goat cheese spaezle that didn't taste at all of goat cheese, but was kicked up with generous portions of yellowfoot chanterelle and soft, musky black trumpet mushrooms. The whole thing swam in a black-truffle jus -- a mild glace of meat stock and shreds of something black that definitely were truffles, but a cheap variety, salvaged from the processing of truffle oil. Had they been the good stuff -- the real articles shaved off a fist-sized fungus -- this plate would've cost fifty bucks, easy.

Much less successful was the degustation des legumes (more fancy talk, for a vegetarian plate). An excellent chive beurre blanc -- handled skillfully, simply and with great care -- coated a haphazard mix of sautéed veggies (entirely different veggies from what our server claimed were being prepared that night) done in varying degrees of awful. Limp fennel root had been cooked until all of its delicate flavor was leeched out. The quartered baby red potatoes were raw and inedible. Kohlrabi and tiny cubes of black radish were simply there -- going nowhere, doing nothing -- and although these would have made a fine base for mounting flavors had those other flavors been coddled and protected during cooking, they weren't. They were murdered. The wild rice at the center of the plate was just fine, though, soft and fluffy and saturated with that good beurre blanc.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan