Foodography: Cafébar opens in Washington Park

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"It was just time for a change," insists Eric Rivera, the executive chef of Cafébar, a new modern American restaurant, owned by Dane Huguley, that unlocked its doors last week in Washington Park at 295 South Pennsylvania Street. Rivera, who was the opening chef of Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria, an Italian restaurant that opened in 2008, says that the opportunity to extend his reach above and beyond pizza and pastas was too good to pass up.

"I'd been at Lala's for a long time, and I wanted to branch out and utilize more than just my knowledge of Italian and Mediterranean food, and this was a restaurant where I could do that," plus, he says, "there's nothing else like this -- a casual neighborhood spot with seasonal American food -- in the area."

Rivera acknowledges that Bittersweet, Olav Peterson's excellent farm-to-table restaurant, which happens to reside across the street from Cafébar, is similarly entrenched in locality -- Peterson even grows his own urban garden on the premises -- but, contends Rivera, "Bittersweet is a fine-dining restaurant that's much more high-end than we are. It's definitely upscale, and we're definitely casual with accessible pricing for just about everyone."

Nothing on the lunch, dinner, or brunch menus, he points out, is more than $18 (and most dishes are far less). "Our goal is to be that neighborhood restaurant where the staff remembers everyone's name," he adds, noting, too, that the kitchen will stay open until at least 11 p.m. every night. "This is a restaurant where you can grab a bite to eat and glass of wine late-night, and feel like there's a real sense of community."

And speaking of community, there's a twelve-seat community table, constructed from reclaimed beetle kill pine, that fronts the exhibition kitchen, along with a conversation piece bar tricked-out with steel wine and liquor racks, all designed by a local artist, and horse head purse hangers. And next spring, the patio, which has the potential to become one of the best in the neighborhood, will lay claim to its own bar behind a set of Dutch barn doors.

In the meantime, the patio, which has plenty of seating and early fall foliage, made for a lovely respite for lunch last week, where we ate ourselves silly -- and brought back the photos to prove it.

Braised Brussels sprouts salad with bibb lettuce, sweet potatoes, pecans and cornbread croutons dressed with an apricot-bacon vinaigrette. Char-grilled bison burger, served on brioche, and topped with Barely Buzzed cheese, rubbed with lavender and coffee grounds, grilled onion leaves, molasses-glazed bacon and piquillo peppers. Cafébar's community table, which sits directly in front of the open kitchen. Club sandwich with shaved Black Forest ham, sprouts, piccalilli relish and Marieke gouda on rosemary bread. Braised Hazeldell mushrooms and sauteed leeks on rustic toast points topped with quail eggs. The exhibition kitchen at Cafébar, overseen by exec chef Eric Rivera, formerly of LaLa's. Seafood, barley cherry tomato stew, scented with cardamom, and bobbing with rock shrimp, calamari and mussels. Roasted pumpkin salad, dressed with a tarragon vinaigrette, and mixed with baby greens, dried Colorado Bing cherries, watercress, almonds and arugula. Orecchiette pasta swathed in a pumpkin and Brie cheese sauce with Buena Vista goat chevre and herbed bread crumbs. Cafébar gives diners a rundown of its locally sourced products on a chalkboard that hangs above the kitchen. Cafébar's patio is shaping up to be one of the best outdoor sanctuaries in the city -- and next year, it'll have its own bar.

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