Cafe Society

Have a Nice Trip

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We encountered the wasabe cream sauce again later, on the spice-rubbed grilled tuna entree ($16), and while we still weren't crazy about the flavor--and if it was wasabe, why was it white instead of green?--at least this time the sauce didn't overpower the fish. The slightly spicy tuna had been well-grilled to our specification of rare; it arrived on top of a pile of Creole rice that was so dry, it was crunchy. A zesty tropical salsa rode sidesaddle, but since it, too, was thick and gooey, it didn't help the rice at all.

Even so, the salsas and chutneys were my favorites among the "dipping sauces" available for the skewer portion of the menu. Here's how it works: You pick a skewer entree, then pick three sauces from a possible thirty. Although the menu offers suggestions for each entree, we ignored them in favor of cooler-sounding mixes. For example, we accessorized the Jamaican ($13) with the hoisin sauce, the red-pepper Rica rouille and the rasta tri-pepper chutney. All three went well with the items threaded on the two skewers--chicken, bananas, papayas, onions, cherry tomatoes and tri-color peppers--but the amount of meat was disappointing (I got only four chunks, about a breast's worth), and the fruit was also skimpy, with only two one-inch pieces of banana and two slim slices of papaya. And what was supposed to be a "rainbow of peppers" turned out to be two shards of yellow and one each of green and red. Wolkon says they're dropping the peppers because no one eats them--probably because they're hard and crunchy, just barely grilled.

Our Sea skewer ($17) brought a more satisfying portion, with hunks of salmon, swordfish and shrimp (and even though it wasn't listed on the menu, I swear I remember a scallop in there). This time, though, our sauce picks weren't as successful. The Vidalia onion relish and the mango Mya salsa, which both leaned on the sweet side, were tasty but didn't mix with the seafood; the orange blossom ginger soy was nothing but soy. And the sides for the skewers were lame; both the spiced potatoes and the orzo tasted as though they'd been cooked the day before and left to sit in a barely warm steam table.

But at least they were cooked. Since every entree is grilled, Vesta's grill gets quite a workout--and on weekends, Wolkon says, it actually fills up. That might explain why the fruit on our "grilled" desserts seemed merely heated. The fruit in the grill sampler ($5)--carambola, strawberries, bananas and pineapple--was barely cooked. And there were no grill marks on the banana that topped the split ($5); the fruit was only a tad softer than it would have been raw. But the ice cream beneath the banana was wonderful, the two huge scoops strongly flavored with cinnamon. And there was nothing wrong with the chocolate toffee cake ($5), which emphasized toffee and a decadent caramel topping.

On our second visit, we skipped dessert altogether--this time we waited 45 minutes for a table, and even without a final course, we were among the last to leave that night. But at least our dinner got off to an excellent start with the grilled sesame shrimp satay ($7), which featured plenty of sesame seeds on nicely grilled shrimp, as well as a Southwestern pineapple salsa that was sweet-and-spicy heaven (although the orange blossom ginger soy was still all soy). We'd also ordered a Caesar ($6), which featured fresh romaine generously sprinkled with fresh-grated parmesan, as well as a traditional dressing that was a perfect melding of ingredients.

The same could not be said for the sauces we chose for the Southwestern skewer ($14) of expertly grilled tenderloin (even if there wasn't nearly enough of it). The roasted garlic vinaigrette carried the bite of garlic that hadn't been fully roasted, and the sunset hot sauce was all bite, with no undercurrent of other flavors. But the intense peach chutney was wonderful; Wolkon says he's going to bottle some of his concoctions, and this should be the first.

We did better by the cilantro-lime grilled rib-eye ($17)--which Wolkon says will soon change to filet--that went well with the spicy kung pao sauce and even spicier garlic aioli. And we had another hit with the grilled shrimp linguine ($15), which was supplemented with artichoke hearts and kalamatas and coated with sun-dried tomato pesto.

But our favorite was the Mediterranean skewer with lamb ($17), which, sadly, Wolkon says Vesta is dumping. "People here just don't get lamb," he explains. "They don't understand the texture and the flavor." We not only understood it, we loved it--especially when we dipped the succulent pieces of meat into cucumber yogurt and more of that tangy tomato pesto.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner