Thursday, November 15, 2012

Colossal Café

My relationship to restaurants in general has been evolving for years. I suppose this is because I'm more of a grownup than I used to be. Mostly, though, I attribute the change to my devotion to bettering my own cooking. Certainly this is understandable. Your reaction to, say, a creme brulee, when you don't know how on earth it's done, is something akin to religious revelation. When you know exactly how it's done, and maybe do it just as well yourself, it's still delicious of course, but your descriptive adjectives are probably going to start shedding syllables.

Miss J and I spent last night with the crew at The Colossal Cafe in Saint Anthony Park. I have been traveling most of the last month, and a quiet night with my honey was the best late birthday present (for both of us) I could have asked for. J had been to Colossal for breakfast. It was brand new for me. And to be fair, dinner is fairly new for them. There are already plenty of reasons to love this neighborhood, and the chance to combine a trip to the Bibelot with a nice casual dinner proved an irresistible draw.

The new Colossal is a smallish, cozy space. It reminds me a lot of the old Blackbird. Lighting is dim but workable, tables might be a little close together, but not annoyingly so. The best spot in the house is the bar, which is wide and uncluttered and gives you a nice chance to chat with the staff. This is a good idea, since everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming. I have nothing but praise for a restaurant that understands the importance of just being nice to people.

Being on the road with a bunch of musicians involves a lot of food in, um, well, let's just say the Golden Brown family. When dinner after the show means something between 9:30 and 10:00, you're almost certain to end up at the bar, eating whatever deadly appetizers are available. So I, even I, ordered a salad. Gem lettuce, pecans, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and blue cheese vinaigrette. The red onion in the vinaigrette was a little heavy-handed, but admittedly I hate hate hate onions in this context, so that could just be me. The whole would have benefited from being a warm dish, but it was still quite good, and I ate all but the stumps of the lettuce. Here's what it looked like.

Next up was a trio of seared sea scallops from the small plate menu. These were smallish, but beautifully done. The presentation was surprisingly busy. Cauliflower puree, chopped almond, citrus vinaigrette, crispy pancetta, and a small side of roasted oyster mushrooms were all jockeying for space on what was indeed a small plate. The results were hit-and-miss, which ironically was a fair metaphor for the rest of the evening. The mushrooms were perfect, the vinaigrette very good, and almonds are always welcome. But the pancetta was on the tasteless side, and the cauliflower puree was really just pureed cauliflower. I'm not sure why you would go to the trouble of pureeing it if you weren't planning on adding any other flavor. I suppose the fresh stuff would be harder to balance a scallop on.

Miss J surprised me and ordered the ribs for dinner. These were served up with collard greens and maple roasted diced yams. I went for the gnocchi, in a basic tomato basil sauce with shaved parmigiano. I skipped the option for house-made Italian sausage, since I had been overloaded with meat during most of those aforementioned bar visits.

A couple of years ago I bought a charcoal smoker, and since then I have formed several rather strong opinions about ribs. As a cut of meat, ribs just aren't worth much unless they're prepared properly, at which point they become intoxicatingly good. This involves relatively low temperatures for a long time.  The ribs at Colossal had a too-strong smoke flavor, but didn't fall apart the way they should have, and dried out fairly quickly after their arrival. I suspect they were rushed, and probably at too high a temperature. The meat wasn't bad. Once everything was sorted out, the good bits, though over-smoked, were still delicious. But ribs you have to work at are problematic right out of the gate. On the bright side, both accompaniments were excellent. More dishes should include yams.

Gnocchi I generally order because I'm a glutton for punishment. To be frank, they are almost never done well. There are lots of wonderful preparations out there. The trouble is, they are rarely paired with gnocchi that are worth the trouble. What you should get are flavorful, light, fluffy dumplings. What you normally do get are chewy, heavy, over-floured, tasteless lumps of congealed disappointment. But they are so darned good when they are right that I keep trying, in the hope that one day I will have the experience I'm having in my head.

All that said, Colossal nailed the gnocchi. Seriously. They were perfect. What surprised me was the sauce. There just isn't anything tricky about a tomato basil sauce. And parmigiano? Always the right call. The sauce here was okay, and could have been great, but the whole dish was so over-salted that most of the other flavors got their savory little butts kicked.

J had a little bubbly up front and a beer with dinner. I stuck to root beer (another result of the post-tour hangover). The tap list is small but interesting, and combined with a reasonable and thoughtful wine list, should meet your needs quite well.

For dessert, I picked the Tres Leches cake. This was good, but not exceptional. The cream inside was flavored with raspberry, but so subtly that you might have missed it. The cake struck me as a little dense, but I certainly didn't have any trouble eating it.

The value at Colossal is decent. Not cheap, but good for the neighborhood. We had three drinks, one salad, one small plate, two entrées and dessert, and with tip we were out for under $100, with enough left over to put gas in the car. Service was excellent. Nice folks here. And the food that was good was extremely good. The unevenness was puzzling, and I wonder how much of this has to do with getting the hang of dinner service, but they've been at this for three months now. Sooner or later you just have to get it all right at the same time.

It's nice to have a new neighbor like the Colossal Cafe. I'm thinking they'll only get better, and they're getting a lot right now. But with Muffuletta right up the street, the consistency will need to improve, and quickly. Give them a try. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Café 128

Next time you feel like a nice meal on the town, I will forgive you in advance for not thinking immediately of Merriam Park. It's okay, I get it. But there's a lot of good food in this neighborhood if you're willing to explore a little. It is a college town, after all. Trotters is a great little café. Izzy's makes some of the best ice cream in the known world. If you park anywhere near Saint Thomas, you're walking distance to Snuffy's, Davanni's, Scusi, Coffee Bené, Luci, and The Groveland Tap (quick sigh for the fries that used to be good). And if you're not hungry, you can spend the day at The Wine Thief and The Ale Jail. You could pick a lot of other neighborhoods and not find as much to do. Certainly not as much to eat.

Another local surprise, just across Cleveland Ave. from Saint Thomas, is Café 128. The sign is smallish, the building residential, and if you're not paying attention, you'll drive right by. This is the first peculiar thing about 128. From the outside, it looks very much like the basement of an apartment building. Once you get inside, you quickly realize that this is because you're in the basement of an apartment building. How a restaurant ended up down there is truly a head-scratcher. But there it sits, and it's really very cozy on the inside. My favorite feature might be the miniature, four-stool, candle-lit bar. The dining area consists of two small rooms, a tiny one in the front and a more regular rectangle in the back. Lighting is dim, but reasonable. And it's blessedly quiet. Even when things are hopping, you can have a conversation here. That seems to be an underrated feature these days, and I wish that weren't the case.

The menu is small, but nicely varied. There is a thoughtful selection of starters and salads, and another interesting group (seven, on our visit) of entrées. You never have to turn a page, but these offerings cover some ground. I don't know what your dating life might be like, but having baby back ribs and grilled vegetables with saffron couscous on the same menu strikes me as a brilliant idea. I could happily invite anyone I know to eat here.

Our evening started with a beautiful dry rosé. This is the perfect answer to a hot day. For starters, we opted to share the grilled tiger shrimp with sautéed corn and harissa. Miss J went for the pork tenderloin & grilled peaches, and I ordered the beef tenderloin, because if there is beef tenderloin on the menu, I will almost always order it. I mean, come on.

The first surprise was delivered with our appetizer. I had read an earlier review of 128 that praised the selection of "generously portioned appetizers." Apparently they have gotten over this. On a colorful bed of corn and harissa, we encountered two, count 'em, two tiger shrimp. Now I don't mind if my $7 appetizer comes with two shrimp, but those two shrimp had better be roughly the size of the back of my hand. These little guys were, well, little. Like slightly larger than half dollars. Silver dollar-sized would probably be a stretch. And they were plain. Utterly plain. Cooked and all, but that's it. There was nothing done to them that couldn't just as quickly and easily have been done to a couple more. The corn and harissa was marvelous, for the record, but it's a good thing, because we needed the food. To add insult to injury, there is a dollar split charge for the appetizers. That, I think, is just plain unreasonable.

The entrées were both done very well. The pork wasn't overcooked, the peaches were a fine idea, and the other accompaniments were flavorful and interesting. The beef was less successful for a couple of reasons, but still perfectly enjoyable. The sides (roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus) were basic, but good, and the garlic herb butter was a nice touch. Here again, though, the Value Beast reared its head. This was a $30 entrée, which is not, based on steakhouse prices, all that unusual. But in that steakhouse, once you had been talked into ordering medium-rare, you would receive a medium-rare steak. Mine was medium. Tasty, but medium. And maybe six ounces, if you weren't paying very careful attention and left a bunch of extra butter on top. So yes, it was a good steak. But if I had another $30 dollars, and you sent me out to get a steak somewhere, would I go here to do it? Nope.

I'm more than a little conflicted here, because Café 128 is exactly the sort of place I love. It's small, it's neighborhood, it's friendly, and they can certainly cook. But the thing about me, and, I expect, most of the people who might value my opinion, is that we're pretty normal folks, with pretty normal jobs. And if we're going to drop a bunch of money on dinner, we want to leave a joint knowing that we got every penny out of our meal. We had a great date, because I was out for the evening with my beloved. We enjoyed some great wine and good food in a quirky and inviting setting. We even got to meet (and discuss shoes) with some very nice people. But in my mind, an evening that's going to cost you over a hundred bucks is a contract. That restaurant is saying to you, "Hey, look. We know it's steep. But just wait. You're going to love it." We were even predisposed to love it. But in the end we were a little puzzled, that's all. And someone owes me a couple of shrimps.