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.

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