Not every restaurant in our local universe has to be cutting-edge to satisfy. Consider The Cafe, previously known as Pat’s Meat Market Cafe, where you won’t find a menu of precious farm-to-table dishes because it’s definitely a place for simpler fare.
What’s more, it is fiercely loyal; mostly local patrons go there for the hearty, vaguely Mediterranean (and some Asian) fare served in a cozily woody room on the second floor above the venerable Pat’s Meat Market and Grocery on Steven’s Avenue in Deering Center.
The restaurant and butcher shop are aligned under the aegis of Jaime Vacchiano, the admired Pat’s Meat Market butcher-proprietor. He was responsible for creating the café upstairs in 1995 and for bringing back its original chef, Greg Gilman, after a two-year hiatus when the restaurant was closed from 2009 to 2011.
The quality of the meats and poultry served at the restaurant are first-rate since they come from the butcher shop; the produce is also very fresh, though the menu doesn’t indicate if it’s locally sourced.
But the buck stops there. Ultimately we found on our first visit that the cooking was uninspired, caught in a culinary time warp. So many dishes rely on a mix of ingredients that were considered hackneyed even 30 years ago. Sun-dried tomatoes, red grapes, vinaigrettes, nuts and fruits dominate the plates, often unnecessarily, on the various meats, fish and poultry that they’re meant to enhance.
Three of us arrived on a busy night. With a reservation in hand we were immediately seated at a comfortable table. It dawned on me, however, that since my two guest-tasters were serious foodies, a down-home place like Pat’s might be challenging for them.
Our waitress was extremely friendly, but her inexperience was disconcerting. When, for example, we asked for some clarification on various dishes she couldn’t tell us much without going back to the kitchen for the answers.
Nonetheless we decided – on our own – to start off with an order of the kitchen’s signature dish, ravioli crisps ($8). These were in fact very good, filled with pumpkin puree and sautéed until crisp with shallots, garlic, walnuts, lemon and cream. At one time this was considered an enlightened dish on Italian restaurant menus. Now it’s just comfortable.
We then zeroed in on several salads to share: an arugula ($9) and an Aegean marinated chicken ($14). The arugula salad was mostly spinach and greens heavily garnished with the ubiquitous red grapes and blue cheese, walnuts and lemon vinaigrette.
The first problem was the greens held traces of sand, a sure sign of a careless kitchen. Those “seedless” red grapes loomed as garnish and were best pushed aside because they were not, as advertised, seedless.
The Aegean chicken was a messy plate with an overkill of sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and balsamic vinegar tossed with more of those sandy greens.
Our main courses could have been dead-ringers from a cafeteria buffet. One of my guests ordered the Thai lobster sauté ($25). If a restaurant is aiming to be simple and local, why resort to a facsimile of Thai cooking when Portland is awash with very good native Thai chefs?
A plate holding a thimble of lobster knuckle was surrounded by clams, mussels and calamari sautéed with sweet red pepper, Thai chili, curry, basil, coconut milk, garlic and lime.
From there the rest of the meal spiraled to middle-of-the-road blandness. Two of us considered entrees on the menu that included a wild mushroom sauté ($16), north Atlantic sea scallop ($25) and an Atlantic haddock filet in a phyllo crust ($25) among some of the other choices.
But the most appealing were two chicken dishes (both $19) – one on the menu and the other a special for the evening. The first held a salty-sweet panoply of prosciutto, fresh pear and a dry cherries and onion pan sauce. The dish wasn’t unpleasant but rather mixed its culinary metaphors between Italian cookery and California cuisine.
The other was baked chicken breast served with a puree of butternut squash alongside mashed potatoes. This too was a pleasant dish, but that unnecessary garnish of red grapes lurked once again.
The quality of the chicken breasts in both dishes was excellent. The chickens hail from the Allen Farm in Pennsylvania, which produces the quality, naturally raised chicken carried by Pat’s market.
Dishes cleared and done, we inquired about dessert and our waitress recommended the sticky toffee pudding.
“Did we want it with the works?” she asked. We sure did. Out came a tiny sweet bundle on a plate with a small dollop of whipped cream. The three of us devoured it, “works” and all. It was very good.
I returned the following week to have dinner at the bar solo – a test I follow when I have qualms about a restaurant. Since the four-seat bar was full, a small table in the adjoining lounge sufficed. Entrees similar to those on my previous visit were being offered, including blackened grilled salmon ($19) and braised pork loin chop ($22).
Instead, a dish called Greek island chicken ($19) seemed interesting. The chicken breast was adorned with wild mushrooms, spinach, basil and goat cheese. The quality of the chicken was excellent, and the dish might have been one prepared by a home cook trying out a magazine recipe. It wasn’t extraordinary by any means, just tasty and simple. And perhaps that’s what The Cafe is all about, serving satisfactorily prepared food without fuss or flourishes in a relaxed neighborhood setting.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: