I don't care what Café Europa calls itself — it may be the most American restaurant in midtown. And I'm not just talking about the family-style suppers on Sunday night, a buttermilk-marinated fried-chicken deal (or one of two other entrées offered) that includes salad, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with bacon and onion, biscuits and dessert.
If the place weren't called Café Europa — so dubbed by its previous tenants — the current owners, Andy Atterbury and Gwyn Prentice, could have put a different spin on the location by giving it a less hoity-toity name. It still looks like a charming continental bistro, but chef Nathan Feldmiller has created a menu that mixes up bistro fare — such as pommes frites, escargot and salad niçoise — with wood-fired pizza, Amish chicken ... and a hamburger. But this sunny storefront space in the Crestwood shops has gone through so many physical evolutions, it would make sense that there also would be some intriguing culinary ones along the way.
Long before Atterbury and Prentice got their hands on the venue, this bakery-bar-restaurant burst to life as an ersatz coffeehouse and gift emporium called the Decadenza Café, dreamed up by hairstylist Dennis Howell. That little place was beautifully decorated but didn't even have a kitchen: The food was brought in, already prepared, by society caterer Lon Lane.
When Scott and Gigi Cowell took over the lease in 2001, out went a lot (but unfortunately not all) of the decorative odds and ends — it looked like a satellite of Pryde's Old Westport — and in went a tiny kitchen, an afterthought, really. Still, it was large enough for Scott Cowell to create sandwiches and modest lunch dishes. The selling point, which made the Cowells' version of Café Europa an instant success among the well-coifed ladies-who-lunch set, was the signature dishes: an excellent chicken salad prepared with walnuts, golden raisins, fresh dill and a hint of Dijon; a tasty tomato basil soup; and Gigi Cowell's tart-lemon layer cake, made from her grandmother Mary's recipe.
Those recipes were an important part of the deal when Atterbury and Prentice bought Café Europa from the Cowells two years ago. Feldmiller had recently closed Circe, his stylish and upscale 39th Street restaurant, and he knew well enough to feature Europa's signature dishes on the current lunch and dinner menus.
The chicken salad and the lemon cake are still terrific, but I have mixed feelings about the tomato basil soup, which I recently tasted again while lunching on a Friday afternoon with Owen and Jonathan. It was a beautiful, fresh-tasting soup, we agreed, but the dominant flavor — on that afternoon, anyway — was onion, not basil. "It needs more fresh basil," whispered Owen, who also noted that our party of three males stood out among the predominantly female clientele.
"They've taken out most of the cutesy stuff, but it's still a girly-ish place," my friend Linda told me a few nights later, when I returned for dinner with her and her husband, Richard. I disagreed with her. Compared with its more flamboyant Decadenza days, the joint looks practically butch, with a décor that's almost spartan: clean hardwood floors, simple artwork, no frills or flounces.
Linda clucked her tongue. "Look at the faux-painted walls and the big chandelier. At lunch, it's still a clubhouse for girls."
That evening, though, more gender equity was on display: It was all couples, either dining alone or in groups. Naturally, I was the odd man out but maybe not as odd as the younger man a few tables over, having dinner with a woman I'm assuming was his mother. If he wasn't chatting into his cell phone, he was gulping down wine with abandon. The woman rarely looked up from her plate but seemed to be enjoying herself.
The restaurant serves some hearty, manly dishes such as a juicy Kobe steak and a thick pork chop, along with daintier, entrée-sized salads, which Linda was relieved to see. "It's too hot outside to eat anything really heavy," she said as she immediately ordered the smoked salmon dip for us to share. "It's baked in the wood-burning oven," she read from the menu, "until it's molten."
I rolled my eyes. It sounded pretty rich and heavy to me, but I wasn't in the mood for escargot or calamari — it was definitely too hot for either of those. Suddenly the pretty waitress arrived with a red-metal pot filled with a bubbling concoction that was almost as light as a soufflé. Cream cheese whipped together with garlic, lemon and bits of smoked salmon that practically floated, cloudlike, on bits of crispy, house-made sesame lavosh crackers.
"Heavenly, isn't it," Linda said.
Yes, as was the potage du jour that Richard ordered — a Southern-style steak-and-hominy brew with big hunks of smoky-flavored wood-grilled beef. It was a brawny beginning to a more genteel dinner. Richard ordered the Amish chicken, which I had tasted on a Sunday night in a much less creative arrangement. Richard's juicy, roasted bird was heaped with a mound of extraordinary tart apple-and-onion slaw and sided with cauliflower that had been sautéed and then slightly roasted in the wood-fired oven.
Linda opted for chicken, too — in this case, a salad of mixed greens, Asian noodles and crunchy cabbage topped with pieces of savory (not sweet, despite the teriyaki glaze) roasted bird and a generous handful of peanuts. It was light but satisfying.
I don't know what possessed me to order the Berkshire pork schnitzel on a sultry summer night. It's not a modest meal, and I haven't had a decent schnitzel in this town for years. But Feldmiller's luscious pork loin was juicy under a delicately crisp crust and sided with a wonderful, chive-speckled fingerling-potato salad. It was a hell of a big schnitzel, so I took most of it home so I could sample a couple of desserts.
Linda insisted on the lemon cake: "It's the most famous dessert on the menu."
Gigi Cowell's recipe is still worthy of its fame, and it tasted just as marvelous as when she used to bake it: sumptuously airy lemon layers held together with a silky cream-cheese filling, covered with a deftly tart glaze.
The surprise of the night was the fried huckleberry pie, which was actually a combination of an old-fashioned country-fried pie and a Mexican empañada: a half-moon of flaky pastry wrapped around sweet huckleberries, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a fat scoop of dense, rich, slightly nutty and chewy homemade oatmeal ice cream.
"These pies would be great for breakfast," Linda said, greedily cutting herself another piece from the two that we shared.
And in another era, some prairie wife probably did start her morning by frying up a batch of fruit pies for her brood before they went off to work in the fields. That's just another reason that Café Europa is an unlikely name for a restaurant that's as American as huckleberry pie.
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