Best to leave your bulky bag and heavy coat behind when you head for this bistro/cafe on the cusp of Pike-Pine and Capitol Hill. A Starbucks drive-through has more square footage...
Best to leave your bulky bag and heavy coat behind when you head for this bistro/cafe on the cusp of Pike-Pine and Capitol Hill. A Starbucks drive-through has more square footage than Crave, even including the closet-sized kitchen, so completely open to public view that you can inventory their pantry while you eat.
Crave could feel claustrophobic but for picture windows that frame a steady stream of edgy urbanites with Technicolor hair, punctured flesh, T-shirts that don’t mince words and outfits that in other parts of town would be reserved for Halloween. The neighborhood’s diversity is underscored by the all-inclusive restrooms labeled “Men & Trans” and “Women & Trans” in the lobby of the Capitol Hill Arts Building, where Crave makes its home.
At peak times, the staff encourages customers to make use of the coat tree by the door because even a jacket slung over the back of a chair can create a bottleneck. Alert servers manage somehow, through a series of pirouettes and sideways sashays, to transport food across a crowded room with considerable aplomb.
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Whether that food will in turn transport diners depends on what they order.
The eclectic menu, understandably brief given the kitchen’s compactness, sticks close to homey comfort food. Some dishes are heavenly, others more down to earth.
The scrumptious seasonal omelet ($8) is worth a wake-up call. Soft, buttery eggs hug thinly sliced apple, blue cheese and bacon, a soft-centered, golden-edged potato pancake at its side.
Eggs rancheros ($7) is a more ho-hum assemblage with two poached eggs, mapley sweet but tepid baked beans and mango salsa that could use more spunk. Too bad the kitchen was out of the formidable-looking cheddar cornbread, the usual accompaniment to this dish. And no decaf coffee either that day, though sipping the real thing — a smooth, spicy, faintly chocolaty blend from Caffé Umbria — was worth the jitters.
At breakfast or lunch, you can — and should — make the acquaintance of Madame Crave. That’s not the owner but a fried egg sandwich ($6.50) stacked with warm prosciutto and melted Gruyère cheese on toasted brioche smeared with sassy mustard.
Madame is one memorable mouthful and the “Must-Have Reuben” ($7.50) is her ideal consort. The layers of shaved and griddled pastrami, Jarlsberg and sauerkraut on excellent grilled rye prove less sloppy than most; the Russian dressing strikes a pleasantly piquant note.
Both sandwiches come with Tim’s Cascade chips and crunchy house-made pickled vegetables (fennel, onion, carrot).
A pomegranate mimosa seemed just the right festive note for a pre-holiday lunch with friends, but the sparkle had long since left the wine.
Crumb-crusted, shiitake-studded macaroni and cheese ($8) and butternut squash and apple soup ($4/$6) also fell flat, with not nearly enough cheese sauce in the former and little beyond apple and cream registering in the latter.
But salads ($5-$6), offered at lunch and dinner, never failed to excite. Each one so fresh and lovely to look at, their textures and flavors in such total harmony, that it’s hard to pick a favorite: arugula with golden beets, smoked onion and velvety goat cheese in sherry vinaigrette; citrus-dressed watercress with oranges, manchego and spiced almonds; or spinach, pear, pickled onion and cabrales blue cheese in tart bacon vinaigrette.
An interesting, affordable wine list complements the bistro-style fare at night. The dinner menu includes steak ($21), a pork chop ($16) and a fish of the day (market price), as well as duck confit ($15), goat-cheese gnocchi ($14) and curried lamb shank ($15).
The duck, though dry, was pillowed on savory bread pudding with garlicky braised escarole on the side and “drunken fig” compote so potent with spices it tasted like a mouthful of Christmas potpourri ($15/dinner). The golden-brown gnocchi, firm but yielding, almost float in a rich brown sauce, a blend of butter and sage with bits of prosciutto and slivers of crisp sugar snap peas.
The hefty lamb shank could have used longer braising, allowing the meat more time to absorb the aromatic flavors of curry subtly perfumed with coconut. Sautéed escarole dresses up this dish, but purple potatoes buried in a brown sauce just look weird.
Dinner might begin with rosemary flatbread ($8) or crab and artichoke gratin ($9). The pizza-like flatbread loads prosciutto, sliced pear and toasted pine nuts onto a cracker-thin rosemary crust spread with blue cheese. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar ties the components neatly together. The gratin, served with crostini, is much lighter — and crabbier — than is often the case, studded with bits of artichoke heart and tangy with capers and lemon.
For a kitchen this small to make all its pastries and desserts in-house is commendable. The selection constantly varies. Tempting though they look displayed near the entrance, their execution also varies. Cakes and scones seemed a little underbaked, but a giant chocolate-chip cookie was just right: crisp but flexible and laced with good chocolate. Chocolate amaretto pot de crème tasted emphatically of both and slipped across the tongue like satin.
Owner/chef Robin Leventhal earns credit for assembling a capable staff that works in smooth concert even in her absence. As Crave celebrates its first anniversary this month, it deserves many happy returns.
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