Cal's Classic American in Kent will appeal to families, large parties, business lunches, or drinks and dinner with the gang. Look for a sibling restaurant — maybe with a different name and a menu created for the neighborhood — in the South Lake Union area later this year.
My lunch date at Cal’s Classic American was a single suburban working mom with two kids. Bagged salads, frozen chicken tenders and tater tots are staples in her world.
Eyeing her deconstructed steak salad, in which the meat, roasted peppers and garbanzo beans played lively second fiddle to a romaine heart that had been split in half and grilled, she said, “I can’t remember the last time I had real lettuce.” Blue-cheese dressing wasn’t available, so she settled for sherry vinaigrette.
Cal’s doesn’t quite turn suburban dining on its head, but it definitely shakes things up, merging a fresh/ local/organic mindset with a fast- casual restaurant model. Kent seems to be embracing the concept: On one Saturday night, the wait for a table was an hour and a half, almost enough time to take in a movie at the cinema next door.
I left my cell number and went shopping. In less than half that time we were seated amid brick, glass and reclaimed wood, near a fireplace where we could see the open kitchen, the sign board plugging Cal’s local suppliers, and a TV screen. (There are multiple screens, another hearth and tables fitted with beer taps in the bar.)
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The introductory spiel for first- timers goes something like this: We cook from scratch, source locally and prep everything fresh. We don’t use frozen food; we don’t reheat or use a microwave. One passionate fellow told me, “We don’t even have a freezer.” But a scoop of sweet-cream ice cream atop tender-crusted sweet- potato pie was evidence to the contrary later on. Fervent is the word for this eager crew. They are friendly and efficient, too.
Cal’s broadsheet doesn’t change much from lunch to dinner. After 3 p.m., a daily-changing “Meat Sheet” offers steaks, chops and other special cuts. These include a side of your choosing and are a good bit pricier than regular entrees.
I asked about the veal shank. The waiter struggled to describe what turned out to be a respectable osso buco. Sprinkled with orange zest, garlic and parsley gremolata, the braised meat was knee-deep in a potent, orange-tinged wine sauce. It came with a skillet of wonderful roasted Brussels sprouts and onions. But $32 osso buco is not why you come to Cal’s.
You want their excellent iteration of chicken potpie, also served in a skillet, wearing a double-wide biscuit like a jaunty cap. Robust brown gravy envelopes a jumble of peas and pale root vegetables — potatoes, parsnips, celeriac and turnips — interspersed with boneless hunks of skin-on dark meat.
You want the ham-shank hash, which involves more root vegetables and lots of crisped, shredded ham, with a splash of vinegar to cut the richness. Too bad the fried egg on top was cooked until the yolk had hardened.
Chicken noodle soup — a resonant broth packed with egg noodles, chicken, carrots and scallions — is terrific. Torch-shaped pasta and sharp cheddar make for a sophisticated macaroni and cheese. Consider ordering it “dirty,” with bits of the above-mentioned ham shank roughing up the rich sauce.
Shrimp and grits are almost too rich, but there’s plenty of garlic and herbs in the brown sauce to counter the velvety grits. Clams are steamed in a balanced broth of white wine, butter and herbs, but the too-small bowl denied them (and the eater) easy access to that lovely elixir.
A “croc of spuds” (Cal’s answer to potato skins) occupied similarly tight quarters. I consumed quite a few roasted, sour-cream-slathered fingerlings before discovering a treasure trove of bacon and herbs at the bottom of the bowl.
Nothing is as quintessentially American as a hamburger. Cal’s half-pound “Steak House” version is a charred and juicy model of the genre. The pizza is a bit too American, with a springy, underbaked crust overburdened with cheese.
Cal’s is a first venture for Classic Concepts Group, whose key players include Jeff Chandler, once co-owner of the Ram International restaurant chain, and Shannon Galusha, formerly chef at Veil and Bastille in Seattle. The different strengths they bring to the table result in real food with mass appeal. A second venture, planned for South Lake Union later this year, may or may not be another Cal’s. “Cookie cutter restaurants” aren’t the plan, says the company. “Concepting will fit the location.”
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