Varied, unpretentious - and dessert to die for

CorrespondentFebruary 12, 2010 

  • 140 E. Chatham St., Cary

    380-1193

    www.chathamstreetcafe.com

    Cuisine: American

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: casually cheery

    Service: friendly and low key

    Recommended: shrimp bisque, Gayla's salad, shrimp bruschetta, chocolate mousse pie

    Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Thursday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

    Reservations: suggested for dinner

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; beer and wine; accommodates children; solid vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

'Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Few of usrely on this saying as a guideline for ordering a meal in a restaurant. But at Chatham Street Cafe, it's sorely tempting.

Your eye can't help but wander past the colorful artwork on the walls of the casually cheery dining room to the pastry case at the back of the room. If you're there for dinner, the temptation is mercifully brief as you're escorted to a smaller, slightly more formal dining room off to one side.

If you're having lunch or weekend brunch, on the other hand, chances are you'll be seated in the front room. You'll need a steady supply of willpower to resist the siren call of buttery almond cake, cinnamon-perfumed carrot cake and voluptuous chocolate mousse pie from across the room as you peruse the menu.

And don't think the temptation lets up once your food is brought to the table. Sure, the wild mushroom omelet or tarragon chicken salad wrap provides some savory distraction. But it's only temporary. Before you know it, you'll start hearing the seductive refrain again, at first a whisper, then louder: blaaack bottommm piiiie, blaaack bottommm piiie. ...

In the evening, the pastry case is at least out of your line of sight. Its sultry tune is muffled by an intervening wall and, on Friday and Saturday nights, live music.

The menu is brief but varied, with an emphasis on fresh local produce that reflects the upstate New York farm background of owner/chef Gayla Bonke. It has an ample selection of healthful options, including a commendable number of dishes that are (or can be made) gluten-free, to justify indulging in dessert afterward.

Shrimp bisque, whose rich flavor is laced with a splash of sherry in a creamy tomato base, is not one of those dishes. But it's well worth the calories invested. So is spice-seared shrimp bruschetta, featuring fresh North Carolina shrimp on grilled garlic ciabatta spread with basil walnut pesto and topped with melted mozzarella and Celebrity Dairy goat cheese.

Shrimp galore

Salads are generous in portion and variety, including a classic iceberg wedge with homemade blue cheese dressing, a chopped salad variation on the Caesar theme and the signature Gayla salad, a melange of mixed greens, Granny Smith apples, walnuts and dried cranberries in a refreshing citrus vinaigrette.

The basil walnut pesto that adds sparkle to the bruschetta turns up again in spinach fettuccine, where it's tossed with roasted peppers, onions, eggplant, mushrooms and tomatoes in a rustic vegetarian presentation. Vegetarian, that is, unless you add some of those North Carolina shrimp for a surprisingly modest surcharge of $4.

Shrimp are particularly well represented, which isn't surprising with the emphasis on healthful fare. It's hard to think of a more wholesome entrée than Bonke's oven-roasted, Old Bay-dusted peel 'n' eat shrimp.

Nice change of pace

The chef's take on shrimp and grits has earned something of a local following, though I think I caught the chef on an off night. Shards of crunchy bacon added a distinctive touch, but the shrimp were overcooked and the grits watered down by juices from the sautéed diced tomatoes.

A rib-eye steak was more than respectable on another occasion. The steak, accompanied by grilled asparagus and addictive horseradish mashed potatoes, was grilled admirably close to the ordered medium-rare, especially given its relatively modest size (10 ounces).

In a world where chic decor and culinary one-upmanship are increasingly the name of the game, Chatham Street Cafe is a refreshingly unpretentious change of pace. Add a modest wine list and friendly, low-key wait staff, and the restaurant goes a long way toward achieving its owner's goal: "to make every patron feel as if they are part of an ever-growing family."

Hmm. Next time I think I'll ask Mom if she has any frozen peanut butter banana pie in the freezer.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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