Quick Bites

April 9, 2010 

Robert and Fida Ghanem know the value of a solid reputation in the restaurant business. They laid the foundation for theirs with the opening of the first Saladelia Café in 1988, and have since built a mini-empire of four locations, with a fifth on the drawing board.

Needless to say, then, when the couple bought Mad Hatter Bakeshop & Café in 2008, they were aware that they were acquiring an establishment whose reputation is nearly as longstanding as their own. "The Hatter," as the restaurant has come to be known, has been a popular pastry shop and lunchtime gathering place since 1992.

The Ghanems knew better than to mess with that winning formula. But they did quietly begin changing the menu in subtle ways to reflect their passion for healthful fare and fresh, locally produced ingredients.

A handful of additions to the menu - grilled North Carolina fish tacos, for instance, and house-roasted beet salad with caramelized shallots and mustard seeds - are readily apparent. Other changes are evident only when you taste them. Pastries, from humble oatmeal cookie to fancy pear frangipane, are now made with butter and locally milled organic flour. The pork in the grilled Cuban sandwich is slow-roasted in house, and that's sushi-grade tuna in the peppercorn-crusted tuna salad.

Pretty much everything is made in house, for that matter, and if it isn't, odds are it's made by a topnotch local artisan. One of my favorite brunch offerings features scrambled eggs from Latta Egg Ranch in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill Creamery cheese, caramelized shallots and fresh basil on a toasted croissant baked by Guglhupf.

The emphasis on scratch preparation, along with the popularity that comes with a solid reputation, means that the wait for your food can be 20 minutes or more after you place your order at the counter. If the place is busy, I like to order a pastry from the display case and enjoy it while I wait for my meal to arrive. If ever there was a time to act on that "eat dessert first" maxim, this is it.

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