Chef Gregg Hamm is so proud of his rib-eye steak that he bills it as a signature dish. In an era when chefs typically reserve that imprimatur for complex, strut-your-stuff presentations, it’s an unusual choice.
But it suits the style of an unassuming chef whose soft, western North Carolina accent still rings true through a career that includes a Johnson and Wales degree and more than a decade of teaching culinary arts in Sanford. Hamm is also the owner/chef of the original Café 121 in that city. He opened a second location on Valentine’s Day in downtown Cary.
His pride in that rib-eye is justified. Made with a generous 10 ounces of pasture-raised North Carolina beef and pan-seared precisely to order (aficionados will recognize the method as Pittsburgh style), it’s as good a steak as you’ll find in these parts for under $20.
Then why, I wondered, does the menu description include the suggestion to “try it with our jala-pimento cheese topping?” Only one way to find out.
I followed the suggestion, and – steak purist that I am – was pleasantly surprised with the results. The topping, a molten magma of house-made pimento cheese spangled with finely diced red bell peppers and jalapeños (just enough to add pizzazz without overwhelming), proved to be a persuasive Southern-accented alternative to the familiar steakhouse garnish of blue cheese.
I hasten to add that Café 121 is not, strictly speaking, a steakhouse. Sure, the menu offers a handful of beef cuts, including an eight-ounce filet (which the menu wisely advises will be butterflied if ordered medium-well or well done), prime rib and a mix-and-match surf and turf.
But these account for less than half of the entree list on a menu that might best be described as traditional American with an occasional Italian, Southern, or Asian accent.
Chicken Florentine is a winning option, as is a vegetarian version featuring marinated portobello caps stuffed with sauteed spinach, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. Seafood fans won’t be disappointed with pan-seared tuna lacquered with a sweet-tart, peanut-studded Asian glaze. Or with salmon, grilled as accurately as the steaks, topped with sauteed spinach and crumbled feta.
Entrees come with your choice of two sides. Asparagus tends to be overcooked, but sauteed green beans won’t let you down. Shoestring fries are a must.
For a small surcharge, you can also opt for an “entree enhancer,” choosing from a list of toppings that –– in addition to the jala-pimento cheese – includes caramelized onions, classic horseradish and, yes, blue cheese crumbles. Most of these appear to be geared toward steaks, though the creamy Alfredo might pair nicely with one of the Italian dishes.
The appetizer selection is even more eclectic, with options covering the spectrum from crab rangoon to creamy spinach dip to “frazoli,” lightly breaded fried cheese-filled ravioli topped with Alfredo sauce. Be advised that most appetizers are served in ample portions for sharing. That includes homemade chicken salad and pimento cheese, a couple of homey offerings that are clearly tributes to chef Hamm’s small-town Southern roots.
Those roots are also gratifyingly evident in a weekend brunch selection that’s liberally sprinkled with the likes of biscuits and gravy and country ham among the usual omelet, waffle and Monte Cristo suspects. The Southern Fried Platter, which the menu describes as “a Hamm family Sunday tradition,” stars exceptionally moist boneless breast in an exemplary crunchy batter, blanketed in a rich cream gravy. It alone is worth scheduling a visit on a Saturday or Sunday between the hours of 9 a.m and 2 p.m.
The dining room is as quaint and cozy as the food, with fresh flowers on the tables, mismatched vintage wooden chairs, and local art for sale on the walls. A wine rack displays the restaurant’s modest but thoughtfully chosen selection of small-vintage wines.
The wait staff aren’t always as warmly welcoming as the setting, and disappearances into the kitchen can be longer than ideal.
By and large, though, criticisms of Café 121 amount to little more than quibbles. A steak served unadorned on the plate – with nary a sprig of parsley for color – is a commonly accepted practice in an a la carte steakhouse, but seems somehow too austere here.
Of course, a slather of jala-pimento cheese takes care of that problem quite nicely.
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