Being a native Astorian and lifelong dining enthusiast, I don't know how I went so many years without eating at 42nd Street Café in Seaview, Wash. Through good press and positive word of mouth, I'd always known that it would be a place I would like to experience.
Although not every dish worked for me, most of them met and exceeded my expectations, and the service at 42nd Street is absolutely unparalleled.
Watching server Jean Marc Bourgouin - a master of the craft - work the room is in itself worthy of a visit. Coast Weekend's Readers' Choice Award winner for best waitperson twice in three years, he exhibits all the makings of a great server: attention to detail, extensive knowledge of food and wine, impeccable timing, and on top of that, making it look effortless. He is of a tiny, exclusive cadre of servers in our area who are truly passionate about giving great, professional service, not just waiting tables to pay the bills. It is unfortunate that this breed is the minority. Many of the restaurants I visit employ servers that, while usually friendly, merely galumph through the motions, eager to get paid and get home. It is when I happen upon a Shelburne Inn, a Depot, a Pelicano, a Nanci & Jimella's or a 42nd Street Café, that I remember how wonderful service can, and should, be.
Although the carafe of ice water was always at our table, Jean Marc frequently popped by to fill our glasses himself, consistent with proper wine service. My guest, unaccustomed to this, said: "Thanks, but I could have done that." In his native French accent, Jean Marc replied: "No, no. That is why I am here." That statement perfectly encompasses the craft of great service, and the attitude of a great server.
What I love about 42nd Street's menu is the chances the chefs are willing to take. For instance, when you sit down, you are brought delicious housemade bread, but in addition to the standard soft butter, dishes of Marionberry conserve and corn relish also accompany. Corn relish on soft bread is something I wouldn't have thought of, but it was delightfully offbeat. I mentioned that not all of the dishes won me over, but the owners stand behind them, and if they've remained on the menu for any length of time, they clearly have a following.
One such dish was the Roasted Beet, Chive and Goat Cheese Gnocchi ($10). The first thing that startled me was the color. The combination of beet, wine and goat cheese made for a bright pinkish-purple, unnatural hue. While the housemade gnocchi (potato dumplings) itself was exemplary - light, fluffy, smooth - I found the sauce to be a little sour and overpowering, probably the reason I could not detect the drizzled black truffle oil, the reason I ordered the dish.
Also suffering from powerful flavors was the Cream of Tomato, Dill and Bleu Cheese Soup ($4 and $7). There is no subtlety to this soup; it punches you right in the tongue.
The Clam Chowder ($4 and $7), on the other hand, is fantastic - your standard New England style, done well with just a hint of sherry.
One of my favorite dishes, both beautiful and delicious, was the Cashew-Battered Prawns ($12), served over a won-ton crisp with sweet soy and ginger sauce and daikon sprouts. The prawns were cooked perfectly - a little translucent in the very center - with a wonderfully crunchy coating.
A special appetizer of goat cheese and brie wrapped in puff pastry ($12) tasted very good, perfectly complimented by mushrooms, caramelized onions and sliced strawberries, but the pastry's texture, soggy and soft, was a little disappointing.
Entrees include a side salad, something you don't see much anymore at the high-end restaurants. Fresh greens come with shaved red onion, grape tomatoes and signature housemade dressings. The feta and dill dressing was my favorite, and worked well with 42nd Street's croutons, which are sweetened by baking with hazelnut syrup. But this sweetness proved too much when combined with the honey and celery seed dressing.
Seafood Pasta Pappardelle ($26) is a fantastic dish. Everyone knows that fresh pasta is infinitely better than dried. The housemade black pepper pappardelle (a wide, flat noodle) elevates a good seafood dish to a great one. Scallops, prawns, oysters, salmon and steamer clams mingle with butternut squash, lemon zest, chard, white wine, shrimp stock and butter. Every piece of seafood was perfectly cooked, all flavors well-balanced.
The café also serves up classic comfort foods such as pot roast, fried chicken and fried razor clams. This is the first restaurant I've found that serves really great fried chicken ($18 and $22), with moist and tender meat within a crisp and flavorful coating. Few attempt it, and even fewer succeed. The chefs here know that good fried chicken is made in a skillet, not a fryer basket, and prepare it accordingly. The mashed potatoes are top notch, as is the housemade chicken gravy.
A lunch visit's cheeseburger ($9, $11 with bacon) was pretty good, with quality beef (though too thin to be cooked to temperature with any success), very good aged Tillamook cheddar and bacon. But I was hoping for a housemade bun. Though there is a certain charm to hand-cut, fresh french fries, they are frequently only fried once, leaving them limp after a few minutes. Should 42nd Street Cafe blanch them at a low temp, cool them and re-fry in hotter oil, they'd have the best fries around.
Desserts warrant praise. I usually don't order dessert as I've not much of a sweet tooth, and have generally picked at about a half-dozen plates by the end of a meal. But I was told that the desserts at 42nd Street are not to be missed. The Marionberry Crisp a la mode ($7) was wonderful, and perfectly shared by three full people. On another visit I found the perfect denouement, Chocolate Mint Sorbet ($3), served in a shot glass with a tiny spoon. Rich and thick, cold and minty, I still only ate half of it, but it was perfect. A perfect ending.
Everyone, from the owners and servers, to the unimposing bussers, make you feel welcome and special at the 42nd Street Café, and that more than redeems the couple of dishes that didn't enthuse me.
- The Mouth