By Emily Codik
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Deborah Calderon is the "D" and Clare Kelley the "Clare" of I Do D'Clare, a cozy 65-seat breakfast and lunch spot on Ponce de Leon, just off South Dixie Highway in the Gables. The same location used to house another restaurant, Loffler's, where Deborah cooked and Clare waited tables. Two years ago, when the owner of that eatery decided to retire, she convinced the women to take over. Now D is the chef and C makes irresistible-looking desserts, which are showcased on cake stands atop a table by the back of the room. The homespun cakes fit nicely with the down-home flavor of the décor, which includes curtained windows, pink-washed walls bordered by stenciled red flowers, and numerous tables topped by old-timey linens and big plates of food.
"Trailer-park cuisine" is inscribed on the menu, but that's just the women's whimsical sense of humor -- there's no Spam in sight. Much of the hearty, homestyle fare here is more common to luncheonettes or coffee shops: burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, five main courses, and daily specials, which, on this Tuesday were crabcakes ($7.95) and stuffed cabbage ($6.75). The former looked luscious, a trio of three-inch-high cakes served with potato pancakes and thickly sliced coleslaw in a side dish (as opposed to a petite paper cup of that sloshy premade stuff). Unfortunately the crabcakes must've appealed to others as well, because by the time we ordered some, at half-past noon, they were gone. Unfortunate, too, was my decision to substitute the second special instead. Main problem was the cabbage itself: They used tough, bitter-tasting outer leaves, instead of tender inner ones. The filling of lamb, pork, and rice was well flavored, the accompanying penne pasta cooked just right, but the two overwhelmingly leafy rolls were further marred by being steeped in a too-garlicky tomato sauce. I was steeped in sullen regret -- those crabcakes sure looked good.
"We have fun with food" is another menu motto, and indeed many of I Do D'Clare's offerings are more modern and inventive than the aforementioned American comfort chow. The salad special, for example, was lemon-pepper chicken breast over spinach, with shaved fennel, red pepper jam, and lemon-garlic dressing ($6.95). Standard menu items get creative, too, like "Rum Runner" chicken breast ($7.50) or mahi-mahi ($8.50), which are "brushed with Demon rum, ignited, and topped with spicy sweet pineapple salsa." Grouper was subbing for mahi when we visited, the thin, griddled fillet accompanied by mixed fresh vegetables and rice (all main courses also come with salad). The salsa was sprightly, though seemingly void of alcohol; upon request they brought us some piquantly spiced rum.
The women have fun with sandwiches as well, offering them Jeopardy!style, wherein you choose selections from four categories (bread, filling, cheese, and dressing/fixings) and are requested to "please place your order in question form"; thankfully this is unenforced. Fillings include turkey, roast beef, chicken and tuna salads, and, as a special one day, "the meat loaf Mom wished she made," in a French baguette with lettuce, tomato, and onion ($6.25).
My dining companion had been warned, before coming here, of a less-than-friendly waitstaff. Other than a certain bruskness with which our waitress placed down the bread basket (which contained slices of fresh baguette and quartered blueberry muffins), we found the service to be just fine; in fact the truck-stop-diner efficiency of the no-nonsense waitresses is part of the place's appeal. Not as much as the desserts ($3.50), though, which include pineapple upside-down cake, sweet potato pie, Snickers cheesecake, banana pudding, and English trifle, an insanely rich mix of custard, sherry-soaked sponge cake, and meringue topping. All in all I do declare this fare fares pretty well.