Restaurant reviews are by definition positive or negative, but sometimes they can also be happy or sad. A dining experience can be so thoroughly enjoyable, for example, that the critic's glee passes right on to the reader, and everyone ends up smiling — especially the restaurateur. Even a good thrashing of a pretentious, overpriced establishment can incite joy; it feels good to see an overfed fat cat get his comeuppance.
There's only one type of sad review, though. It happens when the owners of a small-budget business sincerely attempt to please customers with good food, drink, and service at a fair price and with a welcoming neighborhood ambiance — but they fail.
Before you read on about Café 46, you might want to grab a box of tissues.
Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Margherita pizza $9.50
Smoked trout salad $13
Grilled salmon $18
Banana cream pie $6
Mario Rubeo warmly greets patrons as they enter the café in Buena Vista (once the home of Café 190). Rubeo is well known to locals after having done the same job for years at the popular restaurant Joe Allen, which closed its South Beach doors last year. Café 46 is an ode to Allen: The menu is nearly identical, plus you get Mario, whose charming presence played a major role there.
Another lure of Joe Allen was the clean, minimalist dining room, with its lively local bar scene partitioned by wood and etched glass. The décor of Café 46 is anything but alluring. Mario's wide smile can practically light up the 50-seater, but the room is otherwise on the dark and dismal side. A horseshoe-shaped bar on the left conspires with dim lighting, old furnishings, and bamboo accents to conjure a tiki lounge that peaked in the early '60s. The effect is downright gloomy.
Seating on the patio proves cheerier, even if NE 46th Street just off NE Second Avenue isn't exactly the Champs Élysées. An amiable waiter approaches each table and enunciates the two or three nightly specials; afterward he delivers beverages, fresh country bread, and a ramekin of soft butter.
Except for a couple of soups, the starter selection encompasses just two warm items: Asian-style steamed mussels and a chicken quesadilla. Yellowfin tuna tartare ($17) is the only other nonsalad (beef tartare is tendered as an entrée). So we tried a trio of salads, beginning with a house medley of mixed greens and diced tomato. The mesclun, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, was wilted and laced with yellowed leaves. Granted, it's only $5.50, but who wants to eat a tired salad? More pertinent, why is something so old being served?
A Greek-style cucumber salad, with tomatoes, black olives, crumbled feta, and fresh mint, was much better. So was a smoked-trout salad, with moist fillets tossed with roasted red pepper, chickpeas, and red onion over arugula and endive, all in a sprightly lemon-shallot dressing.
Margherita pizza sent our spirits back down. A simple red sauce, melted mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil were the norm, but the supporting crust was nearly as thin and dry as a cracker — with a rock-hard rim. It's the sort of pie one expects from a ballpark or school cafeteria.
Handmade ravioli didn't exactly evoke Italy either. The large spinach-and-cheese-filled squares of thick al dente pasta were all right, but the red sauce possessed an overly sweet, almost ketchupy flavor. Dry Parmesan clippings on top seemed to have been shaved from the rind area of the wheel. Sure, the dish is only $12, but again, who wants to eat such a regrettable rendition?
Café 46's American comfort food entrées, familiar from Joe Allen as well as from our youth, don't measure up to memories of either. Densely pressed meatloaf was fine, but the gravy on top tasted like it was culled from bouillon cubes. A hefty wedge of calf's liver came crowned with caramelized onions, but the meat was toughly textured. Spinach accompanied the former, string beans the latter, and both were served with passable mashed potatoes and more of that gravy.
Grilled salmon was fresh and flavorful with a lime-honey-ginger-soy-sesame dressing, but the fish was overcooked. Grilled asparagus came on the side with a warm "salad" of Israeli couscous, spinach, tomatoes, and red onion. Other entrée options are matzo-meal-crusted half-chicken, pan-roasted fish of the day, rigatoni Bolognese, pork tenderloin with "white wine-fig-scallion-chopped tomato sauce," and Indian curried vegetable-tofu stew with brown rice. Main courses are $12.50 to $18, except for steak tartare and a ten-ounce New York sirloin, which are $27 each.
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Banana cream pie is exactly the same as it was at Joe Allen: awful. Instead of custard, the filling is a gelatin-stiffened substance akin to cream of banana Jell-O. In hindsight, we probably should have gone with the Rice Krispies Treat.
The beer selection includes Sam Adams Boston Lager, Florida Lager, and a number of popular ales such as Newcastle, Bass, Sierra Nevada, and Bell's Amber — all $5 apiece. A limited wine list offers modest labels and wines by the glass for $7 to $14.
Sloppy execution is a concern at Café 46, but the larger problem for the owners is that American comfort food in restaurants has come a long way over the past decade. Lighter, more healthful, or simply more idealized renditions of our childhood meals are available now; we can sate our sentimental yearnings without having to compromise on the better-quality ingredients we've grown accustomed to eating. The nostalgia for old-fashioned foods prepared the old-fashioned way is fading. That's understandable and inevitable. Still, to see it epitomized in the sparsely filled, dimly lit dining room of Café 46 is really sad.