Mixed Breed

Checking out the kibble at the Spotted Dog Cafe

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I don't know whether it's always like this, but on the two occasions I happened to slither into the Spotted Dog Cafe, hardly anyone was there. Maybe that's because I turned up at off-peak hours -- 8 on a Thursday night, 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. Or maybe it's because the place is hidden away in an old firehouse in that no-man's land somewhere between Midtown and downtown; unless you're on your way back from laying in a supply of Technicolor hair at the Grand Wig House, you might miss it.

Or maybe the reason is more sinister.

See, I had a hard time scaring up a posse for my first visit. All those gluttonous chums of mine -- they who once raised their voices in a constant clamor, desperate for free RFT dinners -- exhibited a marked disinclination to tag along when they heard the proposed destination was the Spotted Dog. Instead of dancing the cancan and filling the air with confetti, which is my usual response to offers of free food, they demurred. From what murky depths sprang this bizarre recalcitrance? Were my sly coevals merely holding out for Fio's (don't hold your breath, guys), or did they know something I didn't know? Suspicion festered in my bosom.

My first dinner at the Spotted Dog would unlock few clues to this mystery. Having braced myself for an excruciating descent through some new form of gastronomic hellfire, I thought I must be dreaming when everything turned out to be thoroughly edible: "Pinch me!" I made a joyful noise at Woofer and Tweeter through a mouthful of lobster taco. "Is this as tasty as I think it is?"

An imp of the perverse had compelled me to order this lobster taco. In the shellfish world, the fickle, witless lobster is the easiest to corrupt. Its flesh is an ethereal substance prone, in the wrong hands, to rubbery catastrophe or worse. Unless you're at one of those places where you select your victim from the feckless innocents lying captive in a gurgling aquarium, the likelihood of your lobster meat's having been frozen is great, especially when a perusal of the menu reveals but a single lobster offering. And it's too expensive; if you can afford it, it's generally not worth eating. My motto is, the minute you see lobster in a trendoid bistro context, warning flares should explode in your brain and you should expect, like the children of Israel, to be chastised with scorpions -- by which I mean a dish called "lobster taco" is almost guaranteed to suck.

But this one didn't. Not only did it come attractively plated with festive sides of crunchy jicama slaw and yellow-tomato relish, the meat was a coquettish whisper of fluffy delicacy. Folded into a warm flour tortilla with a bit of mild white cheese, it was the most impressive Tex-Mex-induced lobster abuse I've witnessed outside of Austin. You could've knocked me over with a feather.

While Woofer re-galed us with tales of his past life as a coffin salesman ("I could put you in a pine box for 68 bucks"), Tweeter and I turned our tines toward a pair of mushroom enchiladas. These were as good as, if not better than, the aforementioned taco: a sassy combination of sautéed wild mushroom and sun-dried tomato on the inside and sour cream, guacamole and a spiffy chile- cream sauce on the outside. Another Tex-Mex success, they fell solidly within the vegetarian gumption-without-gore category.

Along about this time I began wondering what all the doom and gloom had been about; so far the food was lively and promising. A mesclun salad with blue cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries was entirely sufficient; the dish is ubiquitous, but that's because it works. Woofer's strapping ribeye steak, teased with a pouf of garlic hollandaise and delivered medium-rare as ordered, sported a bit more fat than I like, but not enough to keep us from getting chummy. A simple blackened tilapia combined a piquant crust with an acquiescent texture, making a serviceable case for this hackneyed cooking method. I got a bang out of the staunch supporters, too: sautéed jicama, bacon-spiked wild rice, twice-baked potatoes.

It was not until I swept past the specials chalkboard on the way out that I experienced a truly poignant moment. The tilapia dish, this chalkboard declared, was supposed to have come with a pecan-crab sauce. I was startled. There had been no pecan-crab sauce anywhere near my tilapia. Sadness gripped my soul, and I grieved for what might have been.

But grief, as the poet said, never mended no broken bones. Gradually, fiber by fiber, the wool dropped from my eyes, and the small annoyances I'd experienced during dinner bubbled to the surface and lodged in my craw: when Tweeter and Woofer and I first arrived, we found the hostess sitting at the bar playing a video game. She glanced up and smiled but made no attempt to seat us until she had defeated the aliens. This was cheeky. It was also cheeky when the waiter visited our table while uttering dire pronouncements into a cell phone -- I suppose this was bound to happen sooner or later, but it was a first for me. Then there was the matter of the spotlights, which shone so piercingly into our eyes that we regretted not having worn sunbonnets. And, of course, when the knives disappeared with our appetizer plates, we had to flag our server down to requisition replacements.

I also despaired of the miserable "napkins." What, may I ask, has happened to napkins? One day I woke up and all the linen napkins in all the restaurants had been replaced by odious squares of abrasive, nonabsorbent, ugly maroon polyester, and the world went on paying 18 bucks for their steaks as though nothing had happened. It is nothing short of a crisis. The pandemic proliferation of these imposters must be stopped.

Irksome though these infractions were, however, they still did not explain my friends' reluctant disposition toward the Spotted Dog Cafe. What did explain it was lunch.

An appetizer of shrimp-and-crab tarts in phyllo was the low point. Though they were sound in theory, something had gone awry with the execution. The filling resonated with an overabundance of dried tarragon, the crisp phyllo crust had that rancid deep-fried flavor I always associate with the state fair, a garnish of sautéed wild mushrooms was too salty, and one of the tarts was stone-cold in the middle.

The standard-issue caesar salad provided a respite, and a grilled yellowfin sandwich -- a plain tuna steak on a plain baguette -- was inoffensive though boring, but I had a hard time coping with the blackened seafood on a bed of field greens. Its raspberry vinaigrette, fluorescent pink and syrupy-sweet, was overwhelming in its own right, but the scallops, shrimp and other unidentified marine creatures could not stand up to the brutality of an eye-watering chile rub. The salad's only redeeming feature was the inclusion of roasted red pepper and some tasty diced yellow tomato.

In spite of these snafus, I am not without hope for the Spotted Dog Cafe. Once our waiter lost his cell phone, he was the picture of brisk efficiency. The cavernous space (half of the Firehouse entertainment complex), festooned with ladders and firehoses, has that casual, downtown-warehousey feel. And the quality of that first dinner invites me to believe that the kitchen staff possess talents they do not always deploy.

SPOTTED DOG CAFE, 3221 Olive St., 533-5263. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 5-10 p.m. Sat., 10 p.m.-midnight late-night menu. Entrees: $5.75-$18.95.

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