Primary Colorful: Ian blisses out on beignets and other well-executed simple fare at Cafe Ventana

Oct 15, 2008 at 4:00 am

God knows Mondays don't need any help in order to be a pain in the rear end, but on this particular Monday afternoon, my 401(k) is following the Dow down the drain, there are still four interminable, talking point-filled weeks till the election and I just forgot my debit card inside an ATM. Am I sitting in a dive bar, chasing my blues with whiskey, neat? In fact, I'm at Café Ventana, enjoying a few minutes of bliss — however fleeting — with a cup of strong black coffee and a plate of beignets.

The beignet is a New Orleans specialty, a deep-fried pastry shaped like a tiny pillow, its texture nearly that soft. It's usually served dusted with confectioner's sugar, though in this context "dusted" shouldn't conjure images of a passing snow flurry so much as the inside of a long-shuttered house. Today at Café Ventana, only the golden-brown corners of my beignets peek out from beneath their blanket of sugar.

The beignets at Café Ventana come three or six to an order. Because I'm trying to get in shape for a beach vacation, I asked for three — intending, I swear, to eat only one, maybe one and a half. Certainly no more than two. (I did have a light lunch, after all....)

You might never have eaten a beignet, but you've almost certainly enjoyed freshly fried dough at this or that fair, so you know how lovely it is as the confectioner's sugar seems to melt atop the hot, sweet, airy batter. Or maybe the sugar actually does melt. Honestly, I'm too blissed-out to observe any chemistry, too blissed-out to notice that I've already finished the second beignet and taken a couple of bites from the third.

I promise myself I'll go to the gym tomorrow. These days you have to grab bliss whenever you can.

Café Ventana opened in late July at the eastern boundary of the Central West End, just a Frisbee toss from the Saint Louis University campus. Though on each of my visits I noticed a number of students studying or Twittering or doing whatever students do today, the restaurant should appeal to anyone seeking a casual, affordable and generally very good light meal or snack. (Zen-like states of peace are optional, but recommended.)

I call Café Ventana a restaurant, but this doesn't capture its essence. It combines the best aspects of the coffeehouse and the fast-casual joint — comfortable but not faux-bohemian, efficient but not corporate-slick — with a soupçon of Parisian bistro. Here you can have a light lunch of excellent lobster bisque, full-bodied and rich with actual lobster flavor, that sinful blend of butter and the sea; you can sip a cappuccino while you study for the LSAT; you can even blot out a bad day with real-deal absinthe.

(As my first and only experience with the green fairy resulted in my making a pass at a woman in Czech, of which I know not a single word, and then tumbling down the stairs of my Prague hostel, I passed on this last option.) There is also a small wine list, notable for venturing slightly off the beaten path of producers, and a few beers.

The design is very cool, modern without calling too much attention to itself. There are freestanding tables as well as counter seating along the elegant, curving coffee bar and both the front and back windows. Sofas and armchairs are arranged around a fireplace, and patios occupy the spaces immediately in front of and behind the restaurant. Against my usual tastes, I especially liked the flat-screen TV sets hung above the counter where you order. These project the menu, photographs and quotes from such divergent personalities as Barack Obama and Dick Cheney.

Café Ventana is the latest project from chef Chris Lee, formerly of the late Melange in the Central West End. His menu is straightforward. Breakfast offers soufflés and panini; all of the panini include scrambled eggs. (Beignets, bagels and pastries are available throughout the day.) Soups, salads and sandwiches comprise the selections for lunch and dinner.

Soups change daily. The lobster bisque is a standout, better than the insipid versions that many higher-end restaurants offer. Mushroom-Brie soup is very rich with a pleasant tang, though my cup needed a dash of salt and pepper. Salads are big and fresh and offer a few nice touches to elevate them above the pedestrian pile o' greens. The "Belle Bella" salad, for example, includes small cubes of fresh, soft mozzarella and spicy capicola ham sliced matchstick-thin.

The sandwich menu includes a terrific portobello mushroom panino. The mushrooms, sautéed to the exact-right point of meaty tenderness, are topped with spinach, Havarti cheese and pesto aioli on excellent rosemary-olive bread. The aioli was especially welcome, adding a bright touch to what was — for a meatless dish, at least — an exceptionally full-flavored sandwich.

I was less enthusiastic about the muffaletta sandwich. I liked the crisp, biting flavor of the olive relish very much, and the meats (Genoa salami, mortadella, capicola) and cheeses (Gruyère, provolone) were fine — if a bit paltry compared to the mammoth muffalettas at some local delis — but the Italian bread was disappointingly bland.

There is one exception to the lunch and dinner menu's soup/salad/sandwich focus: a crab "cake." This is not the bane of this Baltimorean's existence, the feeble local attempt at an authentic crab cake, but a small tart. A mixture of blue crab meat (the best crab meat, and if you disagree with me, you're wrong), cream cheese and herbs is baked inside a short-dough crust and then served with a spicy rémoulade alongside mixed greens dressed with that same rémoulade. The flavor pairs the savory sweetness of crab with the mellow tang of cream cheese, with just a hint of heat from the spiced-up mayo. The highlight of the menu, though too small to make a satisfying meal.

From the breakfast board, I tried a panino with scrambled egg, sliced roast turkey, wedges of avocado and pepper jack cheese on honey-wheat bread. (The choice of bread is yours.) The scrambled eggs, though underseasoned, completed a tricky balancing act: neither too dry nor, so that the sandwich wouldn't collapse, too runny. It was an example of what impressed me most about the food at Café Ventana: By design, the menu isn't "exciting." But what the menu does offer is presented, from conception to execution, with focus.

You don't need to be especially attuned to the eggs in your sandwich or whatever you're eating to notice that focus. You can be lost in the doldrums of another crappy day, wondering how difficult it would be to move permanently to, say, Mexico's Mayan Riviera, when a single beignet, hot, sweet and fresh, reminds you that the simple pleasures might not outnumber all the daily instances of B.S., but they sure can outweigh them.