Eating mom’s home cooking can be a blessing and a curse. The grub may be good but getting nagged between bites about your inability to provide grandchildren takes its toll.
Maybe that’s what was on the minds of Myra Ghattas and consulting chef Albert Bilotti (formerly of Al’s NYPD and Kanome) when they put their heads together. The collaboration brought together old and new, familiar and unexpected. It's a place where you can wolf down a PB and J with your elbows on the table and still feel like a grown-up.
The café is an unexpected addition to a Downtown block filled with houses-turned-law offices; contemporary in an otherwise traditional-looking neighborhood. Inside, post-modern “walls” create an entryway that introduces a sleek dining room bisected by a long, curving counter decked with kitschy postcards. Voguish but not cold, it's nothing like ma's house.
Towering over the clean, well-lit eating space is a loft that’s home to a wine bar and monthly tastings hosted by owner and certified sommelier Ghattas. There’s no outrageously priced Bordeaux on the wine list—the choices are more affordable and approachable. Myra professes to give customers what they like while tempting them to try new things in a comfortable atmosphere. This philosophy spills into the food and the outcome is what she calls “comfort food with a twist.”
Breakfast brings Pyrenees-sized banana-stuffed-brioche French toast ($7.50) paired with real maple syrup and fresh berries—more dessert-like than what your mom imagined for the "most important meal of the day.” The frittata ($9) baked with smoked salmon, Boursin cheese, capers and scallions may be the best damn reason to break eggs in the morning. The portions are enormous, but ordering a side of white cheddar hash browns ($2.50) is worth feeling overstuffed as an antique armchair. There's a toasty crunch on the outside with cheesy tenderness in the middle (which is, come to think of it, how mom gets after a glass of Chablis).
Later in the day, appetizers are hit and miss. The dark ale fondue ($8.50) is a total don’t—there's no discernible cheese flavor hiding behind its grainy texture. The bruschetta ($9), on the other hand, has star quality. Diners choose from a list of topping combos such as multitextured wild mushrooms buried under melted fontina, seared tuna with tangy Asian slaw, and, yes, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. What arrives at your table is overwhelming (but not unwelcome): three half-foot toast points generously piled with whatever strikes your fancy. Kiss soggy baguette slices and mushy tomato relish goodbye.
Nearly everything is made to order, from the house-made potato chips ($4)—which are salty and somewhat overcooked ... swap them out for the excellent french fries instead—to the buttermilk fried chicken ($15) served with just-lumpy-enough smashed potatoes.
Ghattas' aforementioned "twists" are apparent everywhere. Auntie May’s meatloaf ($16) comes wrapped in prosciutto. Ousting a typical white fish fillet, the dark-beer batter on Slate Street's fish and chips ($12) gives way to rosy-fleshed salmon—whimsically served in a brown bag. It's a quaint idea, but frying renders the naturally fatty fish more oily and less firm, and mutes the salmon's usually robust flavor. Ghattas says bucking convention on such a traditional dish is risky, but she can’t argue with results. The entrée is easily the top-seller at dinner.
Skip the charisma-less cheese plate ($11) for dessert, with its morsels of fromage, crackers and dried blueberries tossed willy-nilly on a platter. Instead, blueberry cupcakes topped with a criss-cross of fluffy lemon icing ($3) round out the sweets with a charming homage to down-home eats.
Ghattas describes the overall mood of her restaurant as “not pretentious—fun but not to the extent of being casual to the food process.” The service is similarly cheerful and laid-back. Slate fills up fast and the wait for a table and your food can be lengthy, especially during weekend breakfast and weekday lunches. But, like your mother always said about Mr. Right, Slate Street Café—well-heeled but level-headed, ritzy but reasonable—is worth waiting for.
The Alibi recommends:
• Smoked salmon and Boursin frittata Bruschetta, your choice of toppings
• Ahi tuna or bacon, lettuce and fried green tomato sandwiches, sub fries on the side
• Any cupcake for dessert
Slate Street Café, 515 Slate NW, 243-2210. Breakfast hours: Mon-Fri 7:30-11 a.m. Lunch hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner hours: Tue-Thu 5-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m. Wine Loft hours: Tue-Sat 4-10 p.m. Brunch hours: Sat 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Price range: moderate. Booze, large parties, credit cards accepted.