Walter Mencken 10:33 a.m., May 24
Happy hour at Cafe 21
North Park restaurant excels with happy hour tapas deals.
It’s really a shame that I didn’t get to include Cafe 21’s “happiest hour” in the Reader happy hour issue. Either I didn’t know about it or the menu hadn’t been launched in time for the story--maybe a combination of both. No matter. Suffice to say that the North Park (2736 Adams Avenue) restaurant’s happy hour (3-6PM every day) absolutely rocks. They have the same deal at the Downtown (750 Fifth Avenue) location, but I’m partial to Adams Ave. The patio’s not as sunny as it could be in the late-afternoon, but it’s still a great spot to chill out and sip on a $4 glass of sangria or a $3 draft beer.
But it’s the food that astonished. When they put the happy hour menu in front of me, I nearly whooped with delight. 21 different tapas for $4 each, all of which showcase Cafe 21’s artful touch that elevates humble braised and skewered meats to contemporary art. The restaurant truly punches well above its weight, and always has.
Avocado fries? Ok. Great. They figured out how to lightly fry avocado and serve it with a spicy aioli. Perfect! Texturally on point and flavorful.
Potato pancake with braised lamb? Another great little dish. Deceptively rich and flavorful, the potato pancake’s silky interior contrasted with a crispy outside. The braised lamb, studded with heirloom tomatoes and caramelized onions, amounted to much more than a small bite.
Duck wings? Well, ducks don’t yield very good wings, but 21 managed to make a decent dish of it. Despite being on the ugly side, the braised wings had been splashed with a tangy pomegranate sauce that I could have spooned up like soup. Yum. Not for the faint of heart, the wings had what you might call Chinatown charm.
Would that I had time to try the lamb kufta (Middle Eastern sausage), chicken curry cake, cheese fondue, or toast and jam. Next time, Cafe 21!
I did have room for dessert, opting for the flourless chocolate cake. Baked to order, it was more of a custard than a cake. That makes sense, since “flourless chocolate cake” is like a heavy souffle mated with an overdone creme brulee. Either way, having sweets on the tapas menu was a plus.
I was prepared for a cozy happy hour nosh, but Cafe 21 just plain rocked my socks. Oh, and the service was great, in case anybody was wondering. The staff managed to blend conviviality with efficiency, giving a solo diner a wonderful experience without overstepping the bounds of propriety.
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