Grub at earth's end

A stop at The Classic Cafe means eating well where the highway ends

There's this odd little smell that thrives in cottages and cabins. It's not a bad smell, really--although I'm sure that if we could figure out how to eradicate it easily, we'd send it packing with a cloying spritz of floral-scented Glade air freshener.

The first time I was introduced to that smell--a clean, musty aroma resembling crisp bed sheets aging without the scent of human sweat--was when my dad took me to his boyhood town of Glidden, Wisconsin, to teach me how to fish. I was 4 years old.

The old cabin we stayed in was on a small body of water known as Torre Lake. The somewhat rustic hovel had an old wood stove, twin beds with back-destroying divots down the middle, sagging chairs covered with throw rugs, and shelves holding fishing knickknacks and old Reader's Digest condensed books. The floor creaked as you walked across it. That smell drenched the air with hearty thickness.

From that time on, this aroma became linked in my mind with vacations, with exotic sojourns from the routines of daily life--at least until I discovered frozen daiquiris on the beaches of Puerto Rico. And an exotic vacation it was. Torre Lake was a naturally clear blue body of water in the middle of the north woods that could only be fished from a rowboat, from which we caught sunfish, crappie, and largemouth bass.

We pulled out loaded stringers of fish and slapped them on a large wood plank table where my dad cleaned them. Using the stable of tricks and exotic seasonings learned in the Navy--flour, butter, salt, and pepper--he cooked up some of the best fish I can remember eating. (My dad ate sausage, since he hated fish).

The experience sparked an obsession with fishing. I practiced casting in the back yard, blew my allowance on fishing gear, fished muddy rivers and lakes--even sneaked out in the evening to fish golf course water hazards. And why not? I was at that age where I had no responsibility for my own recreation. All I had to do was catch the things and eat them.

Which is why I completely lost interest in fishing the day my father announced I was old enough to clean my own catch. I managed just a 2-inch slit in the belly of a lake perch before I hopped from the bathroom to my bed, from which I didn't rise for two days. My tackle box has been collecting dust ever since.

These were the memories that flooded my mind when I first set foot in The Classic Cafe in Roanoke, a town not far from where the edge of the earth drops off into the darkness of infinite space. And these thoughts aren't too far off the mark, because a trip to Classic Cafe is like a trip through childhood vacation memories. In addition to the long drive, which passes herds of grazing steer and buffalo, you'll find a venue unlike any of the glitzy or strip-mall-integrated restaurants you'll find in Dallas. As owner Curtiss Wells says, this is "destination dining."

You may find yourself wondering what that destination is. On the corner of Texas 114 and Oak, just before you come to Classic Cafe, you'll find the Roanoke Land and Cattle Co., a small cubed bunker in an institutional shade of beige. In the back of The Classic Cafe next to the parking lot is a simple blue frame house recently gutted by fire. The dwelling's windows, at least the ones that weren't destroyed by the blaze, are covered with reflective tinting. Scores of bicycles lie hidden behind shrubbery and trees, and the whole property is cordoned with yellow police tape. Dallas strip-mallville this is not.

Opened in May 1993, Classic Cafe looks like a precious cottage done up in baby blue with white trim, shutters, and porch rails. This circa-WWI structure was originally built as multi-unit housing and has since had many uses. It was a dress shop when Wells took it over with his brother Chris.

Inside, this rustic B&B-like cafe is cozy, with creaky floors, yellow walls, and green wood trim. Little alcoves fitted with glass shelves are notched into the walls. In addition to a thick layer of dust, these shelves hold knickknacks, plants, fake fruit, and books such as The Sociology of Social Problems; Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath; and--the only volume touching on human appetites--The Summer of '42.

Tables are topped with cheesy vinyl coverings and the walls are speckled with original watercolors and acrylics by one Carolyn Riegelman. Classic Cafe also has that smell.

On my first visit, which coincided with a raging evening thunderstorm, the ambiance ignited a furious memory exhumation coupled with an exaggerated sense of coziness.

But this menu is far from simple cabin grub rendered from a Navy-issue spice rack. It's clean, unassumingly imaginative, and, for the most part, successful. Chef Jennifer Brightman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, subtly draws from several areas to tone her New American menu, including Asia, the Southwest, and the Mediterranean.

Starters, such as the honey-glazed and peppered house-smoked salmon, illustrate Brighton's deft touch. Served with a salad of arugula, red onion, and ripe diced tomato, the chilled salmon slices were lightly smoked in-house with apple wood, creating a restrained, smoky frame for the refreshingly clean, rich salmon flavors accented with a slight sweetness. A dribble of chive sour cream charged with lemon juice injected the fish with liveliness.

Roasted garlic with herbed goat cheese topped with roasted red pepper was equally successful. Served warm, the fluffy, tart cheese edged with parsley, basil, and chives played beautifully off the sweet, tender bite of the peppers.

Bruschetta with wild mushrooms, red onion comfit, and roasted peppers topped with Gorgonzola and Gruyere cheeses, seemed bland. Equally disappointing was the oily dinner salad, a mesclun mix topped with shredded carrot in a raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

But the entrees kicked the menu back on track. The spicy Asian marinated fresh breast of chicken in a sweet sesame red chili sauce was tender and juicy, with a pepper kick layered with a hint of sweetness and a wisp of nuttiness.

While the meat in the Stilton-crusted bone-in rib-eye wasn't robustly flavorful, the Stilton cheese crust fashioned out of toasted onion bread, chopped shallots, garlic, thyme, chunks of Stilton, and a little Parmesan proved its saving grace. In fact, if this meat had been a cut rich in flavor, the dish would have collapsed under its own weight. Instead, the tangy fullness of the crust integrated well with this juicy, tender, lean-in-flavor cut sophisticated with a bit of sweetness from a port shallot demi-glace.

A side of fluffy basmati rice with sauteed onions, shallots, and garlic finished in chicken stock and a little thyme possessed the delicate texture as well as the depth of flavor to both contrast and stand up to the heartiness of the plate's centerpiece.

But there was considerable slippage in the parsley and garlic orchette pasta in Gruyere-sherry butter. Holding sauteed onions and red bell and poblano peppers and folded with shreds of capacolla ham, the dish was plagued by over-lubrication and dramatically undercooked pasta, which muted all flavors but for the sharp saltiness of the ham.

Lunch-menu offerings successfully nudged things back on track yet again. The massive smoked turkey sandwich with black bean mayonnaise was surprisingly light in both flavor and texture. With cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce, and generous slices of moist smoked turkey between a light, fluffy grain bread, the sandwich layers came to life with the spark of the mayo--a mix of Hellman's, black beans, cilantro, lime juice, garlic, jalapeno, and a little cayenne.

The three-egg omelet, a $12.75 feature entree of the day, was fluffy, tasty, and accessorized with caramelized onions, cheese, mushrooms, and slices of mild, earthy Provencal sausage. A side of oven-baked potato slices proved the perfect sub for hash browns or fried potatoes. The thin slices were crisp on the outside while tender and moist on the inside. I've never more enjoyed breakfast potatoes.

But good or not, the thing was a price gouge. Twelve seventy-five for an omelet? The lack of an appropriate price adjustment on a daily special here is inexcusable.

Sweet stuff kept pace with the overall elevated level of other menu selections. The pear crisp had a light, hearty crunch that wasn't choked off by heavy-handed sweetness, and the pears had a near-perfect resilience--not too firm, not mushy--polished with a surging tartness. Black Forest cake with cherry mousse--layered flourless chocolate cake and white chocolate mousse with kirsch (a clear cherry brandy), chocolate chips, and bing cherry bits blanketed with chocolate ganache--was remarkably light and feathery despite its imposingly rich appearance. Served chilled right out of the refrigerator without the benefit of a freshly broilered caramelized crust, the assembly-line creme brulee had a richly flavored top, but the custard innards were slightly runny.

And all of this came with a respectable wine list featuring mostly California offerings dotted with a few selections from France, New Zealand, Spain, Chile, and even Texas. Some favorites included a Domaine de la Rossignole Sancerre, a lightly rich, crisp white, and the Oregonian King Estate Pinot Noir, a wine flush with silky cherry and spice. The only thing lacking on this list is a small selection of Sauternes and late-harvest dessert wines from California.

Classic Cafe is a true vacation from the urban dining pretentiousness that can suffocate the Dallas dining scene. The food is sincere and genuine, yet cleanly sophisticated. The only flaw in the whole experience was the service, which, though gracious, is jerky and badly paced, with long waits and abrupt server departures. But the experience is conducive to long, leisurely dining, thus making it well worth the drive. Plus, the food and that odd little smell never clash.

The Classic Cafe. 504 N. Oak St., Roanoke; (817) 430-8185. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m Saturday, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

The Classic Cafe:
Roasted garlic with herbed goat cheese $6.75
Bruschetta with wild mushrooms $7.75
Honey-glazed smoked salmon $9.25
Spicy Asian chicken $14.25
Stilton-crusted rib-eye $24.00
Smoked turkey sandwich $6.75
Parsley and garlic orchette pasta $10.50

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