Hearing that Deep Ellum Café is back in business in its original location at 2706 Elm St. is like finding out that a good old friend has moved back to the neighborhood. This was one of our favorite haunts in the late 1980s, back when Deep Ellum was coming into its own as a live music and local art scene. Now we're eager to get reacquainted, but, as with any interrupted relationship, we're a little afraid of finding out that maybe we won't be able to take up exactly where we left off.
Which is to say, neither of us are what we were 20 years ago. Though they've retained the spiky silhouette of a black cat as the restaurant's logo, this is a different Deep Ellum Café, with a new owner and new chef in Chris Pyun, the original chef at the Green Room and the second one at Jeroboam. He oversees the menu and the cooks, with general manager Jeremy Gaytan running things out front.
Pyun's menu features some old favorites the back-then Deep Ellum Café regulars depended on. The Vietnamese grilled chicken and shrimp salad makes its return, although getting it depends on the kitchen's sketchy supply of rice noodles (unavailable on one of our visits). Southern-fried steak is another retro offering. It comes in generous portions, with garlic mashed potatoes and peppery gravy—a bargain at $10 for the plate.
Prices overall are competitively modest here, compared with other joints just up the street. Hearty appetizers average $8 each, no entrées are priced more than $15 and the wine list isn't deep, but it does showcase a good selection in the $15 to $25 a bottle range. Most wines also are available by the glass.
Have to admit, at first glance the new-old café looks promising. Nobody's messed with the exposed brick walls in this long, narrow antique room that housed other restaurants during a seven-year hiatus between the end of Deep Ellum Café's first incarnation and this new one. Same sturdy wooden tables and wide banquette seating that doesn't jam diners elbow to elbow. The place fits 50 people comfortably on the inside and another 30 on the patio, which should be a sweet place to hang for drinks and eats once "wintry mix" is off the weather forecasts for good.
But it's when we stop in for a leisurely dinner that we start noticing some carbuncles on this quaint old face. It's cold outside and so cold in that we leave our heavy coats on through a two-hour meal. Lighting is haphazard and dim. Music's playing, but it sounds like generic rock from a satellite feed. The artwork—what look like computer-generated collages—is hung off-kilter, in the dark and too high. A giant television screen is affixed to the west wall in the small front dining room. They keep the sound down, but the glare doesn't add anything pleasing to the atmosphere, and the waiters do become distracted trying to follow whatever game is on. A smaller TV is hung in the corner of the tiny bar area. Does no restaurant offer a respite from ESPN and the squeaks of sneakers on hardwood?
What we remember about Deep Ellum Café I was the warmth of the place. It welcomed you in like an aproned fat aunty who wanted to spoon you up some tasty grub. We admired its effortlessness and lack of pretension. Ladies who lunch could fall right in alongside the neighborhood's leather boys, tattoo heads and mud-booted, Mohawk-haired artistes. Prices were always reasonable, and the food tasted good, sometimes great, like whoever cooked it actually gave a flip about each and every plate that went out.
Deep Ellum Café II is a younger, hipper cousin who has a blog and a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/deepellumcafe) and who might feed you what you want and might not, depending on the prevailing mood (his, not yours). At both of our visits, we couldn't get the meal we tried to order because the kitchen was sans so many items. Desserts were especially hit or miss, and there were only four on the menu. No puff pastry with fresh berries and cream at either lunch or dinner (a week apart), although both times the waiters recommended it. And no tres leches because, and these are the waiter's words, "It went bad two days ago, and we finally had to throw it out." Thank goodness for that.
What we liked: Chicken and Provençal herb dumplings served as a hot and hearty soup. The smoky chicken slices floated in the broth alongside sweet baby carrots, nutty Brussels sprouts and buttery dumplings the size of thimbles. Tempting to say "like mother used to make," except she didn't, not as delicate and fine as this. The onion rings are chart-toppers. And we swooned at the first bite of the only dessert available on our lunch encounter, the banana-pecan bread pudding, served in an enormous steamy-warm mound under a white chocolate sauce with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Said our dining companion, "This is good, wrapped in great, immersed in wonderful. If it was a religion, I would convert."
And there were the disappointments: An appetizer of fried calamari, crust so mushy it all fell off and onto the plate, leaving naked rounds of squid to be forked into the tasty peppered jam. A goopy "three-cheese" crab and spinach dip that lacked any visible evidence of crab and, as it turned out when we asked the waiter to ask the chef what the cheeses are, is made from only two cheeses, cream and Parmesan. Instead of "pita crisps," the dip arrives with plain, soft triangles. The lobster ravioli entrée reveals not a hint of lobster but some mysterious blue mealy material inside the four chewy pockets of pasta, all floating in a foamy pink sauce. The "Artesian cheese plate with dried fruits and nuts" (surely they mean artisanal) is little more than a few cold slices of smoked Gouda, a tiny wad of chèvre and a couple of out-of-the-bag apricots. Nuts to that.
Open just four months, Deep Ellum Café the Younger needs to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Nouvelle comfort food? New American fine dining with flair? Slapdash neighborhood boîte?
We're told the menu already is getting a makeover. Out goes the "Artesian cheese," the chicken and dumpling entrée (we hardly knew ye!), tuna steak, stuffed pork chop and venison meatloaf. In come blander-sounding items, including ribs, marinated flank steak, pecan-crusted tilapia fillet and a grilled chicken breast with forest mushroom fettuccine (which forest is that, do you think?). Full-time desserts will include those tired old stand-bys, crème brûlée and New York cheesecake with berry sauce. They're keeping the banana-pecan bread pudding, however. Thanks for small favors.
We won't give up on the place just yet. Next time we're feeling Ellum-worthy, we'll drop in again. Hey, what are old friends for?
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