Portrait of the Art Cafe
There was one peculiar thing about Kathleen's Art Café, the Plano outpost of the original Lovers Lane installment. It wasn't the legendary desserts. It wasn't the famous grilled meat loaf sandwich. It wasn't the art, framed and dangling from straps, prices neatly posted in lower corners.
It was on the wine list, a brief slate of bottles (half of them poured by the glass) from California, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Australia, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. Notice there is not a drop on this list from France, not even in the bubbles sector. This may or may not have to do with results from a recent public opinion poll published in The Daily Telegraph that surveyed non-Gallic European opinion of the French: "Typically, the French refuse to accept what arrogant, overbearing monsters they are," blared the Telegraph. "...They are crazy drivers, strangers to customer service, obsessed by sex and food and devoid of a sense of humour." These traits are character flaws? Now where's that bottle of Bordeaux?
But the strange installment is a bottle of pinot noir called Writer's Block. It appeared on one wine list, plastered on the back of the menu, but not on the other, suggesting it was scheduled to be jettisoned. We ordered the thing with crossed fingers not only because it was cheap, but because Writer's Block (or creative constipation) in an art cafe is so apropos, so ironic, so...arch. So the fact that the wine was little more than Welch's on steroids (isn't everything on steroids these days?) was beside the point.
Another thing that seemed beside the point was the BLT Caesar. It's not because there's a dearth of lettuce. Indeed, it arrives in a big bowl heaped with chopped romaine. It's not because the salad lacked tomato. Dig earnestly through the heap and you'll uncover lots of waxy, faded tomato wedges. And it's not because the dressing wasn't pert. This creamy slather spoke of lemon as it screamed its garlic dialect, though the anchovy was mute. Leaves were well dusted with Parmesan. And it wasn't that this BLT wasn't served with bread. Croutons were dispensed in such volume that they would have made a swell 11th plague in ancient Egypt, had this salad been served in the book of Exodus. No, it was that there was no "B" in the "LT." Not a scrap. Not even a Baco. Bacon was AWOL. Damn.
Kathleen's gumbo is better, if only because of the name: kitchen sink gumbo. Accompanying the sink are corn kernels, fish, sausage, celery, peppers and white rice. The thick smooth stock bites with a pinch of sharp incisors; the effect across the tongue is one of balance and richness.
But to really get the flavor of this cafe, it's necessary to reach beyond the home-style lunch cliché salads and Cajun drain disposals. Let's get into the drink. First example: grilled blue marlin with banana chutney and coconut rice. Blue marlin is a fish that usually looks better on brochure paper or mounted on restaurant walls than on a plate. Here it's no different. The fish is dense, spongy and soggy, drooling leakage into the coconut rice fluff. Was this marlin a deep-freeze victim? Possibly. It felt this way between the cheeks. It did have a racy edge to it, though--one offset by the chutney pebbled with peppers, mango and golden raisins, which in the end threw off a little too much overbearing sweetness. If it weren't for the heat radiating from the peppers tucked in the chutney, the dish would have collapsed.
There was no danger of this with the salmon. This is surprising, as a reading of the menu heading alone could easily cramp your skepticism muscle: grilled Hawaiian salmon. Right there you get a whiff of those exotic oddities like Hawaiian pizza, one of the most unfortunate innovations since the talking dashboard. It doesn't matter how cosmopolitan it may sound. Pineapple slices and Canadian bacon have no business fornicating on a Domino's mattress. Add anchovies, and you've tipped it into Hawaiian pornography.
While this fish seems to be flirting with its abominable pizza cousin, it skillfully skirts the tragedy. The fish is slender and aerosol-suntan orange. It's crowned with a pineapple ring bull's-eyed by a dollop of wasabi mayo. This is precisely what the Hawaiian pizza needs: wasabi. Then it could be renamed Day of Infamy.
Fish fiber separates from the main fillet in moist, delicate but firm flakes. Edges are singed into crispy bitterness. This is good stuff. Next to the fish is a Chinese slaw loaded with crisp cabbage shreds and slivers of carrot.
Kathleen's Art Café burnished its reputation on Lovers Lane mostly via desserts: big blooming cakes and pies that inspire pie-holes to blither in tongues. But the four-cream apple pie twisted our pie-hole into tight silence. There was no cream (that we could see, unless it had been applied with a coke spoon). The crust was chalky, the apple innards dry.
So we burrowed into breakfast. Kathleen's Art Café serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday, the only period when you can obtain breakfast pasta. You can also get eggs from hell. Imagine the hens that laid these: sort of an Al Pacino, Hellraiser pin cushion man hybrid with Hooters wings that breathes flaming salmonella from its beak. But I digress.
This breakfast hell is a supple burrito, stuffed with smoked chicken, scrambled eggs and poblano peppers topped with Mexicali sauce. Avocado and sour cream are on standby. And there are breakfast spuds. Always, there must be breakfast spuds. This hodgepodge proves delicious, with pepper heat desecrating the fluffy scramble with tasty sadism. Soothing moments intrude only when the tongue is cooled by the avocado or sour cream.
Breakfast gets weird, too: shrimp and grits. Shrimp and grits? Ham hocks and grits maybe. Pork patties and grits for sure. But shrimp? Without the benefit of saffron or pesto? Still, it's delicious. The grits are silken, at the same time they're hearty (they Krazy Glue the ribs). Plus this mound is stubbled with onion, bacon (the BLT Caesar should sue) and bell peppers, both red and green. Jumbo shrimp are spicy, yet they don't need to be. They have enough of that gritty marine sweat to pull the load on their own.
French toast is good, too: thick, rich, moist, dense instead of fluffy--more rib glue. Even the "unch" part of the brunch is good. Artichoke-stuffed ravioli is a pile of firm green pillows reeking of pulverized thistle flower. But this isn't the best part of this mess. (It really is a mess, with the ravioli loosely piled with bell peppers, mushrooms, grilled chicken and limpid strips of spinach.) What breathes life into this heap is the three-olive pesto. It's svelter than the typical pesto, where the cheese and olive oil become an unction junction pinned together with garlic pricks. The surge of brine transcends the mess, elevating the confetti heap along with it.
So much for writer's block. 4021 Preston Road, Plano, 972-312-0011. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. $$
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