It's my impression that Highland Park is populated largely by people who like to pretend they live in Connecticut and commute to the big city. There's the perfect little park with its gazebo and ducks (and tennis courts). There's an old-fashioned annual Fourth of July parade, full of children, Sousa, and dogs.
Highland Park Village should be the equivalent of a quaint Main Street or town square. I remember when the Village had a good quiet little bookstore, a modest department store, even a five-and-dime. Now, just about the only down-to-earth thing left in the Village is the grocery store, and if you can't find the rest of your everyday necessities at Chanel, too bad. Landlord Henry Miller has packed Highland Park Village with high-dollar fashion--Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Hermes.
The first surprise at Cafe Highland Park, then, is its distinct unstylishness--I've been to downtown cafes in New Jersey with more panache--which immediately predisposed me to like it.
On a crowded Saturday night, we had to turn sideways to walk through the tiny, two-stool bar that doubles as an entry, following the stern-faced hostess who led us left, then left again, before sidling up the flowered stairs and wending our way through the tables in the upstairs dining room where we waited awkwardly while they finished clearing a two-top in a tiny alcove, windowed on three sides so that, seated, we became the equivalent of dining mannequins.
It was an odd place to eat dinner and we vacillated in our opinion of the space. At first it seemed a little claustrophobic, but with our wine, it began to seem cozy. Then, when we looked into the dining room and tried to signal our waiter, it seemed too isolated, but when we looked out the windows which overlook the courtyard below and realized we were on full display, head to toe, it seemed excessively public.
The only solution was to concentrate straight ahead, on our plates.
I've been on the slime trail recently, tracking the story of our locally grown snails, so of course I had to order escargots here. Our waiter brought a plateful of them, each curled in its individual mushroom cap like a caterpillar in a chrysalis. They looked black, tasted buttery and garlicky, were chewy and good, the Cabernet sauce lifting the earthy ingredients into a headier plane.
There's a reason, though, that every recipe in Larousse demands that snails be served "piping" hot. That butter-lubricated chewiness turns to rubber as the snails cool, and unfortunately the plate on which my Highland Park snails were served was not hot enough and the snails cooled quickly.
Across the table, my companion began her dinner with what turned out to be the star of our show, something called a "phyllo basket." A little cup, that could have been molded in a muffin tin, had been constructed out of leaves of phyllo pastry, and into this light and brittle basket had been tucked fresh spinach, just wilted, sauteed mushrooms, and hot little shrimp.
The whole confection rested in a bright pool of red tomato coulis and our response to the visual delight almost brought a smile to our young waiter's intent face. I would swear his glasses at least sparkled a little more. Mostly, he seemed to take his job as seriously as Troy Aikman. "It's easiest to eat if you turn it on its side," he advised soberly, remembering his role as servant-advisor. "Easy to eat" would be one accurate way to describe this pretty little dish, which satisfies your eye with its apparent lightness and frivolity, even while your mouth relishes its more substantial pleasures.
Sirloin steak was advertised as Black Angus, a good sign usually, although I am still a little dubious about this trend to brand-name beef and this steak proved that it's not just the quality of ingredients that counts. The fine-looking, fat-rimmed piece of meat had a good flavor but had not been seared enough, or was cooked at too low a temperature, so the result was both overcooked and flabby, with a weird jellied consistency and texture. Roast potatoes, carrots, squash--a good vegetable medley--was served alongside.
The filet of salmon was grill-marked, though it had little real grill flavor, and its leaves of flesh were cooked nicely, shading from pastel to rose. It nestled on a sea of couscous flecked with fresh spinach and the uncomplicated combination was pleasing just in its bare simplicity.
The kitchen doesn't make the pastries so we ordered two white desserts--a slightly pasty creme brulee and a white-chocolate mousse, a Dairy Queen swirl of whipped cream, given some serious density by white chocolate. It was blandly, boringly sweet.
At lunch a few days later, we were seated downstairs in the mirror-walled room, draped almost touchingly with fake wisteria. In the daylight, we noticed a slightly strange combination of Oriental and Austrian decoratives, although Cafe Highland Park, appropriate to the Village's architecture, subtitles itself "Mediterranean Bistro."
We were served more slowly with more smiles at lunch than at dinner but we had the same problems with the beef as before--this time, it was a filet, nearly raw in the middle, and overcooked to grayness near the outside, but with an unpleasantly soft texture and no sear.
The first course was a lovely dish, satisfying but lively--a portobello mushroom cap, sliced across and framed with narrow strips of melting mozzarella cheese, rested on a familiar tomato coulis.
I had expected Cafe Highland Park to be a good place to savor a cup of that old chestnut onion soup, but the bowlful they brought was thickly slicked with oil that had probably leaked out of the floating crouton's cheese cargo. All the flavor of the broth was diluted by fat.
Salads, though, were excellent. The side was a toss of frilly and flat green and red leaves, thoroughly coated in a well-balanced vinaigrette and enriched with buttery crumbles of feta cheese.
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The main meal mix of grilled chicken and smoked mozzarella was served over the same greens, with plenty of Roma tomato slices and pitted imported olives. I only wished the bread had been a little better and the butter served in pats, not squirts.
This is the kind of place it would behoove you to become a regular of, anyway: It's a village restaurant, a friendly neighborhood place that wants to know its clientele and most of our fellow diners seemed to know their way around the place and the menu. In a land of luxury, Cafe Highland Park is a surprisingly usable, even practical, kind of restaurant.
Cafe Highland Park, 69 Highland Park Shopping Village (Mockingbird & Preston), 521-7300. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m; for dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday, 5:30-11 p.m. Open Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cafe Highland Park:
Phyllo Basket $7.50
Escargots Champignons $6.95
Grill of Salmon $16.95
Portobello Mushroom $5.75
Mozzarella Filet $12.95