Restaurant Reviews

Review: Cliff Cafe

Aft the Cliff Café's gravel parking lot is a brick house—an ancestral McMansion with subtle ornate strokes that predate soaring chateau turrets and vaulted front stoop eaves. It's perched on a patch of brown grass and spindly brush on an expansive lot. There is wood trim and mottled brick. The windows are boarded up with large sheets of plywood. Graffiti artists have pissed their marks, swirls and fat coiled worms of color and symbol on brick and board. One mark is a ravel on the front door. Its contours and tones blend so seamlessly with the surrounding structure that it becomes an integral part of its architecture. The mark's swirls and modulations seemingly unfurl from the brick and wood. The graffiti is distinctive, but not so much that it obtrudes, blasting through the backdrop to draw attention only to itself.

Cliff Café is like this: an edifice from another era tagged with the marks of contemporary artistry. Its bone structure is all diner with 1950s road-food promise. But its facial expressions are all post-Sputnik, if pre-Britney Spears. Cliff has the requisite burgers (plus a cheeseburger in cheddar, jalapeño and Gruyère), club sandwiches, cheese fries, milkshakes (spiked with Bailey's and Frangelico) and root beer floats (doped with spiced rum) and scrambled eggs. There is mac and cheese, a gooey muddy-yellow spread of macaroni elbows in Gruyère and queso touched with finely minced and sautéed purple onions, garlic and essences of basil and tomato plus sparks of black pepper and an unexplained drift of smoke coming perhaps from the heat of its alchemy. This is wonderful stuff of heady complexity woven from road food crudity.

But whorled into this menu of American diner substance are faint blips of New American color with the requisite tints of Asia and the Mediterranean. Witness the spicy mango-glazed pork shank, the Cajun crawfish cakes and the lemon honey roasted chicken breast standing on the menu like graffiti that seeps into the sedentary diner motif. It pops, but not too much. There are no errant twangs or intruding dialects.

Wedged near the hip of the Belmont Hotel, a revival of mid-20th-century swank with an eye cocked on modernity (hence the lush "walking garden" with soaking tub), the Cliff Café originally displayed the work of consulting chef Doug Brown (Amuse, Beyond the Box). But much of his intro craft has fallen away, surrendering to the revisions, additions and recasts of chef Jesse Gentile, veteran of Palomino and the defunct Fog City diner. Boot camp for Gentile was in the mountains of Big Bear in Southern California where he grunted at breakfast and lunch joints. Thus, we get things such as the multi-grain pancakes, gritted with nuts and a honeyed, house-toasted granola as rough and tumble as cinders. These cakes are fumed with cinnamon and topped with strawberries. They're hearty, smooth and moist with a slightly gritty attack of fiber on the palate to remind you these stacks don't only taste good.

Among the scrambles is a Mexican: chorizo, black beans and jalapeño (minced into flecks) sautéed into crags, blended into the curds of egg and lashed with sinews of pepper jack. Thin tortilla strips slice and coil out of the scrambled mass like blades on razor wire, all tasty and crisp and gooey.

The listless side of breakfast potatoes—mealy and dry and occupying a strange purgatory between crisp and leather—is no match for the heft of this scramble and should either be whited-out or edited into crisper substance. One diner staple slips off the Cliff irretrievably: Coffee is barely warm. Repeated warm-ups prove futile.

The real breakouts from diner fare inhabit the dinner menu. Pan-seared salmon is a long, narrow strip of fish, glazed in a sweetish composite, finished off in the oven and settled in a rinse of herb butter sauce. The striated sections of the fish pop out like those streaks of plywood grain boarding the mansion windows. But the fish is barely warm. It's mushy too, tearing off into frays that droop instead of peeling off into resilient flaky sections.

There are glimpses of Asian, or rather stares. Seared tuna, coated with sesame seeds and pan-seared, are sliced into precise rectangles and fanned around the edge of the plate as a pool of orange ginger reduction laps at the graying edges. The meat is purple rose, hinting at its cool, deep clean density. It slips and pulls and frays and spreads in the mouth, coating and soothing it like a lotion. Off to the side is an invigorating sheaf of field greens splashed in a Thai dressing that sputters on the tongue with heat—a little Asian kneaded into this Americana.

An eyeball of black bean hummus bulls-eyes a large plate, capillaries of plain yogurt playing the bloodshot over the black. The hummus is spiced and flavored with Southwestern sensuality, leaving the yogurt untouched to keep its Mediterranean-North African roots clean.

Cliff Café does its 1950s diner impression with a future-world cast. In between thick rushes of jazz you get pieces from Missing Persons, a weird and short-lived streak of early 1980s techno-punkish suburbia dredged out of Frank Zappa vets. Low-slung banquettes wrap the room in a faded gun-metal blue, teasing the diluted lemon yellow walls. A creepy primal portrait—a massive head with crude features in soiled hues and garish strokes—stares down a trio of pastel seascapes from across the room. There's an alcove framed in graphite gray enclosing a banquette. Above hangs an arabesque-like chandelier that tapers into a sharp point, flickering amber.

The crowd is a fractious mix of young couples in denim, extended families with kids, and older couples in khakis. Two girls in slinky cocktail dresses and heels that could crucify sip chocolate malt and lemon meringue martinis.

Italian meatloaf is a swelling mound in a cast-iron pan with a thick blanket of marinara and a frill of basil blooming from its crest between ribbons of oozing mozzarella. This is masterful meatloaf with a restrained cast of fillers (panko breadcrumbs, dices of onion, carrot and bell pepper) and moist meat grains that generously drool. The marinara carries just a blip of sweetness that somehow peeks through the layers and layers of arresting acidity.

Cliff Café takes on the wedge salad with a sheaf of romaine cloaked in a seep of red onion balsamic vinaigrette as dingy as molasses. It floats curled chips of bacon and crags of tangy blue cheese.

Apple pie stumbles, though. It's cool and mushy instead of warm. It's listless—perhaps not surprising for a diner that muffs a cup of joe.

Green tea would make for better graffiti over this solid food backdrop. This menu gets sexed up only in low-key, barely perceptible increments. And even then it takes a lemon meringue martini.

901 Fort Worth Ave., 214-393-4141. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$