Walk into a restaurant and you want to feel welcome, wanted. There's something to be said for a chic, modern dining experience or traditional white linen eatery, sure, but there's also value in a warm, friendly café. A place to hide out and nurse a coffee when you should be doing something far more important. A place to grab a quick bite. A place to knock back a few and eat something the waistline of your pants doesn't allow for. Forgive the proximity to Dallas Alley and Café Rembrandt could be your new everyplace.
The spacious café—which during busier times takes on the air of a pub—is the creation of Ronny Smeink, an affable Dutchman who has a serious talent in front-of-house demeanor (he instantly had our group feeling at home and described and recommended dishes with poetic ease). The warm woods and brass accents of the bar and upstairs wrap-around balcony play up the focal point of the venue: a large reproduction of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's "The Night Watch."
The painting's presence is appropriate in more ways than just providing the name reference for the restaurant. It's a classic piece. It is at once both elegant and common, and it celebrates both the use of the light and the heavy. Café Rembrandt is and does the same.
I first decided on the beef carpaccio. The tenderloin slices were incredibly sheer and tender. I found it difficult to maintain composure and eat them delicately slice by slice instead of just forcing them into a deliciously marinated mound and eating the whole plate at once. The olive oil and Parmesan drizzle were smart on the tongue, but I craved just a touch more cracked pepper. The simple greens with seasoned olive oil/vinegar on the side broke up the richness and provided a lilting palate cleanser.
The bar menu's cheese soufflés, another fabulous snack or starter, are not traditional cheese soufflés—as in, there are no ramekins to be found and no one tiptoed 'round the kitchen. Breaded cheese slices would be a more accurate title, but don't let that dissuade you from ordering them. Not a speck of grease blemished the golden brown gems. These aren't some cheese sticks a la Chotchkie's. Though melty, they maintained a firmness that held up to dipping in the accompanying grain mustard and curried ketchup (or just "curry," as Smeink told us it was often referred to back home).
Speaking of the curry, a bit of history enjoyed a space on the menu. The Dutch colonization of what is now Indonesia (remember the Dutch East India Co., kids?) introduced spices and tastes still popular in the Netherlands' café fare. At Café Rembrandt, the most evident homage lies in the beef sateh. A skewer of tender beef chunks is glazed in a silky smooth, dark brown peanut sauce and stretches across the plate. The peanut flavor is subtle and doesn't overpower the beef's natural flavor, so credit should be given to the chef for thoughtful saucing restraint.
Dinner platters, such as the sateh, come with a choice of fries (steak or skinny) or potato salad. I opted for the potato salad and was handsomely rewarded with a chunky serving that was neither too creamy nor too tart. The potatoes were firm and the salad was clearly house-made—a welcome change from the usual pre-packaged Southern mush that's all too common when it comes to easy, throw-down sides.
Café Rembrandt offers the mother of all pub food: fish and chips. But here, the cod is robed in a lighter batter than the more common, thick beer variety. It was crispy outside and flaky inside, just as it should be. A dose of malt vinegar and all could be right with the world. Steak fries were a solid offering but, really, after tasting that light, airy cod, the fries were just accessories.
The grilled chicken with honey-mustard thyme sauce was slightly bland. It was a well-cooked and juicy breast, but the sauce was just shy of being memorable.
On a second visit, a dining companion went the way of the cheese-lover. The French onion soup provided a soothing start with a kick and a nod to the Netherlands. Instead of the traditional Gruyère cheese crouton atop the onion broth, Rembrandt's variation offered melted Gouda toast. The super subtle kick isn't really one of taste but of enhanced texture. Blue cheese crumbles are blended into the onion base for a creamier broth. According to my co-diner, the addition was not evident as far as blue cheese taste is concerned. While soup (like cereal or bathwater) is just too personal to share, I refrained from tasting the potted broth, but I watched my fairly picky companion devour the stuff in its entirety. That's a recommendation if I've ever seen one.
I started this visit with the meatballs (from the bar menu) after going back and forth between them and the bitter balls (tiny croquettes of beef). The decision ended up an easy one after asking Smeink. "Definitely the meatballs. They're the best!" he said quickly. I should have known. The menu cites them as being an "all-time Dutch favorite." And they were truly delightful. After one and a half I risked ruining my lunch. The ground beef was hearty but not too rich. Each ball was cooked thoroughly but not overdone on any one side. They were glazed lightly with that aforementioned peanut sauce, and I can see why they reside on the bar menu. They would provide some good hangover prevention should one start drinking on an empty stomach.
The lunch menu offers a selection of broodjes, or sandwiches. Another member of my dining crew selected the broodje gezond, a baguette piled high with Gouda, cucumber, egg, tomato, onion and perhaps too much grated lettuce (mixed greens would make it twice as good). It's a salad on a roll. While difficult to maneuver, the gezond was refreshing and light—a good way to combat the tendency to order heavy, greasy fare in a pubby atmosphere. It comes with tempting and sinful skinny fries, though, so you'll still need some fight in you.
The fried goat cheese salad places golden chèvre medallions atop mixed greens, pine nuts and tomatoes. Honey-thyme dressing comes on the side for dipping or drizzling, and that's a good thing. To pre-drizzle would risk soaking the crisp coating of the cheese. The tartness of the chèvre is fairly well-balanced by the frying process. While the disks aren't oily, their creaminess in combination with the added bit of fat from frying cuts that characteristic goat bite ever so slightly. While the salad is tasty, select it for a shared appetizer unless you're a die-hard goat cheese fan.
As far as finishing moves, the Dutch have two killers. First, the Dutch apple pie. It's a classic that reaches an impressive four or so inches in height. The crust is flaky in parts and dense in others, but supports the apple, cinnamon and raisin innards well. The tartness of the apples (Granny Smith, as close a match as Smeink can find to the apples of his homeland) is a nice change-up from the sweet apple pies using golden delicious that many restaurants serve. Another difference is the shredded filling. When you're used to chunky apple slices in your pie, it's a shock at first, but who are we to argue with a Dutch tradition that perks up the end of a meal?
The dessert that truly slayed us was the arretjes cake. Two dense triangles of Dutch cocoa, eggs, butter and crumbled butter biscuits (a close relative would be shortbread) sounds like a heavy treat but in fact, the cake was light, almost airy, with a sweetness that didn't linger like too rich chocolate tortes, of which we can only eat a single bite. Smeink shared that the arretjes is a sweet treat that people unable to afford an oven could make (the only heat needed was to melt the butter). A recipe of his grandmother's, this Dutch treasure needs no translation.
For six months now, Smeink says Café Rembrandt has seen a steady increase in business, which is good. I can honestly say it deserves it. The café is more than a restaurant or a bar, it's a pleasant hub. Even on a slow day, the place doesn't feel like a cavernous, empty spot. It maintains warmth and an inviting nature, obviously reflected from Smeink himself. Good rations, ample bar stools, free parking and friendly service can mean good things in Dallas. What Café Rembrandt needs now are regulars.
703 McKinney Ave., 214-468-0073. Open from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and 5 p.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. $$