Nothing heralds the arrival of an up-and-coming neighborhood like the sight of well-to-do types whiling away the afternoon over late lunches. The stretch of Ivanhoe Avenue south of Arsenal is just beginning to blip on the radar, thanks to the recent arrivals of the Greek restaurant Colossus and, a few blocks down, the promising but baffling Café Ivanhoe. Too bad, then, that Café Ivanhoe shuts down between lunch and dinner, is closed Mondays and only opens for brunch on Sundays.
That kind of schedule usually indicates a fancy sit-down establishment. But this isn't that sort of place. In fact, it's hard to tell exactly what kind of place the eatery's trying to be. For starters, the décor is handsome (the stone-tiled flooring is a nice, polished touch), but take away the host's podium near the entrance and the swinging double doors offering a glimpse into a full-service kitchen complete with rows of gleaming pots hanging from the ceiling, and the two-room space looks a lot like a coffeehouse. And a rather cookie-cutter, anywhere-USA coffeehouse at that: standard black-topped tables, some booth seating against a wall here and there, framed Euro-style posters and an olive/ purple/rust paint scheme straight out of a Benjamin Moore how-to-decorate booklet. It's hard to differentiate Café Ivanhoe from the outside as well. The brick-façade exterior, undersize windows and brownish awning scream south-side nondescript; it's easy to miss the place on a first pass.
The menu continues the indecisive theme. Among appetizers, there's flash-fried calamari, a bar-food staple, and chicken wings, another bar-food staple -- except here they come from free-range chickens and are accompanied by an Asian-spiced soy glaze. There's the soup of the day, typically something offbeat like curry chicken artichoke, and there are crab cakes, not particularly offbeat at all. Then, out of the blue, here come grilled jumbo tandoori shrimp, terrifically prepared on a bed of basmati rice, coriander sprigs and red bell peppers, and a plate of fried stuffed olives and artichokes, a totally frivolous menu item -- just some fried, salty morsels, but still fun.
Below the appetizers on the first page of the menu, a whopping seven salads are listed -- including an enticing-sounding Thai beef salad (with pickled cucumbers, carrots and onions, drizzled with a chili-lime vinaigrette), "Champagne Greens" (slices of grilled portobello mushroom, goat cheese, dried cherries, sugar-spiced walnuts and a Champagne vinaigrette) and a salmon niçoise. Turn to the second page, and there are....sandwiches. A dozen of them, and a pretty stellar array at that, including a classically done muffaletta (a traditional N'Awlins creation of ham, Genoa salami, provolone and an olive-dressing spread between two round pieces of herbed bread), a Reuben on pumpernickel, a tasty fried oyster po-boy and a free-range grilled chicken burger on an Asiago bun that, topped with cheese, is dynamite. All sandwiches come with a choice of sides, like a yummy-tart cole slaw, nothing-special French fries (seemingly straight from a bag) or a fruit salad that perks up its foundation of cubed honeydew with copious and colorful quantities of fresh strawberries and cantaloupe. But these are sandwiches and sides, nothing more.
A chalkboard near the podium (which never seems to be manned, another strange glitch) lists the day's specials. In the face of so many sandwiches on the regular menu, the specials run happily amok, boasting exalted entrée choices like a New York strip steak and a pork tenderloin. On one visit a Caprese salad showcased luscious medallions of mozzarella alongside tons of summery cherry tomatoes; on a subsequent visit a soft-shell crab appetizer was nifty as all get-out: a single crustacean breaded and fried to just the right crispness and greasiness (which is to say: lots of crisp, very little grease), plated on some of that great cole slaw. An entrée of New Zealand lamb chops -- a pair of them, of reasonable dimensions, braised in a red-wine reduction -- carried with it spiced grace notes of molasses and cinnamon. Its accompanying side of sautéed potatoes and spinach was too salty and starchy, but somehow those two shortcomings managed to cancel each other out.
Still, it is hard to figure out what to make of a place where one can order either a $7.95 fried fish sandwich or an $18.95 plate of imported lamb chops. Café Ivanhoe's blue-collar/white-collar dichotomy is frustrating. A wine list is offered to diners when they first sit down -- reasonably priced, with all glasses $5 or $5.50 and no bottle costlier than $30, but hardly innovative -- but there's never any mention made of beer. When I asked for a club soda, I was told by my server that "they" don't have club soda; the closest thing was Bellini, a peach-flavored carbonated drink.
That server, along with all the others, wore a Café Ivanhoe T-shirt bearing the restaurant's logo: a swirl. What's a swirl supposed to convey about Café Ivanhoe? Your guess is as good as mine.