Long before the recent popularity of places like Yia Yia's and Grenache (and even Remy's, now a relative old-timer on the local restaurant scene), a quaint little spot in what was once a Velvet Freeze laid early claim to a style that falls under a broad umbrella called "Mediterranean." In the intervening decade or so, the European Caffé has seen the opening and closing of both a spinoff of the same name (in the space that then became Bryan's before returning to nondescript stripdom) and a downtown microbrewery (in a space that was recently assimilated by the Route 66 folks).
All along, though, the original has remained an eclectic little neighborhood café serving both neighbors from the nearby college-named streets of residential University City and a solid core of regulars from all over the area.
We recently went back full of fond memories of the place and managed to generate a couple of new ones, although we also chalked up a disproportionate number of disappointments. More on those in a minute.
European Caffé is located in an eclectic, U-shaped space, a block north of Delmar on North and South Road, in an old retail strip that has housed, for long as I can remember, a kosher meat market, a tailor and Cohen's Appliances. When I was growing up in an adjacent neighborhood 25 years ago, the general area was heavily trafficked, also featuring the Velvet Freeze, Petrofsky's Bagels, Dr. Haigler's Dog and Cat Hospital and the local mecca for young boys, Pete's Hobby Shop.
You enter European Caffé from the corner, through a short, tunnel-like space decorated with plaques commemorating participation in various food events, and are greeted by a small bar area, with seating space to both the left and the right. Purplish hues seem to predominate, and the walls are dotted with original artwork, including one piece in the Delmar-facing dining area that looks remarkably like an impressionist masterwork currently featured in an Intel commercial, except that the one here has been altered to feature the words "European Caffé" on one of the bistro awnings.
Further whimsy in the decor is provided by a large ficus in the middle of the dining room and one to the side, each decorated with Christmas-tree lights, as well as a unique sideboard with a base of tree branches. Unusual fountains of a phantom spigot feeding a watering can and an Addams Family dried-ice Japanese rock garden add to the effect, and the ceiling retains the silver, pressed-tin deco look of past occupants.
First, the more pleasant of our two visits. On our second trip, our choices were more on the simple side -- a quesadilla delightfully Mediterraneanized through augmentation with sun-dried-tomato hummus, served with a fresh selection of ever-so-lightly dressed garden greens; crisp slices of cucumber, carrot, celery and broccoli, along with blue-corn tortilla chips, in a rich dip of melted mozzarella and spinach; homemade ravioli stuffed with chopped portobello mushrooms in a well-spiced tomato sauce; and a simply grilled strip steak topped with a sweet and hot honey-mustard sauce. All in all, it was a satisfying meal, finished off with a rich chocolate-mandarin mousse cake, heavy on flavor but nowhere near overbearing in its sweetness and served on an amusing plate decorated with retro kitchen appliances and utensils. Just about the only complaint I could muster was that, for a prime weekend night with decent attendance, the restaurant was already out of lamb shank by 7 p.m.
Our first visit, however, had seen very different results. It was a quiet weekday evening, with the dining room sparsely populated, and things just didn't go very well. The sound system poured staticky music into the room. Our waiter brought a bottle of wine, poured full glasses for both of us and walked away. (Granted, the odds of a very young Pinot Noir's being bad are next to nil, but the wine-pouring ritual is common courtesy in any good restaurant -- and in the best, really sharp service will ask whether the man or the woman would like to approve the initial tasting. In fairness, the wine service on our second visit was exemplary.)
The tomato sauce that accompanied nine mussels in an appetizer portion had relatively no flavor other than that of the tomatoes, and the squid in the calamari, although featuring a delicate breading, also included several pieces of cartilage that shouldn't have slipped through. The salmon della casa featured a delicate blackberry sauce, but the salmon itself tended toward the gummy -- not terrible but disappointing, especially given some of the really spectacular fresh cuts we've had lately. The roasted garlic in the pollo carciofi (chicken with artichokes) was still crisp and sharp rather than soft and mellow, and to finish it off, the cappuccino was boiled-tasting and sandy.
Given the turnabout on our return visit, we could probably just chalk the shortcomings of the first trip up to a bad night. Nonetheless, the folks both out front and in the kitchen should be on their guard, because any number of the mistakes we encountered stemmed simply from lack of attention to detail.
EUROPEAN CAFFÉ, 630 North and South Rd. (University City), 314-863-6013. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m., Tue.-Sat.. Entrees: $9.50-$17.95; pastas $9.50-$16.95.