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Nouvelle Cafe

The Granite Cafe's Latest Incarnation Offers the Unexpected in a Familiar Setting

September 22, 2000, Food

The Granite Cafe 2905 San Gabriel, 472-6483

Lunch, Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2:30pm; Light Fare, Mon-Fri, 2:30-5:30pm; Dinner, Mon-Thu, 5:30-10pm, Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm; Sun, 5:30-9pm; Brunch, Sun, 11:30am-3pm

In its latest incarnation, the Granite Cafe presents a palette of flavors that might best be summarized as "nouvelle Southwestern." The neighborhood restaurant, long a favorite haunt for residents of Pemberton Heights and Bryker Woods, has been through a lot of change over the last year or two, including a couple of menu revisions under former executive chef Emmett Fox's guidance and a short-lived Asian-inspired makeover, before finally settling into its current "Contemporary Texas" focus. This new orientation comes under the direction of Chef Sam Dickey and his wife Molly, the duo behind the TapRoot wholesale bakery venture that serves Cipollina and Jeffrey's, among other restaurants. Sous-chef Steven Blaisdell joins Dickey in the kitchen. From the business standpoint, the Granite Cafe remains a part of the local San Gabriel restaurant group, which also includes Bitter End and Mezzaluna. But to put to rest the confusion out there about the Granite Cafe: The restaurant's name remains the same, but on the flavor front, it's a whole new ball game. Chef Dickey has broken away from the classic American bistro menu of his predecessors, adventuring south of the border for much of his inspiration and looking very close to home for most of the rest.

In my experience, what the Granite Cafe does best is blend the assertive flavors of the American Southwest. The restaurant's version of contemporary Texan features guajillo chiles and hoja santa pesto, tomatillo canela rice, and black bean pasilla sauce -- not your standard Texas cafe fare. Appetizers at first glance seem familiar. There are crab cakes and ceviche, fried oysters, and fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. But closer examination reveals Chef Dickey's imagination. The crab cakes ($7.50) are served with a pretty, piquant guajillo corn salsa. The ceviche, ($7.50) served with flair in a martini glass, surprises with its cold, fuschia chunks of watermelon and the subtle root beer flavor of the Mexican herb hoja santa. Hoja santa dresses up the tomato and mozzarella salad ($6.50) as well. And the crisp oysters ($8.50) feel kind of "Baja California" with their shredded cabbage, goat cheese, bacon, and guajillo aioli accompaniments. My favorite among them is the shrimp ceviche with watermelon -- a bright-tasting departure from the norm, ideal for warm weather dining. The new Granite Cafe, perhaps in a concession to the menus of old, does feature a pizza ($8; $12 with chicken; $13 with shrimp). It, too, features hoja santa, which melds strangely with the four cheeses, but works when the pizza is topped with shrimp.

A great example of how the Granite Cafe updates menu standards is its seared tuna ($19). As much as I like it, seared tuna, for me, has become a somewhat run-of-the-mill menu entry. Not so at the Granite Cafe. Chef Dickey's take on this popular favorite has little to do with Asia, since he replaces the standard wasabi, ginger, and soy components with seasonings from the American South and Southwest. In the dish, a hefty, pepper-crusted tuna filet sits perched ready for takeoff atop two fried green tomato halves slathered with tomatillo-avocado salsa, all of it surrounded by an ebony pool of beans spiked with chile pasilla. The tuna showcased the perfect sear -- coral-pink and moist on the inside and tight and golden on the out. The black bean pasilla sauce could practically stand on its own as a hearty soup or chili, displaying a marriage of spice and salt that provided the perfect alter ego to the mellow beans. What brought the dish together in the end was its most unexpected component -- the fried green tomatoes. Crisp and tangy in the mouth, the green tomatoes offset the fiery crust of seasoning on the tuna and brightened the earthy beans, colliding in the mouth with the lively tomatillo-avocado salsa.

Another strong showing on the Granite Cafe's dinner menu is the pasta entrée ($12 with vegetables; $15 with chicken; $16 with shrimp). Again, an otherwise standard menu offering is transformed into something unique given the addition of Southwestern seasonings. The pasta -- a penne -- comes dressed with a dried chile pesto and smattered with a mound of ground pecans and pepitas. The penne competed for space in the black bowl with zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, and red bell peppers, all of it buoyed by a sharp green mole made of poblanos and tomatillos and scented, I suspect, with a dash of curry or cinnamon.

Less impressive was a bowl of shrimp and oyster gumbo ($21) studded with plenty of fresh okra. The menu spoke of quail as part of the dish. Ours arrived without the bird, and with the apologies of our conscientious waiter, Ross, who was quick to suggest additional shrimp or even a beef tenderloin to make up for the oversight. Extra shrimp were spirited out on a side plate in no time, but the dish still lacked the pizzazz of the other entrées in spite of the addition of file and its attractive presentation.

One final entrée rode the fence between excellent and mediocre. A swordfish special ($19) featured a seafood stew as a base. The bright seafood broth was the excellent part. Spiked with a touch of Thai spice, the mussel-studded broth soaked into a dainty mince of potatoes, chayote squash, zucchini, and corn. We sopped up every last drop with the fabulously crusty white bread that came out before dinner. The mediocre part of the dish turned out to be the grilled swordfish steak. Dominating the center of the plate, its texture was a little softer than usual, and it didn't really add to the stew, which could have been top-of-the-line served by itself.

Because I often travel with children in tow these days, children's plates matter to me. The Granite Cafe's children's menu is worth noting because, like its main menu, the kid's offerings veer from the ordinary. No grilled cheese and chicken fingers for the wee ones at the Granite. Instead, little ones can dine, as my girls did, on a meltingly tender miniature beef tenderloin whimsically arranged on a mound of mashed potatoes and a spiral of haricots verts ($10: $1.50 split plate charge). Other kids entrées include roasted chicken and mashers, a "cheesy, creamy" pizza, and a PB&J for the less adventurous tots.

On to the desserts. Our waiter, Ross, recited what seemed like a dozen possibilities. We let the chocolate sack with berries and the tres leches cake tempt us initially before deciding on an apple crisp ($6.50), a warm cobbler-like creation that closed the meal on a comforting note, and a trio of sorbets -- apricot, strawberry, and raspberry ($4). The sorbets were great, fruity more than sugary, and silken soft.

The Granite Cafe adapts many of its dinner entrées to its lunch menu at lower prices, and also offers a Sunday brunch. The cafe's lunch menu also offers several salads and pizzas, none exceeding $8, and an interesting choice of sandwiches. One part of the restaurant's dinner menu I failed to explore is its game offerings. There is a venison ($19) with cheese grits and root vegetables in a mushroom demi-glace, and a couple of quail entrées as well.

Since I live in the neighborhood, I can safely assume (based on the number of cars I see parked outside, and on the number of neighbors I know who haven't been back in a while), that the new Granite Cafe is having a tough time breaking back in to the restaurant scene. This is unfortunate. While the cafe may have momentarily lost its focus, it seems to me that things are definitely back on track. Like most restaurant kitchens, the Granite Cafe's staff has some kinks to work out. But unlike many of these, the Granite Cafe offers a change of taste -- a menu that is appealing at once for its familiarity and its touch of the unexpected. end story

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