It might be that owner/chef Lara Kierstead is just too damned nice. There’s a laissez-faire approach to things—especially service—at Sugar House’s Singing Cricket CafÃ© that is charming to some and maddening to others.
To make sense of the dining experience at the Singing Cricket CafÃ©, it helps to understand the gestalt there. Neither jackets nor ties are required for men at dinner, but you’ll feel underdressed if you’re not wearing Birkenstocks. I was tempted to dig out my old pair of Earth Shoes for a lunch there last week. Hemp is the natural fiber of choice for customers, and although I believe you can pick up City Weekly at the Singing Cricket, this is more of a Catalyst crowd.
The restaurant itself is a large space with high ceilings located adjacent to—and in fact intermingled with—Dancing Crane Imports. There are lots of potted plants and trees, rattan chairs adorned with comfy pillows, all sorts of Third World and New Age bric-a-brac and soothing music wafting throughout the space. During lunchtime, the large dining room is flooded with natural sunlight from Singing Cricket’s big skylights. It’s definitely a mellow atmosphere; think Laurel Canyon circa 1972 without the incense.
Mellow is also the main approach to service at the Singing Cricket CafÃ©. At dinnertime, this can be frustrating, as one stands at the “Please wait to be seated” sign without any sign of a host or hostess. Although during a recent dinner we spotted what appeared to be a floor manager on duty, he seemed to be dedicated to taking care of kitchen business, emerging only to handle a take-out order. So when you arrive for dinner at the restaurant, you’ll probably just stand around until one of the servers—or perhaps the only server—notices you. At which time she’ll say, “Where would you like to sit?” A word of advice: I suggest requesting a seat in the most populated region of the restaurant. If you do as I did recently and sit at a more remote location—in this case, at a table next to the front window—your server may well forget about you out there in the hinterlands.
While you’re waiting at the entrance for someone to notice and seat you, take the time to look over the day’s specials written on a board near the door. Servers at the Singing Cricket CafÃ© aren’t inclined to inform customers about specials and, when asked, have to go look at the board themselves. So save some time and memorize the daily specials on your way in.
One of the things I really like about the Singing Cricket CafÃ© is that it’s a restaurant where I can dine with vegetarian friends and satisfy my own carnivorous tendencies at the same time. Normally, my veggie-eating pals are limited to either to vegetarian pasta dishes or to the ubiquitous Portabello mushroom burger, the default vegetarian options in most of restaurants. Not so at the Singing Cricket, where Lara Kierstead takes a healthy approach to cooking—there are many vegetarian, vegan and low-carb dishes on her menu—but doesn’t force nonvegetarians to take on tofu and tempeh. At lunch the other day, I enjoyed an excellent hot steak sandwich ($7.50), made with thinly-sliced tender beef, Swiss cheese, sautÃ©ed green and red julienne peppers, thin red onion slices and tomatoes, served on a soft onion roll. It was nearly as good as my favorite Philly cheesesteak in town.
Someone with lower cholesterol leanings might more enjoy Kierstead’s fajitas, made with either orange and lime-marinated tempeh or chicken. At dinner, meat lovers can opt for a grilled garlic and rosemary-marinated New York steak ($18.95) with brandy cream sauce and roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, Vegans, meanwhile, can dig into the Singing Cricket’s delicious lasagna rolls ($10.50): thick lasagna noodles stuffed with Portabello and Crimini mushrooms, ricotta, mozzarella and Asiago cheeses, yellow squash and zucchini, all rolled up sort of wrap-style and served with a rich marinara sauce. And for an additional $1.45, you can add sliced spicy Italian sausage to your lasagna dish.
Kierstead’s stated goal at the Singing Cricket CafÃ© is “to create healthy food that you enjoy eating.” She cooks with oils versus butter, and uses less salt than most chefs. Unfortunately, with a dish like the lemon chicken scallopine ($12.95), that approach results in a bland mÃ©lange of slightly overcooked boneless chicken breast with capers and artichoke hearts atop a watery pile of pasta that clearly wasn’t drained enough before plating. On the other hand, an appetizer plate of four puff-pastry wrapped roast beef and Swiss Wellingtons was wonderful, served atop mushroom centerpieces and a brandy cream sauce ($6.95).
If you’re lingering on a Saturday night with a bottle of David Bruce Pinot Noir, you might overlook the spotty service at the Singing Cricket CafÃ©. Don’t get me wrong, the servers are very friendly—just not very professional. But if you’re in a rush to get back to work on a weekday, this might not be the best place for lunch. At lunch last week, we waited and waited and waited for our lunch order to arrive, and then waited even longer for the check as we sat staring at empty plates.
Maybe the newfangled electronic Palm-style system that the servers are now learning to take and place orders at the Singing Cricket CafÃ© will ultimately improve the service there. For now, you’ll just have to settle for Lara Kierstead’s good mix of vegetarian and meat/fish/poultry-based cuisine served up in a mondo mellow atmosphere.
THE SINGING CRICKET CAFÃ‰ 673 E. Simpson Ave. (2240 South) 487-0056 Lunch & dinner Monday-Saturday Sunday brunch
The Singing Cricket CafÃ© will offer a special Sunday brunch buffet for Mother’s Day on May 8. In addition to regular Singing Cricket brunch offerings like eggs Benedict, tofu scramble, cinnamon-raisin French toast and huevos rancheros, on Mother’s Day Chef Kierstead will be serving a smoked-salmon platter, crab cakes, cheese tortellini, Pacific snapper and much more. For more information, log onto www.singingcricketcafe.com.
If you’ve not heard by now, L’Avenue Bistro is closing. That’s the bad news for anyone, like me, who loved Chef Franck Piessel’s innovative French cuisine and bistro-brasserie fare. The good news is that Franck—formerly of New York City’s acclaimed Park Bistro—isn’t leaving town. Look for the opening of a new restaurant in the fall, tentatively called Franck’s House. It will be located on the grounds of Tuscany, in a separate building. According to Tuscany partner Aaron Ferrer, Franck’s House will be a small, 60-seat-or-so space, with a small wine bar in the front, wood tables and home-style French fare with an American slant. Truffled meatloaf, perhaps? Ferrer says he “plans to turn Franck loose” in his new restaurant. That’s great news for admirers of Franck Piessel’s extraordinary culinary talents. I’m very much looking forward to the summer and warm weather, but now that I’ve heard about Franck’s House, I’m really looking forward to next fall!
Also changing addresses will be David Jones, who is leaving his position as executive chef at Log Haven restaurant in Millcreek Canyon. I’m told that Dave will be taking over managing chef duties at Trio, both the existing restaurant on 900 East and the new Trio due to open this spring in Cottonwood, in the former location of Rivers. Because he knows I like to rib him about this stuff, I’m wondering if Dave will be able to cook a pizza at Trio with fewer than 47 ingredients. Stay tuned.
Quote of the week: Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat.—Fran Lebowitz
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