Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Early Bird Gets the Seat at Cafe 401

It was a dark and stormy Saturday morning today, and we weren't so happy about getting up at the crack of the rainy dawn. But the word about Morgan Brownlow's new restaurant, Cafe 401, is spreading faster than spilt champagne, so we did what we had to do. It's not too hard to spot the cafe, just look for the big 401 sign at NW 28th and Flanders. Cafe 401 is yet another outstanding addition to the food Mecca that is 28th Street between SE Stark and NE Glisan (you can see Pambiche's technicolor facade peeking out in the corner of the picture).

Fully aware of the loud buzz around Cafe 401, my dining companion and I planned an ETA of 7:59 am, because while Michelle doesn't mind a leisurely wait for breakfast, I get a severe case of Fire Ants in my Pants. Due to an unfortunate hair straightener incident, we arrived tardily at 8:11 am to find all the booths already occupied, but we settled quite happily into the bar seating in the front window, which turned out to be the perfect vantage point for watching the anxious masses scurry towards the Cafe right on our heels.

Stepping inside the door, you're immediately greeted by a blazing gas fire, which sets a cozy tone. Inside, the restaurant feels open and airy, with big windows and light yellow walls plastered with old newspapers with tons of blast-from-the-political-past headlines like "Sniper Kills Kennedy, Johnson is President," and "Nixon Admits Evidence Withheld," and big-screen movie listings for vintage classics like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, MASH and Cactus Flower. Old license plates line the space beneath the cash register.

The kitchen was still putting the finishing touches on things at this early hour, the server explained, and not long after we arrived, the empty pastry bubble next to the cash register was piled high with just-baked scones, which fogged the glass with their fresh homey vapors.

Cafe 401 is open from 8 am to 3 pm daily (although they plan to expand into the space next door and offer dinner come summer), so right now the menu is all about breakfast/brunch. One page, one-sided, and handwritten, it runs the gamut from simple breakfast fare such as The Ritual--2 eggs, meat, potatoes, toast--and Granola with Yogurt and Bananas, to slightly more sophisticated dishes like Asparagus with Poached Eggs and Sage Brown Butter, or Morgan's signature Smoked Trout Hash. The menu also sports a salad and a few sandwiches too, and although I didn't see one on the menu today, I've heard the kitchen cooks up a juicy burger. Sides include "Fake Meat" and "Real Syrup" and one you don't see so often--Market Priced Fruit.

We started with an order of the Zeppole--tiny piping hot Italian-style dough-nuts, their perfectly moist innards flecked with bright yellow bits of lemon zest. Not too sweet and not a bit greasy, these are the perfect accompaniment to your first cup of Stumptown. And, at $2.50, they are a guiltless indulgence even if you are a on a very strict budget.

We had to try the oatmeal, which was listed on the chalkboard o' specials on the back wall past the coffee bar, and were treated to a deep steaming bowl of steel cut oats cooked to milky perfection and sprinkled with maple raisins and a drizzle of butter and syrup.

I could not resist ordering the smoked trout hash, which was presented beautifully--hearty shards of creamy pale smoked trout, some still with shards of silvery skin attached, mounded with quartered baby potatoes and bright green scallions, and topped with a rippled wispy poached egg sprinkled with paprika salt and chives. Fantastic.

As we wrapped up our breakfast, we pitied the late sleepers congregated near the register, but they seemed to be in good spirits, perhaps sated by the crackling fire and the smell of warm scones, brewing coffee, and sizzling bacon.

This was only our first visit to Cafe 401, but we plan to return soon and often. The food was delicious and quite a good value, and the service was fast, efficient, and very friendly even though the restaurant hasn't been open but a week. But remember, if you, like me, gets grumbly when there is a rumbly in your early morning tumbly, roll yourself out of bed promptly when the alarm goes off and continue your waking up process after you're comfortably seated, coffee/tea/freshly squeezed orange juice in hand.

We'll keep you posted on further visits, I think Michelle may be heading over to Cafe 401 after her spin class this morning, provided she actually got up for it. For more info about Cafe 401, read the Oregonian's blurp HERE, and the Portland Food and Drink conversation thread, which delves deeply into the fascinating nuances of hen's liver, HERE.


Cafe 401 * 8 am to 3 pm daily * 401 NE 28th Street * 503.935.5221