Local Cafe, which replaced the vegetarian stalwart Green Cat Cafe on Capitol Hill, appears to be a mild-mannered neighborhood coffee shop. But beneath its studious exterior beats the heart of a serious, if willfully quirky, restaurant.
The first clue to Local's true identity is the beer and wine list. Think of a small restaurant with a dozen wines and five beers available, and I know what you're thinking: Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and Red Hook ESB. Not here. Try the 2002 Dr. Burklin-Wolf Estate Riesling, a smashing off-dry German wine. This wine retails for $18; here it's $20, about the lowest markup imaginable. In the reds, there's a Dolcetto d'Alba for $21. This is a gutsy wine list: Nearly everything on it is likely to provoke questions, and the answer should be "try a glass," since all are available by the glass for $4 to $6.
In the beer section, they're pouring Fish Tale's Organic Pale Ale and Rogue Mocha Porter ($4/glass). The rest of the menu, which changes seasonally, fits on one small sheet of paper. In a nod to the location's vegetarian heritage, there's a beet salad with goat cheese ($6.50) and an open-face artichoke sandwich ($7.50). The mixed mushroom gratin ($11.50) with cream and gruyère looked delicious on its way past our table. There are also nonvegetarian choices, like meatloaf ($10.95) and the entrees detailed below.
Local has only been open a few months, and service is still of the "we are so glad you're trying our restaurant" variety, which is of course much preferable to the "you are so lucky we've allowed you to eat here" type. Every time I've gone into Local, there have been two people on duty: one in the kitchen and one waiter. It hasn't been a problem, but I did find myself wondering just how our very laid-back waiter would handle it if he were suddenly slammed with orders.
Local also serves breakfast; one day I enjoyed a freshly baked blueberry muffin, which proved that the difference between a good muffin and a great muffin is whether it's still warm from the oven. Lunch was less inspiring. My chicken sandwich ($7.50) consisted of blue cheese spread, thin-sliced chicken breast and Granny Smith apples on a baguette. It was, in a word, plain.
In a neighborhood full of boisterous hangouts, Local is different: a relaxed, slightly upscale restaurant with low prices, good for couples or solo diners. Despite a few missteps, there are too many clever touches at Local not to like the place — just look at the gold-rimmed granny plates, scavenged from area estate sales.
Hors d'oeuvres plate (small): An eclectic arrangement of caramelized onion chutney, Indian-spiced prunes (a little too heavy on the coriander), pickled cauliflower, crunchy roasted chickpeas and a wedge of Oregon blue cheese. The best combination was a spoonful of onions and a chunk of cheese atop the accompanying pumpkin-seed bread, which arrives warm and lightly toasted.
Penn Cove Mussels: The mussels were plump and tender. The broth, made with white wine and shallots, was worth soaking up (I had to ask for white bread). Sadly, the fingerling potatoes bobbing in the broth were undercooked.
Roasted Half Chicken: Some restaurants try to hide dry, flavorless chicken with a hearty sauce. Local has the opposite problem: The chicken was juicy, well-browned and tender, but the accompanying pears and cream sauce had no flavor at all. Luckily, there was also a side of roasted fingerling potatoes to step in and save the day.
Ginger-Apple Trifle: Are you a ginger freak? This is your dessert, a goblet of custard and cake and apples, infused with a healthy amount of ginger. A delicious wake-up call topped with gingersnaps and whipped cream.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Hors d'oeuvres plate (small) $4.50
Penn Cove Mussels $11.50
Roasted Half Chicken $12.50
Glass of Dr. Burklin-Wolf 2002 Riesling $5.00
Glass of Domaine des Corbillieres 2003 Touraine Sauvignon $5.00
Ginger-Apple Trifle $6.50
Matthew Amster-Burton: email@example.com.