Thursday, May 07, 2009

401? A-OK!

It doesn't have the celebrity that the spotted owl enjoyed as an endangered species (if that's not a contradiction in terms) and hasn't quite been blotted out of existence like the dodo, but the classic café, which used to be a ubiquitous part of every neighborhood in Portland, has seemed to take a back seat to high-end dinner houses and chefs-as-stars in the last few years.

There are exceptions, of course, like Donald Kotler's exceptional Toast in Southeast Portland, but simple breakfast and lunch places that are committed to making everything in-house and celebrating seasonal produce, as well as pouring a cup o' joe that makes mornings worth getting up for, have been in exceedingly short supply.

Which is why I was excited when my pal Kathryn suggested meeting at the recently-opened Cafe 401 for lunch the other day. Located on the corner of NE 28th and Flanders, it formerly housed a leather cleaning business and, when that business moved out, chef Morgan Brownlow and two partners moved in and created this unpretentious and cozy corner cafe.

The bar is decorated with license plates, the stools are covered in red vinyl and the walls are papered with old issues of the Oregonian, but the real attraction is the black board at the end of the bar with the day's specials chalked on it. Kathryn immediately went for the tart du jour, a slice of nettle, green garlic and chevre-covered buttery crust with a side of modest greens and a cup of the tomato soup, both intensely fresh and well-made.

I had to try the burger, my personal test of a cafe's lunch credentials, though I was sorely tempted by the smoked trout hash and the breakfast polenta. The burger was perfectly cooked (medium rare) and served on a light but nicely crusty bun that held up to the juices to the end. I ordered it with bacon and cheddar, though the bacon seemed to lack the requisite punch of smokiness that makes it such a great addition to a classic burger. Some crunchy potato chips were piled alongside, but the sneaker was the pickle, an unusual (and potentially addictive) combination of sweet, salty and crisp.

Though the Oregonian's Karen Brooks reported yesterday that Brownlow has resigned from the venture, unless there are money issues involved I don't see that it will affect the quality, commitment or hour-long wait at peak breakfast hours. I'll definitely be going back!

Details: Cafe 401, 401 N.E. 28th Ave. Phone 503-935-5221

Sadly, as of 6/19/09, 401 has closed.

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