Monday, April 18, 2011

333 Cafe: Where Everyone Knows Your Name (Or Will)

Ever had one of those days where you all you want to do is collapse into a chair, have someone pour you a glass of wine you’ll love, and make you a meal so delicious and comforting that all the day’s stresses seem to disappear? Yeah, me too. Lucky for me I found 333 Café a few weeks ago on an evening when all I had energy to do was eat.

Now it’s not hard to find a restaurant in the area that offers good service, but to find a place that takes it one step farther is unusual. A place where your happiness is the utmost priority and no amount of attention is too much. A place where the staff knows the names of its patrons and makes a genuine effort to create a comfortable, relaxing and welcoming environment. 333 Café is that place.

Housed in an historic building at, yes, you guessed it, 333 Delaware Avenue in Delmar, this restaurant has been co-owned and run by chefs Chris Dangerfield and Libby Thomas since 2007 (but they both originally came on board back in 1999).

Entering the restaurant is like walking into someone’s home. The warm, maroon painted walls, the dark wooden tables and chairs, the bookcase lined walls filled with bottles of wine and there’s 1940’s music playing in the background – it’s all very inviting. And that’s before Libby gets to you. Reputable area pastry chef? Yes. But accomplished front of the house welcome committee? Absolutely. A resounding and friendly greeting awaits all who enter. Libby is talkative, funny and a fantastic host. After taking the coats of my dining companion Tina, and I, we are allowed to choose our table. We decide on a cozy corner spot allowing us a nice view of the dining room and the open kitchen.

Libby is quick to attend to us, immediately offering us the wine list (how did she know?) and menus which featured a special “March-Tober-Fest” selection of German inspired appetizers and entrees in addition to their regular menu. There was Pickled Herring with Sour Cream and Beet Slaw, Beef Rouladen and Jager Schnitzel among Bavarian specialties offered. Tina and I decided to play along, and in celebration of the special menu start by sharing an order of Potato Pancakes with Homemade Apple Butter and Sour Cream ($9). While waiting for our appetizer we ordered wine: the Coppola Chardonnay ($6.50) for Tina and for me, the Red Guitar Tempranillo ($6.50), a reliable Spanish red that’s lush and full-bodied with notes of chocolate and ripe dark red fruit. Unfortunately Tina was not impressed with her wine; it was a little too light, without enough depth. But no worries, Libby happily brought Tina a sample of a Chardonnay she thought she’d like better, the Laboure Roi Pouilly Fuisse. This was a winner, a more complex wine what was rich and buttery, but still dry. When I looked at the Wine List later in the evening I noticed this white was not offered by the glass, but that didn’t stop Libby from offering something she thought a customer would enjoy.

Soon after we got our wine selections straightened out, our potato pancakes arrived. They looked beautiful, large golden brown discs of crispy crunchy goodness, we dove right in.

Regrettably, the cakes didn’t quite live up to our expectations. They weren’t as hot as they should have been, perhaps during the wine swap they sat a little too long because they seemed to be lacking crunch as well and were consequently a little soggy. The flavor was nice, pretty much what you’d expect, but I think being only lukewarm really hurt the flavor and texture.

Not to worry though, as it turns out, the best parts of the meal were yet to come.

The menu on the whole is concise, but I think its quality that matters and not quantity, and there was enough diversity to satisfy most palates. All options ranged in price from $17 to $28 and included Braised Lamb Shank with Fried Shallots & Zinfandel Jus, Chicken Cutlet with Crispy Goat Cheese Raspberry Demi and Seared Scallops with Mustard Supreme Sauce, to name a few. Tina continued her Bavarian journey with the Beef Sauerbraten ($25) and I chose the Tagliatelle with Broccoli, Spinach, Basil, Radicchio and Walnuts ($19).

As we awaited our entrees Libby brought out the salads that accompany every dinner. Not only did 333 Café recover nicely here from the subpar potato pancakes, they knocked it out of the park. How good can a salad be you might ask? How about pretty amazing… as in I’ve been trying to recreate this salad at home ever since-amazing.. An eclectic mix of baby spinach, cucumbers, carrots, apples, and shredded cabbage was dressed with a curry infused oil and a sweet roasted beet gastrique (a French style sauce made by reducing wine or vinegar and adding fruit). Somehow it all worked beautifully together, the spice of the curry, the crunch of the apples and cabbage and the sweet and sour gastrique. If this salad was on the menu as an a la carte item, I would certainly order it.

The restaurant was now starting to fill up with what appeared to be mostly regulars, Libby and Chris addressing people by their first names and mentioning new menu items that might interest them. It went from a relaxed, comfortable place, to a relaxed, comfortable and friendly place. I had the feeling I could sit there all night and be quite content enjoying good food, a homey atmosphere and tapping my foot to the classic 40’s tunes.

Dinner came out looking like it had a lot of potential, nicely plated and so inviting. My large bowl of homemade al dente pasta was abundant with crunchy walnuts, fresh, bright broccoli and pungent basil tossed in garlic and olive oil and topped with shaved Parmesan. Aspects of this dish were like a deconstructed pesto sauce, it was a wonderfully thoughtful and nicely executed dish. Everything was perfectly measured resulting in a well-balanced meal where all the ingredients had center stage. My favorite part was the use of the walnuts, the flavor and texture was a perfect complement to the richness of the rest of the dish.

Tina’s Beef Sauerbraten was tender, moist and full of flavor. The rich brown sauce was not overly sour, and overall this was a very savory and hearty dish. For the most part this traditional dish, happily, stayed true to its origins, evident even in the accompanying side, red cabbage.

The portions at 333 Café are hungry-man sized, but who doesn’t like leftovers when the meal is this good? Tina and I both had the remainders of our dinners wrapped to go. We had no choice, after all, Libby Thomas’ reputation as an incredibly gifted pastry chef preceded her – it was our responsibility to see what all the fuss was about. We made sure to save room.

Dessert selections were presented on a chalkboard at our table. All were between $4 and $6 and included a nice variety; Key Lime Pie, Dark & White Chocolate & Raspberry Truffle Cake, and Citrus Cheese Cake, among others. Talk about your tough choices… We did settle on the Key Lime Pie though, after Libby promised us it was sufficiently “limey”. Libby delivered. Although the pie was sweet, enough of the lime flavor prevailed to make this a standout dessert, and far better than most Key lime Pies I’ve had which are also sweet, but lacking in the limeiness. The crust was a joy as well, a crumbly mix of butter and sugar; it reminded me of the addictive Bordeaux Pepperidge Farm cookies. The pie was topped with light and cool homemade whipped cream. Tina and I tried to be sophisticated, casual, act like this was any old dessert, but we lost that battle. Not a crumb was left on the plate. It was a decisive victory for the pie.
Overall the 333 Café is a pure pleasure, that rare mix of comfort and sophistication, with no pretention in sight. It’s a place where they aim to please, and are successful at it. Chris and Libby are truly a dynamic culinary duo – skillfully turning out diverse home-style dishes with a refined flair, and making you feel at home while they do it.
I imagine that after our second or third visit we too, would be referred to by name, as if we were walking into Cheers, among friends.

333 Cafe is located at 333 Delaware Avenue in Delmar, NY. They can be reached at (518) 439-9333 or online:

They are open Tuesday –Saturday, 4pm – 9pm.