Dining out: More than java to Cafe Eclectic

Cafe Eclectic's honey-drizzled pear and brie panini is a  sweet take on the classic ciabatta sandwich.

Photos by Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Cafe Eclectic's honey-drizzled pear and brie panini is a sweet take on the classic ciabatta sandwich.

In the years since the coffee bar became the daytime meeting place of choice, I have dropped some dollars on hot beverages, not to mention tips for baristas -- at Otherlands, Quetzal, High Point and, of course, Starbucks. Jaded though my tastes may be when it comes to caffeinated drinks, the cup of cappuccino at Cafe Eclectic in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown was a revelation.

Cafe Eclectic's honey-drizzled pear and brie panini is a  sweet take on the classic ciabatta sandwich.

Photos by Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Cafe Eclectic's honey-drizzled pear and brie panini is a sweet take on the classic ciabatta sandwich.

Cafe Eclectic de-stresses work with a breezy dining area and natural light.

Cafe Eclectic de-stresses work with a breezy dining area and natural light.

It's illy from Italy, espresso that coffeereview.com has described as "so exquisitely refined that it barely whispers to the palate." It was bold without a hint of bitterness, and the froth on top of my small porcelain cup was as luxurious as it looks in the picture at cafeeclectic.net.

Cafe Eclectic is a restaurant with a mission, and, apparently, even a gender. "She was named after the desire to combine the tastes of different

cultures (Eclectic) with a warm and informal environment (Café), perfect for the community she would be growing up in," it says on the Web site.

At 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, the ceiling fans attached to the exposed ceilings of Cafe Eclectic created the effect of spring breezes in the two open dining rooms. In the broad view across the street to Snowden School, students were playing on the grass field. The cafe walls are painted an earthy brick color, the concrete floors look like terra cotta. Lamps with linen shades occupy central spots, and there's wireless access. The booths along the windows facing McLean were filled, three of them with groups of men who seemed to be talking business. (They'll have a hard time returning to the office coffee pot after a cup of illy.)

I ordered "Rachel's Breakfast Wrap" -- scrambled eggs, cheese, avocado and bacon in a flour tortilla --- from the menu that's available until 10:30 a.m., and was surprised at how light the dish seemed. The eggs were fluffy and it's a balanced blend of ingredients. I might have preferred crisp, briefly sauteed green peppers to the limper grilled ones with the eggs, but that's a quibble.

Besides eggs all ways, the breakfast menu offers pancakes made with ground Delta buckwheat, a porridge made with Scotch oats, and homemade yogurt and granola. Side dishes include chicken sausage, stone-ground Delta grits, and a combination of Russet and sweet potatoes roasted with rosemary.

These potatoes also turn up on Cafe Eclectic's excellent hamburger and hotdog plates. Co-owners Cathy Boulden and Mary O'Brien, who is the chef, express a commitment to the integrity of Cafe Eclectic's food sources on their menu and Web site, and the burger will make you appreciate their efforts. (Their site also provides background, maybe more than you need, on the subjects of the Illy coffee family and soda fountains.)

Made with Black Angus beef from Neola Farms in Brighton, Tenn., the "Classic Hamburger" was robust in size and flavor, and delivered medium rare, exactly as ordered.

And when I tasted the "Eclectic Dog," a Nathan's beef frank, salty and juicy, under caramelized onions, I got a vision of the beach on Long Island, where I entered my first Nathan's Famous restaurant.

The panini list at Cafe Eclectic includes an extraordinarily good combination of warm brie, pear, honey and arugula on ciabatta. The friend I split this sandwich with wrote in an e-mail, "I can confidently say that it is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten." We also shared the "BLT&A." Ingredients on both sandwiches were plentiful (although my friend thought all the lean, smoked bacon must have ended up on my side). The avocado, like the pear on the first panino we had, was served at its peak moment, firm but not hard.

The sandwiches each come with "a cute little salad"; the dressing on the salad was too acidic for my tastes. (And I longed to edit out that precious description.)

The space behind the bar at the cafe's entrance is given over to a stainless steel soda fountain; Cafe Eclectic baristas double as soda jerks. We had "The Café Sundae" in its elemental form: vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, home-whipped cream, nuts and a cherry. What can anyone say? If the ingredients are good, and these were, this is as good as dessert ever needs to get.

We visited five times, at different hours of the day, and Cafe Eclectic often was bustling, but even when the pace was hectic, the servers were unvaryingly sweet and even-keeled.

Plans are to open a drive-through window this summer, when the restaurant finishes expanding on its north side to contain the bakery, and the space-eating "Doughnut Robot." Another addition to Cafe Eclectic's offerings, apparently, will be live performance. Singer-songwriter Michael Joyner had a concert last Saturday night, and a poetry slam is scheduled tonight.

-- Peggy Burch: 529-2392

Cafe Eclectic

Address: 603 N. McLean

Telephone: 725-1718

Service: Calm, pleasant.

Reviewer's choice: Brie and fresh pear panino, hamburger, Eclectic Dog; Rachel's Breakfast Wrap; hot fudge sundae.

Hours: Open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Breakfast served 7-10:30 a.m. weekdays, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday

Price range: Cappuccino, $2; Panini, $6.75-$7.50; Hotdog, $3.75; Hamburger, $8.85; No American Express.

Payment: All credit cards except American Express.

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: None, but diners may bring their own wine and no corkage fee is charged.

Dress: Casual

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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