New Albany’s downtown dining boom continues apace, with no sign of letting up.
A decade ago, the city’s signature restaurant was the South Side Inn, one of the Metro region’s most popular cafeterias. Lunchtime queues frequently stretched along the sidewalk and around the corner, and once folks had passed through the line to pick up their fried fish, Swiss steak, roast beef, mashed potatoes and well-seasoned green beans, it was pure luck whether you’d find a table in the 300-seat restaurant.
Back then, downtown New Albany was pretty dark by night, and even in the middle of the business day you could park pretty much anywhere you wanted. Not anymore. With popular restaurants in nearly every part of the downtown grid, it’s a different story.
Relatively new to the scene is Cafe 27 — a proverbial hop, skip and jump from the old South Side. It’s a narrow, nicely appointed eatery founded by Bryan Conner and Crystal Reardon (who is frequently to be seen working the floor and chatting with customers).
It has a classic cafe look, with brick walls and hardwood floors, bright colors, warm lights and an all-round pleasant glow. Rows of tables along the walls offer seating on comfortable wooden benches and chairs. There’s a center row of bar-height tables, and a pleasant-looking bar.
On a slow weekend night, the place has a quiet feel, but visit on a weekend or during a busy lunch rush, and all those hard surfaces reflect an energetic buzz of sound. Service is friendly, and even at busy times the folks occupying the 60 or so seats are tended to pretty well.
Chef Zachary Wolf’s menu offers a well-considered variety of dishes at moderate prices, and he often shows a fine eye for colorful presentations. A roasted corn and steak salad ($9) is a case in point: Multi-colored lettuces make a bright frame for a yellow scoop of roasted corn, chunks of red and green bell peppers, and slices of grilled flat-iron steak. As described on the menu, the dish sports Asian flair, with a sesame Thai dressing, but a preferable alternative might be the house-made bourbon-maple vinaigrette.
But sometimes appearances are deceiving. An order of crab cakes — three, of good size — had a crisp golden finish that was set off nicely by red-gold sweet chili sauce, but it was hard to detect much crab flavor in the soft innards — probably because the ratio of crab to filler was pretty low ($8).
Other appetizers include hummus ($7) and fried rock shrimp ($9). And other salads that could serve as a fine light meal include Bibb lettuce drizzled with warm bacon dressing ($9), and one built from quartered Romaine with turkey, ham, blue cheese, onions, bacon, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette ($8).
A concise list of lunch items draws a steady crowd on weekdays. There’s a half-pound burger that can be garnished from an elaborate list of offerings, including avocado, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms and several seasoning combinations ($10); a grilled chicken sandwich with similar options ($9); and a flat-iron steak sandwich dressed with a bourbon-molasses barbecue sauce ($9; I’m told that the restaurant will soon be rolling out a menu with increased emphasis on local meats and produce, which might affect prices on some items).
On one recent lunchtime visit, an order of fish and chips ($10) was nicely satisfying; house-seasoned chips can be had, or an order of generic fries. A slab of cod — in an era of super-sized portions, some might call it a frugal portion, but it struck me as just the right size for lunch — had been hand-breaded and was fried to a grease-free golden finish that happily accepted a tangy dash of tartar sauce.
Dinner entrees include grilled skewers of beef and vegetables ($16), grilled chicken Parmesan ($14) and a Hot Brown ($11).
If the lunchtime fish and chips reflected a light touch, a dinnertime order of shrimp scampi ($14) with angel hair pasta — a printed menu mentioned linguini, but the online menu proposed angel hair, and angel hair it was — took a different course.
For me, scampi means a light, zesty dish with an improvisatory feel, vibrant aromas of wine and garlic, perhaps a sprightly touch of citrus, a hint of butter or olive oil, and a liquid finish that, when served with pasta, makes for a juicy dish. The Cafe 27 version, on the night we tried it, was a stolid affair built on a mound of soft, overcooked pasta that overwhelmed the shrimp and released hardly any fragrance in the air.
There’s a promising sense of community at play in the New Albany restaurant scene; lots of places are sourcing beers and desserts from local vendors, and Cafe 27 is no exception. In addition to local craft beers, Cafe 27 sources guilty pleasures from New Albany’s Frostitution bakery (I’m told that the pastry work happens in-house). And each week chef Wolf whips up some sweet stuff of his own.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at email@example.com.