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Museum’s Café is a Daring Treat: Jessica Cabo works inventive cuisine onto rotating menu at CAM

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I’ve got quite a bit to cover here, so I’ll get straight to the point: Judging by the number of available seats during my last visit, the CAM Café is the best restaurant you haven’t tried yet. I advise everyone to rectify that.

ramen

RAVING ABOUT RAMEN: Among CAM Cafe’s myriad offerings is a dense, flavor-packing ramen-noodle bowl. Photo, courtesy CAM Café.

The Cameron Art Museum isn’t the easiest place to run a restaurant. The needs of the museum itself can put a strain on any food-related business. The space has seen a number of incarnations over the years for that very reason. Many will remember Kathy Webb and Christi Ferretti’s delicious but star-crossed foray into that kitchen, dubbed “Café Johnnie.” One of the prime disadvantages CAM Café has are the museum’s hours of operation. With only two weeknights available for dinner service, the café relies on clever menus to draw a crowd—and clever menus they have to spare. 

Under the guidance of Chef Jessica Cabo (of “Hell’s Kitchen” fame), CAM Café takes on an ambitious offering for its two dinner services. Wednesdays feature a monthly tapas menu (designed to coincide with current art exhibits), while Thursdays yield a rotating full menu. It’s a marvelous concept that requires skill, dedication and flexibility. That’s just to attempt the juggling act; imagine what it takes to do it well.

The real selling point, however, is Cabo herself. She makes an effort to greet tables and discuss their meals during and after as time allows. Her passion for the menu is obvious, though humility colors her presence.  Self-promotion doesn’t come to her easily.

I gathered a party of five and joined the CAM Café for an Asian-themed tapas night.  We were able to sample most of the menu, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

The seaweed salad went well beyond the standard preparation, with cabbage, kale, carrot, and broccoli thrown into the mix. The real trick was keeping all those vegetables crisp in a lime vinaigrette, but Cabo succeeded.  The natural saltiness of the seaweed seemed pleasantly muted by the acid in the dressing.

I learned one very important lesson that evening: When Cabo puts the word “spicy” on the menu, she means it. The Tokyo Bomber wings were delicious (among the best I’ve ever had); however, my numbed lips and rapidly disappearing beer served as notice that she wasn’t kidding about the spice content. 

Likewise, I didn’t initially realize how much I was enjoying the edamame. I was too busy stuffing my face to realize how good they were. Thankfully, the portion was huge, and I had time to savor later. Cabo served them with just the right hint of butter for a fatty, salty accent on the beans themselves.

The green curried clams and bay scallops were a more muted offering but surprisingly elegant. The soft curry flavor accented the shellfish without overpowering their natural briny flavors. Plus, the addition of pineapple gave a juicy sweetness to the entrée.

Two of my guests tried the vegetable ramen and raved about it. It was the one dish at the table I never got around to tasting, so I won’t endorse or criticize it. However, I will say it was a remarkable amount of food. I don’t remember ramen providing quite so much bulk. (Then again: My college days are further in the rearview mirror than I care to admit these days, so I could simply be wrong in my recollection.)

I couldn’t resist the local ahi tuna, served a gorgeous rare. The coarse salt in the crust made the fish come alive with its natural flavors, and the grilled asparagus—with its dark char marks—added a smokiness to the whole dish that I could have enjoyed all night.

My companions were clamoring for dessert from the moment we sat down, and the pineapple ginger upside down cake was well received. With fresh blueberries and a blueberry mousse, the competing flavors melded into a very pleasant final product.

Cabo also let us try an off-menu dessert she’d been experimenting with: pot de crème made of Fruity Pebbles cereal. It was a daring effort, and to be fair, it didn’t quite pay off for me. Though, even in this rare miss, I found elements to love. Blending all the colors of the sugary cereal with cream creates an unappetizing color that can only be described as “off-violet.” Just like the cereal, it lacks real substance. The dessert didn’t bring any new flavors to bear beyond sugar and milk. Still, I loved its daring nature. It’s rare to see anyone trying new things like that in the kitchen.

On a brighter note, the lighter, creamier version of pot de crème served on that unseasonably warm evening was much more appropriate than the denser variety to which I’m accustomed. I wouldn’t order the Fruity Pebbles again, but folks can bet I’ll be first in line for Cabo’s next pot de crème.

Sunday offers a full brunch menu. As well, CAM Café will offer free outdoor concerts to coincide with dinner in the coming months. I can’t recommend strongly enough that fans of al-fresco dining start adding the museum to their list of go-to restaurants. With only two nights of dinner service available, diners will have to plan accordingly. However, a restaurant that puts this much thought into its menu deserves a little forethought on the customer’s part, too.

DETAILS: 

CAM Café

3201 S. 17th St.
Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Sun., 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Wed. & Thurs. Dinner: 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
www.camcafe.org
(910) 777-2363

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