Cafe Reviews

House of Style

I had a headline idea for this column before I even sat down to write it: "Crowded House."

But that would give you the wrong impression about Palatte, a new downtown brunch spot tucked into a renovated historic home, right behind Cibo.

Yes, the place is barely two months old, and it's already gained quite a following. A friend who joined me for lunch one afternoon admitted a week later that I'd created a monster — he'd been back to Palatte three more times since I saw him. Some other friends met me for breakfast one day and already seemed to be on a "nice to see you again" basis with the staff. Turns out it's been part of their weekend routine for a while now. But even though elbow room can be lacking if you're waiting for a table during the busy times, in general, Palatte's not uncomfortably crowded — just bustling.

Hence, I ditched my headline. Anyway, none of that will really matter when the temperature finally drops. People won't be desperate for an inside table anymore, and suddenly all of that cushy outdoor furniture scattered about Palatte's sprawling patio area (the whole yard, basically) will make for an appealing breakfast al fresco — at least until next summer.

This isn't the first time I've waxed rhapsodic about the Phoenix funky-restaurant-in-an-old-house phenomenon. But what the heck, I'm happy to add another place to the list, especially since breakfast joints are few and far between in that 'hood. Palatte resides in the circa 1914 Cavness House. It's got an eclectic, rustic vibe, done up in shades of sage and wheat, with wood floors, mix-and-match vintage tables and chairs, signage scribbled in French, and fresh white lilies on the tables.

If eating here feels like dining in the middle of a boutique, well, it is. While you're looking for an empty table, you'll likely peek into the small room in the back, where there's a tiny outpost of The Willows Home & Garden stores. It's a shabby-chic shop selling scented candles, vintage-inspired artwork, and old-fashioned dishware. Additional items for sale double as décor throughout the restaurant.

As cute as the atmosphere is, I think Palatte could improve its feng shui. As soon as you walk through the door, the menus already are behind you, hanging from a rack that's not clearly marked. To place an order, people have to walk past the self-serve coffee bar area (which, intuitively, seems like it should be the front counter) to an inconspicuous cashier window in the hallway. ("You're pretty," reads the cash register screen.) The self-serve part isn't always explained up-front, either.

And although the staff directs waiting customers to the big black couch by the front window, that space would be better utilized with another table or two. If there's no waitlist — and people have to pounce on their own table — Darwinism will favor the folks who stalk empty seats like prey.

Or better yet, maybe the proprietors of Palatte will come around to the idea of table service. Taking a number and having your meal delivered to your table works in places where there's more seating and quicker turnover (Wildflower Bakery comes to mind), but it's trickier here, in such close quarters. And besides, there are already plenty of young waiters moving through the restaurant, delivering plates of pancakes and checking in to see how everyone's doing.

Most of the time, I was doing just fine — Palatte has a pretty solid menu, and there are some creative, standout items. It was funny, though, when a waiter delivered a drink to our table, asking, "Who has the iced tea?"

Uh, nobody, but I ordered iced coffee.

Turns out, that was the iced coffee. It tasted like coffee-flavored water. The hot coffee wasn't much better.

I had a few other quibbles over the course of several visits. The French toast, which I tried twice, was the biggest drag. The idea of it was nice — multigrain bread topped with roasted peaches, vanilla cream, and pistachio praline — but it lacked that golden, eggy crust that defines the dish for me. Inside, it was still-firm, cold bread. Buttermilk griddle cakes, slathered with citrus butter and lingonberry sauce, were kind of creamy, not fluffy. And although I appreciated the eye-catching mix of peaches, plums, and strawberries that accompanied several dishes, occasional chunks of peach weren't soft and ripe like the rest.

On the other hand, I loved the roasted sweet potato pancakes. Topped with toasted pecans, maple syrup, and spiced mascarpone, they were like dessert under the justifiable guise of breakfast. Also on a sweet note, the Irish steel-cut porridge, served with caramelized bananas, was delicious. Oatmeal's the kind of thing I usually eat at home (for any given meal, when I'm in a rush), but I'd order this again. Every grain was perfectly plump and pleasing to chew.

Another noteworthy dish was "The Sausage," one of several scrambled egg dishes under the "Mish Mash" moniker. It was a tasty, unusual combination of eggs with mild, crumbly beef sausage, strips of plantain, black beans, feta, and bits of almond, with a side of home fries and herbed crème fraîche. "The Bev" was a lighter mishmash, with spinach, avocado, and tomato, while "The Potato" was a richer variation, with bacon, caramelized onions, spinach, gouda, and Monterey jack cheese. Palatte also served a fine frittata, filled with veggies and a touch of curry (ingredients change daily).

Breakfast food steals the spotlight here, although I enjoyed a couple of decent sandwiches, served on baguettes. Thin slices of slow-braised beef tasted good with arugula, crispy shallots, and a thick layer of horseradish crème fraîche, while herb-roasted turkey was combined with Parmesan aioli, pancetta, and watercress. Both came with a choice of chips or fruit, although it was worth the extra buck for an add-on salad (mixed greens with vinaigrette; ripe slices of tomato with capers, Parmigiano shavings, herbs, and olive oil; or baby spinach tossed with fava beans, pecorino Romano, pancetta, and lemon Dijon vinaigrette).

Meanwhile, savory pastries straddled both sides of the menu. Under breakfast, I liked "The Prosciutto," with Brie, apples, and caramelized Belgian endive on a puff pastry. And for lunch, I enjoyed a couple of cheese and vegetable-filled tarts, both baked in a buttery crust. Luckily, they're all available at any time of the day.

Palatte is definitely a welcome addition to downtown. With a few more tweaks, I think it'll be rockin' the house in no time.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig