Early signs are promising at the Terra Cafe, Terence Dickson's sweet new eatery and coffee shop in lower Charles Village.
The place is comfortable, with colors and surfaces meant to evoke the natural world. Dickson told me that his first guests were members of his church, who blessed his restaurant. It feels that way.
Terra Cafe opened in early December, but a steady crowd streamed in on a recent Saturday morning and afternoon. I went for breakfast and went back for lunch. (A few days later, Dickson described that Saturday, when he was unexpectedly short-staffed, as "bananas.") The menu of sandwiches, wings, flatbread pizzas and breakfast items is presented as the "soft opening menu," which sits well with me. On one hand, I admire a place that knows what it wants to be the moment it opens, but I also like a restaurant that listens to its customers - takes their pulse, so to speak.
A turkey burger was served with a request for feedback: "Let us know what you think; we're really trying to make this great." That kind of attitude will help a lot in Terra Cafe's early days if customers find themselves waiting a long time for food, for whatever reason.
Lunch was very busy at Terra Cafe; a large party had reserved tables for a special occasion. An extraordinary waitress named Robin was the server. (Never before has a waitress brought over a bottled soda, unscrewed the top and poured it for me in an ice-filled glass.) It was the kitchen that was slow. And breakfast wasn't busy at all, but an omelet took forever. Later, though, when some friends of mine came in, I noticed that their (great-looking) fish sandwiches came out in record time. Maybe the kitchen is prepared and equipped to expedite some items better than others. They'll figure it out.
I did like that turkey burger. Browned nicely, it looked like it had been sliced from a homemade turkey loaf. It was served on a good ciabatta roll with homemade chipotle mayo. But I wish Terra Cafe would use better cheese or something that is convincingly real cheese. The Swiss on the burger and the provolone on an otherwise decent Reuben was, I think, some kind of cheese product that doesn't melt right or have any real taste. It's too bad about the Reuben, one of the half-dozen panini and flatbread sandwiches on Terra Cafe's menu, because it had good corned beef and was pressed to a lovely, toasty brown finish.
There are nine preparations of wings and winglets on the menu. We ordered the Terra Heat, which uses a mix of pepper and Texas Pete hot sauce. They were good, with a nice crispy skin that pulled away easily from the meat. Terra Cafe makes its own chips (but was out of them when we visited) and serves a great, heaping plate of crisp shoestring sweet potato fries, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a mango ketchup. They're dangerously good.
But I might have missed out on the best offering. The battered fish subs my friends were having were truly gorgeous, and my friends said they were amazing.
It feels like the menu could go in one of two ways: either toward traditional cafe fare you can get just about anywhere or toward a healthful version of traditional soul food, which is something the city could really use. Maybe it's already headed that way. When we spoke, Dickson described a baked fish special that sounded like just the thing to bring new people to his sunny cafe.
Where: 101 E. 25th St.
Open: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Ambience: *** (3 stars)
on the menu
* Veggie omelet: $5.95
* Turkey burger: $7.95
* Battered fish sub: $7.95
* Four wings: $6
* Flatbread pizza: $7
* Reuben: $7.95
* House salad: $5
* Sweet potato fries: $2