Who knew empty-nest syndrome could be so fruitful? Some parents are positively giddy when their kids finally fly the coop. Not Carla Mavrogiannidis, who was heartsick at the thought of losing her twin daughters, now high school seniors, to college. So she began, as she put it, "the slow transition to my other life" by focusing her energies on a new sort of love: a restaurant. And so the Spot Cafe was born.
Mavrogiannidis's choice of the food business wasn't a novice venture. She and her husband, George, have owned restaurants for two decades, including a small Boston-area chain called Chicken Express. George, in fact, still owns the Chicken Express in Belmont's Cushing Square, while Carla is sole owner of the cafe, which opened in February near Watertown Square. "That's the his," she says, "and this is the hers."
Modeled after a French patisserie, the Spot is the anti-greasy spoon. From the realistic mural of a Paris streetscape to the sidewalk flower boxes to the lovely dining room painted eggplant, golden mustard, and dark orange, the place exudes class and sophistication -- without a whiff of pretension. With hardwood floors below and recessed lighting above, you'll feel like you're eating in an art gallery. And, as befits a restaurant with Parisian aspirations, the Spot takes its bread very, very seriously.
There are no light-as-air, American-style loaves served here. The breads come from a Montreal bakery called Au Pain Dore, which uses stone ovens to produce crusty, hearty, Old World European bread -- baguettes, baguettines, olive loaves, nut-raisin rolls (although these weren't available on any of my three visits), ciabatta, and whole-grain miche. They arrive par-baked from Au Pain Dore, and Mavrogiannidis finishes baking them at the cafe.
Then she does wonderful things with them. She slices and grills the baguettines, for instance, and serves them with whipped butter and strawberry preserves ($1.75). She transforms the baguettes into thin, crunchy French toast ($3.95) sprinkled with cinnamon or topped with fresh fruit. She uses soft, plump rolls called campagnards (or bagels or croissants) for the "breakfast quickies" ($2.95), made with fluffy, folded cheese omelets and ham, bacon, or sausage. She even makes the croutons for the Caesar salads. Most sandwiches ($6.45) are served on baguettines or ciabatta and can be pressed upon request.
"To me, it's all about the bread," Mavrogiannidis explained, "because you can make any sandwich, but if you don't have the foundation, you don't have anything." I wondered: Has the proliferation of low-carb diets hurt business? Mavrogiannidis says she's certainly aware of the national bread phobia, and she senses that some customers are reluctant to buy loaves. But she's made an interesting observation -- many of her patrons are more likely to skip a side order of pan-fried potatoes than pass up a freshly baked and buttered baguette.
The Spot serves breakfast all day on weekends and stops serving breakfast between 11 a.m. and noon on weekdays (even though, no matter the time of day, "I hardly ever say no if someone comes in and says, `Will you make me eggs?' " Mavrogiannidis confides). On weekends the cafe serves a limited lunch menu, as well as coffee and desserts.
I love the Spot's buttermilk pancakes ($3.95-$4.45, real maple syrup an extra $1.50), which aren't made from scratch but do contain a secret ingredient that Mavrogiannidis would only disclose is "some sort of fruit juice." Available plain or with blueberries, raspberries, or chocolate chips, the pancakes (three per order) are grilled rather than fried, leaving them brown and crusty. The fruit and chips are mixed into the batter, not sprinkled on. I really like the raspberry cakes made with frozen berries that bleed into the batter.
Fruit also plays a starring role in the yogurt parfait ($3.50). Served in a small goblet, it's extremely pretty, and very tasty, thanks to alternating layers of vanilla yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit. I'm not as crazy about the Belgian waffles ($3.45-$4.95), even though they're made with the same mix used for the pancakes. They're too soggy -- although they were quickly wolfed down once we heaped them with strawberries and whipped cream.
For lunch, I'm partial to the roasted turkey sandwiches, especially the one with sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, baby greens, and tangy red wine vinaigrette that soaks into the bread. The chicken salad is also a nice choice; it's served nearly naked with only salt, pepper, celery, and a touch of mayo. A smattering of black olives adds salty zing. The grilled steak and cheese sandwich rivals the best Philly cheesesteaks and is made with lean sirloin chopped and grilled until it has a gravy-like consistency. But the basil-tomato-mozzarella sandwich is marred by tomatoes that taste mealy and refrigerator-cold, not garden-fresh, and the "hand-carved imported Black Forest ham" sandwich, despite that enticing description, resembles grocery store lunch meat.
Other menu highlights are the lentil soup (cup $2.45, bowl $3.45) sprinkled with feta cheese (extra 50 cents) that melts in the hot broth, the Caesar salad ($5.25, $6.75 with chicken) topped with freshly grated Pecorino-Romano, and the Greek salad ($5.75) with creamy dressing. Desserts include an excellent German chocolate cake ($3.50) made by Flaky Pastry in Chelmsford. Thickly iced with caramel-coconut frosting and studded with whole walnuts, it's worth every calorie.
The Blue Room Lunch Cart 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. 617-494-1934. Weekdays from May through September (weather permitting), the upscale Blue Room goes casual for lunch. For about the price of sub, you can sit on the pretty patio munching expertly grilled meats and inspired sides (some recipes drawn from the popular brunch). For $6 to $8 get an entree, a choice of two sides, and a watermelon slice for dessert. You walk-up to order, choose your sides, and it's all dished out lickety-split onto a plastic plate. It kind of feels like a picnic, only at this picnic everybody can cook. (D.T., 08/12/04)