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Thursday, October 27,2011

A dining discovery — and a good deal

By Clay Fong

For some foodies, exploring new restaurants is a sporting activity, and one of the top trophies is stumbling across a hidden gem before anyone else does. If the place is affordable, so much the better, and unique menu items score additional brownie points, although some might prefer actual brownies. And while you won’t find brownies at Lafayette’s (503) Café, you’ll find all the other elements of a winning and reasonably priced dining discovery in the space formerly occupied by Chip’s Place.

By its own description, (503) Café highlights international cuisine, with a variety of American, Salvadoran, Thai and Italian options. Breakfast selections range from classic Benedicts to caramelized plantain. For lunch, representative choices include prime rib sandwiches, pad thai and jicama root topped with lemon and salt. An intriguing meatless entree is the Chayote, a gourd stuffed with pepper jack and accompanied by risotto and tomato sauce.

During a dinner visit with friend Kon, our server, who had the air of a proprietor, was unfailingly friendly, professional and happy to answer any questions we had about the varied menu. He explained that this eatery had only been open for a few months and was in the process of getting a liquor license.

We were presented with a complimentary appetizer, a Salvadoran pupusa stuffed with spinach and garnished with a salsa-topped slaw. The tortilla exterior wasn’t as thick as other examples, which was to this starter’s benefit. The earthiness of the wilted spinach was able to shine through, presenting a nice contrast to the crisp slaw and tangy salsa.

Our first courses arrived in the form of a $5 grilled Caesar salad and a $7 grilled artichoke. The salad was nearly entrée-sized, featuring numerous Romaine spears stacked high like Lincoln Logs. The grilling was subtle, adding a hint of char to the lettuce’s edges and contributing a delicate smoky aroma, akin to low-key seasoning. The homemade dressing was top-notch, with a dense creaminess not found in a bottled dressing, and a pleasant anchovy-packed punch.

More understated, but equally satisfying, was the grilled artichoke heart. The cooking method saved this vegetable from the mushiness sometimes caused by boiling or steaming, giving it an appealing al dente texture. A Dijon mustard-infused aioli contributed a lemony note reminiscent of spring that played off the understated scent of smoke.

Kon’s $14 Chicken Marsala featured moist chicken breast over a bold Parmesan risotto. The chef didn’t hold back on the cheese in the perfectly textured rice, although less wine might have helped one better appreciate the flavor of the mushrooms in the sauce. Otherwise this was an adroitly prepared classic, combining pure poultry taste with the double-barreled heartiness of the rice.

My $16 pan-fried rib eye steak was a true bargain. Served atop a bed of homemade garlic mashed potatoes swimming in pan sauce, this dish was a great value for the money. The steak wasn’t Oxford English Dictionary-thick, which better allowed the meat to be cooked to a uniform rare state. A touch of marbling enhanced the beef ’s flavor, augmented by the stout red wine wafting from the pan sauce.

The spirit of high quality home cooking (assuming you have an accomplished chef living with you) runs through (503) Café. Those seeking out simple but satisfying dishes won’t be disappointed, particularly in light of the prices.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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