Word of mouth comes to a fast boil on the foodie circuit: if this is January 1995, any Inner Loopster worth his Kosher salt can be found at the brand-new Daily Review Cafe, dining on stylish comfort food and keeping watch over the door. You feel the eyes -- curious, appraising -- the moment you enter this vintage, yellow-brick cubbyhole. The glances are a species of secret, clubby handshake; the unspoken question in the air is, "You, too?"
What brings the be-there-or-be-square crowd together in culinary communion? A swell venetian-blinded room in which film noir meets TriBeCa, its austere cinder blocks washed in pale chartreuse and murky buttermilk yellow. A well-edited menu of Mediterranean-influenced American bistro food by promising young chef Claire Smith: sophisticated pot pies; steak du jour glammed up with boutique potatoes (blue and fingerlings); aioli here and mint there; warm-fennel this and Swiss-chard that. Reasonable prices add to the allure. So does the oddball location on an Allen Parkway backwater, in the former quarters of a local legal publication called the Daily Court Review.
But the real deal at the Daily Review -- cafe incarnation -- is that the food can be very, very good. Take those pot pies: while restaurant versions are generally a dreary lot, Smith's puts tender chicken, sliced fennel and whatever the market provides (butternut squash? carrots?) under a crown of shiny, flaky pastry; a graceful, buttery sauce ties it up into a hugely satisfying package. Your life actually seems better for having eaten one.
The same can be said of an earthy lentil-and-mushroom soup du jour that one noon fairly sings of garlic, or a warm spinach salad galvanized by its pristine, just-barely-sweet vinaigrette and the tiniest, discreetest crumbles of feta cheese. Nicely grilled pork chops escape mundane meat-and-potatohood via an elegant, melting gratin of skinny yam and potato slices that's impossible to get enough of (think scalloped potatoes that have achieved a state of enlightenment).
On another day, the pork chops might come with a gratin of potato and artichoke; the spinach salad with mint and endive instead of radicchio alongside its pine nuts and roasted red peppers. Each day's bill of fare -- fresh from the computer printer -- changes in an incremental, market-oriented way, which keeps things interesting, but also means a dish that wows you once may not wow you again. That lentil-and-mushroom soup may reappear in a version rife with meaty shiitakes and braised greens, but bereft of its garlicky vibrance, a descent that takes it from the realm of the spectacular to the kingdom of the merely good.
That's the way of things here: the disappointments tend to be of a minor rather than a major nature. The penne pasta that sounds so appealing with its Swiss chard and lamb braised in Guinness stout turns out to be only mildly pleasant, its mellow brown broth notwithstanding. (More of the promised Parmesan might give the dish a much-needed flavor boost.) Or perhaps the nut-rich apple-pecan crisp could use some more oven time to deserve its name -- it's homey and comforting, but crisp? Uh-uh.
Otherwise, happiness. Smith's affinity for interesting greens and vegetables is a continuing source of entertainment; likewise her penchant for working nuts and fruits into various contexts. A baked goat-cheese appetizer is liable to emerge not only with roasted garlic and a lovely salad of baby greens, but also with spiced pecans and grilled apples, or spiced walnuts and oranges. That there is first-rate sourdough to go along with this attests to the earnestness of the place.
A Mediterranean appetizer plate adds a light, tart chickpea dip to a rustic, dark-hued eggplant caviar; at noon, with such additions as orzo pasta salad, this plate grows into a main-dish salad. There's a Caesar, of course (isn't there always?), and it is more than respectable, laced with anchovy and strewn with garlic croutons; but it is no match for its warm-spinach cousin.
Baked polenta, however, that great '90s cliche, emerges in a fresh guise: vividly embellished with a tomato-and-zucchini gratin, zapped with winy olives, smoothed out with rich fontina cheese. And salmon croquettes march forth in a grown-up version as crusty, simple, scallion-spiked cakes wearing a cap of garlicky aioli sauce. Underneath? Daily Review-ish grilled fennel and tart oven-dried tomatoes, plus a thicket of twiggy, marinated green beans that are, unfortunately, one degree removed from rawness.
If the intense, fine-grained walnut-coffee tart appears on the daily dessert roster, snap it up; the clouds of whipped cream and fresh berries alongside are well and good, but the tart itself is the thing. There is fine, strong coffee. There are thoughtful wines by the glass. There is table-hopping in spades, from the long banquette damasked in a quirky insect print that would do an old-fashioned Viennese coffeehouse proud, to the varnished concrete tables that gleam so chastely.
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Photographers, Realtors, artists, writers, retail mavens tell each other how good the lamb stew is, offer a bite of baked goat cheese, wonder who those striking women of a certain age are. For many Daily Reviewers occupy that strange new demographic niche: the with-it middle aged. If art dealer Mary Boone or Mick Jagger came to town, this is where you'd expect to catch a glimpse of them, dining among their age group with the beautiful odd grungester or two as decorative punctuation.
Already the cafe parking lot is filling up alarmingly, and there are occasional waits for a table to be whiled away on the patio -- a kitschy combination of trailer park and early-'70s hippie compound. Go now. The talented Claire Smith may still be finding her sea legs, but she's damn good and likely to get better.
Daily Review Cafe, 3412 West Lamar at Dunlavy, 520-9217.
warm spinach salad, $5.50;
chicken pot pie, $8;
grilled pork chops, $9.35.