It seems everybody's doing it. First, it was Robert Del Grande and his clan (Cafe Annie), then it was Michael Cordóa (Américas and Churrascos). Monica Pope (Boulevard Bistrot) soon followed, and now Bruce Molzan (Ruggles, Ruggles Bistro Latino, Uncle Ben's Rice box) has got into the act. What these eminently successful restaurateurs have all done, with varying degrees of success, is spin off casual counter-service eateries: Del Grande with Café Express and Taco Milagro, Cordóa with Amazon Grill, Pope with 43 Brasserie and Molzan with the recently opened and obviously popular Ruggles Cafe Bakery. These places appear to fill a need for upscale fast food that comes with no waitstaff, no reservations and no high price tags.
I must confess that I'm not overly fond of waiting in line to order food, perhaps because the longer I stand and read the menu, the more food I'm likely to order. There are benefits, of course: There is no pretentious waitstaff to deal with, and I suppose I do burn off a few calories shuffling my feet in line, walking to my table, marching back to the counter to pick up my order, then carrying my tray back to the table (whew, I'm getting winded just thinking about it). But if you're cardiovascularly challenged like me, you soon learn how to beat the system. For instance, here's a hint: If you're planning to order dessert, do it when you order the entrées, but ask the person at the register to hold your treat until you're ready for it. That way you'll save yourself a second round of waiting in line.
I must also confess that when the food's as good as it is at Ruggles Cafe Bakery, I would stand for hours to sample it. Okay, I exaggerate, but I would stand for minutes on end for the roast pork sandwich ($7.95), which immediately entered my personal pantheon of truly great sandwiches. Generous slices of tender, almost buttery roast pork were piled on a slab of crusty bread, dressed with caramelized onions, mozzarella and a delicious mango-chipotle mayonnaise, then grilled just long enough to slightly melt the cheese and give the bread a light crunch. (Just writing about it makes me want another one, ASAP.)
Ruggles Cafe Bakery,
2365-A Rice Boulevard,
Only a sturdy soup can match a sandwich of this magnitude; fortunately Ruggles Cafe is up to the task. I've sampled all three of the regular soups and have loved each of them: a slightly chunky and deeply flavorful roasted tomato and basil soup ($4.95), a suave Cuban black bean soup garnished with goat cheese and bacon ($5.95), and, perhaps most surprising (for me, anyway), a robust and flavorful vegetarian soup. The two soups of the day ($4.95) that I tried were a bit disappointing. The potato leek, while good, paled in comparison with the standbys. As for the split pea, well, let's just say that the peas had a bit more crunch than I find attractive or desirable in a soup.
Not to betray my new love, the roast pork, but there were other worthwhile sandwiches on the menu as well, including a blue cheese bacon burger ($7.95), a tasty grilled chicken wrap ($7.50) and even a more-than-decent Reuben ($7.95 with mozzarella rather than the traditional Swiss cheese). There was also a nice assortment of salads (Caesar, goat cheese, steak and the like). Being heavily influenced by noted food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's seminal essay "Salad, the Silent Killer," I never actually got around to ordering one, but I have to say they looked good.
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If I'm not savoring the roast pork sandwich (sigh) on my next trip to Ruggles Cafe Bakery, I'll probably be ordering the tasty black pepper fettuccine ($12.95). Nice al dente pasta was tossed with a rich, sweet garlic cream sauce and topped with an enormous grilled chicken breast, pounded thin and crusted with pepper. You can bet I won't order the black bean pasta ($12.95) tossed with goat cheese, grilled chicken, bacon and spicy salsa in cream sauce. The pasta was pasty and gummy, a bit of an unfocused mess.
Fortunately the desserts can soothe any hurts. The menu lists 33 different ones ($5.95 each), and that doesn't include the six kinds of cookies ($1.75 each), or the four kinds of Danish ($2.25 each), or the six kinds of croissants ($2.25 to $5.95). Hey, it's not called a cafe bakery for nothing! I'm not even going to suggest what you should order, although I will say I enjoyed the apple spice cake with ice cream, the chocolate marjolaine, the croissant bread pudding, the fresh fruit tart and the warm berry buckle with ice cream very, very much. In fact, the only dessert that didn't enthrall was the vanilla bean parfait, not because it wasn't good, but because it was buried under so much whipped cream that it amounted to -- God forgive me, I never thought I'd use this word regarding a dessert -- overkill.
In the world of restaurants, as in television, the spin-off isn't always a sure thing (see Joanie Loves Chachi and Margaret L. Briggs's review of 43 Brasserie, "43 Skiddoo," April 5), but Ruggles Cafe Bakery works well. It already has the feel of a neighborhood hangout where friends greet each other in line and across tables. If only I lived in this neighborhood, I'd be a regular, too.
Ruggles Cafe Bakery, 2365-A Rice Boulevard, (713)520-6662.