Restaurant Reviews

Keen on Kaldi

"Eat Here," commands a vintage luncheonette sign above the secretive alleyway leading to the Kaldi Cafe. Heights residents would do well to obey; this youthful starter restaurant run by a trio of twentysomething Brasil alumni is the kind of useful, charming place that makes a neighborhood livable.

Not that the Kaldi, one of a new breed of coffeehouse where food matters, won't attract fans from beyond its immediate sphere of influence. Houstonians with a taste for classic egg salad sandwiches, superior cinnamon toast, smart green salads and old-fashioned desserts should make tracks for the heart of the West 19th Street antiques district, where the Kaldi occupies wonderfully idiosyncratic quarters in an enclosed end of the Chippendale dealers' mall.

Cobbled together with flea-market ingenuity, the two-month-old cafe feels as if it's been there forever. Its high ceilings and view of the alleyway's trompe l'oeil European-garden mural give the space an expansive, dreamy air; butcher-papered tables and a covey of kitschy '50s lamps commandeered from the antiques mall give it a playful tweak. A beaten-copper coffee counter and the hand-tiled tables lining the newly decked and awninged alley foster a loving-hands-of-home atmosphere. The total effect lands the Kaldi in a highly personal middle ground between the ever-so-hip Empire Cafe and the ever-so-artless Cafe Artiste.

The Kaldi's menu, inscribed on hanging rolls of butcher paper, inhabits that same territory. An engaging blend of the familiar and the modern, this document mixes its genres in an utterly individual way: pimiento cheese sandwiches and old-timey red velvet cake straight out of a traditional Texas tearoom cohabit with goat cheese, trendy vinaigrettes and Roma tomatoes, oven-roasted fresh each morning, that give a flavor boost to virtually everything they touch. Even when the execution falters, as it does on occasion, the Kaldi comes off as an interesting work in progress -- one shaped more by the young partners' own lights than by conventional marketing principles. How could you not love a place with the chutzpah to serve a serious salami sandwich and the Houston wit to spice its coffee menu with Vietnamese cafe su da, its iced double espresso mixed with homemade condensed milk?

I could love this place for its comforting egg salad alone. Gently goosed with tart pickle juice, layered with quality tomatoes and lettuce on fine-textured, con-servative whole-wheat bread, it is enough to assuage my regret that Ouisie's and the Tip Top Deli, those peerless egg-salad purveyors, went out of business. A spunky, summery gazpacho laced with cilantro and red onion seems the ideal thing to go along, although a wimpy colleague of mine was laid low by its red pepper content.

The cafe's roasted vegetable sandwich needs only minor tinkering to achieve real distinction: its caponata-like filling of eggplant, red onion, zucchini and crookneck squashes -- livened with an herby balsamic vinaigrette, sweet roasted garlic cloves and those gutsy oven-roasted tomatoes -- deserves better than the mediocre French roll on which it is currently housed. And it deserves to be served at room temperature rather than suffused with a flavor-dampening refrigerator chill, as it was on a recent noon. Still, I'd order this sandwich again in a minute; it's that promising.

So's the unusual Demopulos sandwich that's a happy combination of spicy hard salami, fresh spinach and salty feta cheese, with the mellow natural sweetness of those roasted tomatoes and a red-pepper mayonnaise chiming in. It only wants a crustier French baguette and a tad less feta for the sake of balance. (Note to the takeout-minded: both the Demopulos and roasted vegetable sandwiches are the transport-friendly variety that taste even better after the flavors have been left to converse for a while.)

The goat cheese salad brings new life to a tired genre by sowing tart apple, pear and walnuts among its fancy baby lettuces; a sprightly basil-walnut vinaigrette and roasted peppers help matters along. But those ubiquitous roasted tomatoes here strike a strangely discordant note -- they're great, but not in this particular context.

Among the cafe's lunch and light-supper specials are one of the city's few remaining meatloaf sandwiches (it appears on Wednesdays) and a daily soup -- pleasant but unprepossessing cream of spinach on a recent weekday. Actually the Kaldi has a resolute unpredictability about it, from pimiento cheese's random appearances to the menu description of the very retro Country Club plate: "chicken or tuna salad, whichever got made this morning."

This seat-of-the-pants air probably springs from the tender age of the proprietors, whose earnestness is tempered with a determination to have fun. Witness their icebergy "White Trash Salad" that mutated to the less incendiary "Blanco Basura" before disappearing from the menu entirely after diners proved immune to the joke. I hope time doesn't iron out the quirks and enthusiasms of 27-year-old Stephanie DuBroff, who worked at Brennan's and Third Coast as well as the Brasil coffeehouse, where the trio met; 26-year-old Kevin Johnson, who cut his restaurant teeth at Treebeards and La Madeleine; and 25-year-old Carl Nixon, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute who cooked at the late Rascal House, where meatloaf also had an honored position.

Nixon's passion for vintage American dessert recipes yields some revivals of fogotten classics that are startlingly fresh and provocative. His spicy pumpkin bread sports a browned-butter icing that is richly, addictively nutty-tasting. His lemony tea bread is infused with a tart, haunting citrus glaze that conjures up some moldering Southern veranda. Bread pudding à la Nixon is an opulent, triangular wedge of custard-laced croissants on a whipery layer of fresh blackberry sauce. And his carrot cake is a deciously moist, geneously iced, four-layer production number that makes me long to sample his red velvet cake, that beloved Texas oddity that features copious quantities of red food coloring. Did I wish Nixon's cream cheese icing had a slightly higher ratio of cheese to sugar? I did. Did that quibble keep me from consuming every crumb of a gigantic slice of cake? No, it did not.

The coffee so crucial to the consumption of these desserts is strong, serious stuff, painstakingly drawn into glass mugs where it seethes with steamed milk and froth as if it were attached to a miniature wave-making machine. Both latte and cappuccino get good marks. They'd better, given that the name of the cafe comes from the apocryphal Ethiopian goatherd whose attention was drawn to certain red berries by the caffeine-induced gaboling of his animals. You can guess the rest.

Breakfasts worth eating can turn a coffee place into something really useful. On weekends the Kaldi obliges with splendid cinnamon toast; high, light coffee-flavored waffles (an idea far more appealing in practice than in theory) to eat with whipped cream and fresh berries; an interesting homemade granola spiked with dried apricots; and free-form quasi-omelets in which scrambled eggs are paired with a variety of mix-and-match ingredients. Here the cafe's garlicky roasted tomatoes prove a boon: they are swell in conjunction with cheddar and bacon, even better with fresh spinach and feta. And scrambling the eggs is a sensible idea for a fledgling, shoestring place -- omelets would be too demanding at this stage of the Kaldi's life. Unlike too many restaurants, this is a place that knows its limits.

Those limits seem bound to expand with time and practice. Nixon is already talking about staging monthly family-style soul food dinners with seating by reservation only. He and his partners are pruning the menu and adding to it (that's the beauty of butcher paper), adjusting their hours to accommodate brunch and dinner, making it up as they go along. People are figuring out that it's there -- down that funny slot of an alley, behind that jaunty homemade sign. First the area retailers; then the antiquers and artsy young Heightsers and neighborhood families; even a couple of suburban matrons who, upon tasting Nixon's red velvet cake, simultaneously proposed marriage to him.

Beset by a sudden influx of customers on a recent Saturday noon, Nixon paused during a lull and surveyed the premises with a beatific look on his face. "I love this business!" declared this infant Houston capitalist with an absolutely guileless glee.

Kaldi Cafe, 250 West 19th St., 802-2246.

Kaldi Cafe: egg salad sandwich, $3.95; goat cheese salad, $4.75; pumpkin bread, 92 cents; carrot cake, $3.95; cafe latte, $2.75.