Open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, BA, D, MC. No reservations.
Food: Light French and heavy French, all rather good French
Style: Looks, sounds, acts and tastes like a Parisian cafe
Price: No dish over $4.50; full dinners $6.75
WITH THE LINES forming outside at lunch, Cafe Sorbet doesn't need me to tell any more people of its existence. But some of you surely eat at times other than lunchtime, and tables sit free both late afternoons and after the commuter rush in the evening. Trunover is fast. And Cafe Sorbet is one of those restaurants that serves many purpose.
It's cold and rainy, and you're going to the movies and want something warmly filling, but no big deal of a meal. The onion soup is thick and faintly sweet with slowly melted onions, warms you with its fragrance. You could come back the next rainy night for the soup of the day, perhaps a golden puree of vegetables that reminds you that spring still exists somewhere.
You're back from Paris and can't bear acknowledging that the trip is over. Cafe Sorbet is ringed with mural-size photos of Paris - the people, the streets, the signs - and French songs are played continuosly, just loudly enough to affect but not intrude. You can consume your nostalgia with steak frites, the thinly cut steak and French fries reminiscent, depending on your orientation, of Paris plats du jour or Thrasher's French fry outlet on Ocean City's boardwalk.
A drink is what you crave, but something luscious and sweet to refresh you after a salty. Cafe Sorbet is a branch of Le Sorbet, which makes those spectacular fresh fruit sherbets now icing the shops and restaurants of New York and Washington. At the Cafe, the sherbets are anointed with rum, tequila and gin, whipped in a blender and served in goblets as Razzler-Dazzlers (lemon and rasberry with gin), Rendez-Vous Rages (cassis and lime with tequila), Celestial Delights (banana and coconut with rum), lazy Liaisons (a sherbet pina colada) and Passionate Potions (banana and passion fruit with rum). You could, of course, have a more routine drink, or a thoughtfully chosen $7 bottle or $4.50 cafe of wine. You could warm yourself with a capuccino or espresso, heal yourself with camomile tea, or remind yourself of the wonders of fresh lemonade.
You need a lunch that is quick, even though it is 3 p.m., and you want something light that won't interfere with a big dinner. But you aren't willing to settle for something you will forget as soon as you have finished chewing. Cafe Sobert has a salade tahitienne with the salmon whipped into a kind of coral mayonnaise, studded with shrimp and capers, ringed by seeded cucumber crescents, green peppers, olives and anchovies. Its salade nicoise is a still life of tunna, egg halves, quartered tomatoes, green pepper shreds, anchovies, olives and a whole boiled potato, all bedded down in the very greens you would pick yourself if you were a careful shopper, and topped with a springhtly creamy vinaigrette. The chef's salad is pretty much the same, but with cubed ham instead of the tuna and anchovies.
You want a snack. Rather, two you want a snack, but you want something sweet, and he dosen't. Cafe Sorbet has cheese plates and raw vegetable plates, tomatoes and artichokes served with that creamy vinaigrette or with homemade mayonnaise, arranged as a snack for the eyes as well as the mouth. For dessert, sherbets, as you might have guessed. But there are tarts as well, tarts with honor-roll quality pastry and light, fluffy custard. But apple is best, and the neon gel on top deserves a failing grade.
Maybe all this sounds too adventrous for you. You just want a sandwich, something you're sure of. Well, you can even get a hot dog at Cafe Sorbet, though it comes with melted cheese and costs $2. But there also salami and ham and tuna and egg salad sandwiches, pate or salade nicoise or camembert for the less conventional, a fat, creamy - though disappointingly bland - croque monsieur for people who will call anything a snadwich. Just an omelet? At Cafe Sorbet they ask how runny you want it (then tend to overcook it) and fill it generously.
You don't like to nibble at this and eat your meals in half-hearted sections. When you go out, you want a real meal. Cafe Sorbet has a choice of two fixed-price meals - steak frites or poulet basquarise with appetizer, dessert and beverage - for $6.75. And poached rockfish in whit wine sauce is always on the menu, as are steamed mussels. But each day brings fresh plats du jour, such pleasures as fresh trout in a heavily tarragoned and lightly tomato-flavored sauce choron, buttery and acid enough to balance nicely the rich fish. A satisfying dish - if one neglected to notice the mush of overcooked, oversalted green beans that must have been meant as a contrast to highlight the quality of the fish.
You love all of the above. You want anything - a drink or sandwich, a full meal, just dessert - as long as it doesn't cost too much. The very phrase "French food" strikes fear in your checkbook. Venture forth, for the prices at Cafe Sorbet are far from intimidating. That silky trout was a mere $3.95. Other main dishes are $4.25 to $4.50, the salads up to $3.50. A camembert sandwich is only $1.35, the extravagant prosciutto or pate sandwiches $2.25. Omelets are $3, pastries no more than $1.50. You can do a lot of eating and drinking for under $10, as long as you don't get stuck on those sherbet drinks, which ar $2.75 each.
You know the reputation of French waiters - haughty, bursque, making you feel like a tourist in your own land. The waiters at Cafe Sorbet are, at least some of them, French. They also are, all of them, as light-hearted as the airy, plant-strewn dining room, as lively as their chocolate-brown aprons with the restaurant's logo, as soothing and sweet as those sherbet drinks.Their pace changes with the time of day: rapid-fire at lunch, more relaxed at dinner, waiting for your signal in the evening, lest you feel unwelcome.
If you can't get away this winter, get to the Cafe Sorbet.