Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 1 a.m. Ae, mc, V. Reservations. Prices: Light dishes from $2.75 to $4.25; platters $5 to $8.
The waitress eventually found our table and set off the evening with, "Let me tell you what we don't have tonight." Cafe de Artistas does not serve such a negative introduction.
To state it more positively, Cafe de Artistas is a Latin American cafe that is well placed -- in an art gallery -- and well decorated and well populated with a Georgetown bar crowd. The food is about as good as you would expect in a restaurant where food is the second or third consideration.
Ah, that the decorator cooked! The room is shaded from gray to black, with tile floor and skylit ceiling, the walls a gallery of black-and-white contemporary art.And a touch of brilliance catches your eye, a row of magenta stools that lines the wall-long bar. It is a most stylish room, its potential severity softened by indoor trees and the flow of space towards an outdoor patio for warm weather dining. A grand piano waits for the late-evening pianist, but in the meantime, jazz is piped in. This is the kind of place where people catch not a second glance for wearing outlandish hats or for being dressed in St. Laurent or classic Salvation Army, or even in both at once.
It is also a restaurant where you can order just a sandwich or an omelet, perhaps just a plate of fried plantains to accompany your drink; such a light meal could be less than $5. Or you can order an entire conventional meal and spend $10 or $15 more. Experience suggests you opt for the light meals, because the menu oversells the kitchen work. You can eat with pleasure if you carefully cull the verbiage.
Let's take from the beginning the little black book that serves as a menu. Appetizers and soups appear to have seven choices, but usually there are fewer. I managed one day to get the salpicon, a mottled pate with a faint flavor reminiscent of chorizo. It was a bargain at $2.25, with its crackers, olives and pickles plus the badly needed salt and pepper I added.
The kitchen seems to have discarded the menu and gone on to follow its whims, for the garlic soup with ham and egg, aromatic and bracing as it was, certainly showed no evidence of the gratin the menu promised. And a Cubano sandwich of roast pork, ham and cheese had no roast pork until we sent it back to the kitchen for revision. When it returned, it was a likable warm, crisped loaf well stuffed with flowing Swiss cheese and plenty of meat.
The third page lists quiches, but our servers verified that it is never available. The pastel de pollo is more often on site, and it is rough-hewn, a little tired, but a somewhat interesting chicken pie with raisins and tomato sauce in a thick, rather tough crust. For $3.75, it is a filling meal. The tamal preparado, too, at the same price, is an attractive arrangement of crisp-edged pork (sliced very thin and dried out a bit from waiting) with ham, cheese and a tamal that tastes like steamed cornbread, plain but with primitive appeal like oatmeal or grits. The platter is plentiful for the price, nice to nibble with drinks. But also among the light meals are croquetas, also $3.75, which are the kind of sticky, pasty stuff with vague meat flavor that has given croquettes a bad name through history.
Salads and eggs come next. You need not linger, for the iceberg lettuce has been brown-edged, and the omelets are nothing special, except there is Spain's beloved potato omelet. Next, a chicken salad with almonds and mushrooms. Another page presents the more conventional dinner dishes: steaks ( $6 to $8), fish, chicken and pork chops. Their concepts are intriguing -- pork chops marinated in honey and soy; chicken marinated with oranges, wine and garlic. But their execution is by slow death -- tough, dry chops (admittedly somewhat better the second try) and stringy reheated chicken. So far, the salad dressing has been the outstanding feature of the main courses.
But among the ordinary unremarkable food and a few real losers are two outstanding dishes. The fried ripe plantains are crisped in a lightly caramelized batter, deliciously crusted and inside the fruit smoothly ripe. Among the desserts (don't be seduced) by the darling but tasteless miniature French pastries) is a chesse flan unmatched by any I have tasted outside the private home of a very good cook in Puerto Rico. It is extraordinarily thick and creamy, its richness cut with the tang of lemon peel. It is like a Latin version of the Bronx's best cheesecake.
And if most of the food is indifferent and the service is not cluttered with niceties such as pouring your wine or asking if everything is all right, at least Cafe de Artistas is a good drinking and snacking place, with its music and human scenery, its pretty surroundings and its reasonable wine list (even the house wine is Spanish, and rather good). Being an art gallery, an outdoor cafe, a busy bar, and along the way a restaurant, Cafe de Artistas does a little bit of a lot of things and it adds up right for a change of pace.