Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday from noon; for dinner Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday, V. MC, AE. Reservations advisable. Prices: Main courses at lunch, $2.50 to $5, at dinner, $4.75 to $10.95. Full dinner with tax and tip about $17.
Happen into this darkly stylish suburban watering hole on a weekday evening and you'll feel you've stumbled into Saturday night. Well-turned young professionals throng the outer room bar in noisy camaraderie, and on weekends the din is supplemented by live entertainment. But for eaters it's the inner dining room that counts. Removed from socializing it offers some of the best food in the suburbs.
Why? What makes the Ice House Cafe click? If there were an easy answer, dozens of Ice Houses might ring the city. In the absence of a clear formula, there are clues.
Clue: The Ice House bakes its own bread every morning, actually bakes it as opposed to buying and warming those half-baked blobs of dough that are sometimes mistaken for homemade bread.
Clue: Fresh. The house policy calls for vegetables and fish brought in only as needed, with no intermediary freezer between market and diner. (The policy has a few pitfalls. Two visits failed to produce any fish -- one evening they'd run out, another day none was delivered.)
Still another clue: The menu is brief, modest in its ambitions. No page after page of hard to make "Continental" specialities. There's intelligence behind all this, and his name is Steve Jaeger, who was chef at the late L'Auberge in Middleburg. He's chosen an eclectic menu -- tempura, German pork chops, baked ziti, veal champignons -- that combines artistry with good sense.
The dining room behind the bar at the Ice House Cafe, with its creamy wall, dark wainscoting and candle-lit tables, has a quiet appeal to the eye. The other senses are less lucky because the archway between the rooms is neither sound-proof nor cigarette smoke-proof. If you're after conversation with dinner, specify a table in the back of the room when you make your reservation. (Reservations are definitely advisable here, especially on weekends.)
Rumaki, an appetizer of grilled chicken livers wrapped in bacon, makes a for a good nibble with before-dinner drinks. The bacon is done just under crispness, and the livers are sweet, fresh and firm. Oysters Remick -- baked with swiss cheese and horseradish sauce -- succeeds because it starts with plump, firm oysters, avoids overcooking and doesn't let the oyster flavor get lost under too much goo.
Can an Occidental restaurant prepare tempura really well? Yes, says the cauliflower tempura appetizer, with its delicate golden batter and nearly crisp, grease-free interior. For dipping: a slightly sweet pineapple-soy sauce. Vegetarians are treated well with a beautiful mixed vegetable tempura entree, fried on a skewer, that includes zucchini, green pepper, onion, sweet potato and mushroom and by a less spectacular vegetable platter that offers whatever vegetables are fresh that day, served on a bed of rice.
In these days of ersatz "cream of" soups -- that mucky kind that substitute flour for cream -- the Ice House is a good place to recall the genuine article. The soup of the day -- mushroom, seafood, whatever's available fresh -- is generally laced with cream and butter and lightly peppered and herbed. Don't miss it.
The salads that accompany some of the entrees and the somewhat larger salads available a la carte, are an odd mixture of care and carelessness: care in using perfect romaine and painstakingly drying it and in making a fine mustard-flavored dressing, carelessness in pouring the dressing over the greens without tossing, leaving puddles of excess dressing at the bottom of the plate.
Veal piquante, sauteed in a white wine sauce, is a finely balanced dish, with capers and fresh lemon giving the right salt-sour nudge to the delicate veal. On the same plate are excellent roasted potatoes that soak up just enough of the sauce to add flavor.
The Ice House's baked ziti is as skilled as that offered in nearly any Italian restaurant in the area, a casserole dish in which all the components retain identity, where everything under the melted mozzarella covering still has shape and texture. The pasta, even submerged by sauce and cheese, is al dente; the ricotta filling remains fluffy and unpenetrated by excess liquid, its mild cheese flavor holding its own; and the tomato sauce, bright and fruity, complements the other ingredients. The whole is topped with a couple of sweet, juicy Italian sausages, fragrant with fennel.
The German-style pork chops equally outstanding, thick and meaty, are served with a mildly sweet-and-sour red cabbage and an excellent German potato salad.
Desserts at the House Cafe are sensibly limited: three varieties of first-rate made-in-the-house cheesecake, Haagan-Dazs ice cream and Le Sorbet sherbet.
"Sensible" also describes the wine selection, a well-thought-out assortment of Californias from $7 to $11.50, a few Italians and a dozen or so Frenches from $7 to $26. House carafe wines are also avaialable. What's less sensible is the absence of half-bottles.