Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Dinner for two with drinks, appetizers and desserts costs $40 to $45. Cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diners Club, Choice.
Cafe du Port is not really a cafe as much as a traditional French restaurant with an informal spirit and a small menu -- the kind of place where you can feel comfortable drinking champagne dressed in a sports shirt or with a sweater tossed over your shoulders.
But don't think about sandwiches or snacks -- you'll be eating steak with peppercorns or filet mignon, veal with mustard sauce or sole with almonds. And for the most part, the food is good for the price -- almost all the entrees cost less than $11 -- although with just some small changes, it could be a lot better.
The cafe is downstairs from its more famous, more expensive cousin, La Bergerie. It has a single plain dining room, with nautical decorations tacked on almost as an afterthought.
It seems immoral to start the meal in a restaurant like this with anything but snails, and the cafe makes good ones -- tender, with plenty of butter and parsley and garlic (the mussels have the same sauce, but at a recent dinner seemed a little dry). We also like the clams casino, which are somewhat unusual -- they have the classic chunk of bacon, but they're also topped with a nice puree of peppers, onions and carrots.
Oysters Rockefeller aren't as good; we like the idea behind them -- a clump of simple spinach and a light sauce instead of all that rich cream that restaurants often serve -- but the seasoning is bland, bland, bland. The onion soup, though, is excellent, with a strong, fresh-tasting broth, not too salty, and lots of tender, crusty cheese.
This doesn't necessarily mean all the soups are good. The menu told us our soup of the day was cream of asparagus, but it could have been salty canned corn soup for all we could tell. If you want a light appetizer, try the Caesar salad, thoughtfully made in single servings.
The cafe's kitchen does a good job with most of the entrees. We've enjoyed the veals with lemon and butter or with a tart mustard cream -- this is nice quality veal, very tender. And at a recent dinner, the whole trout with tiny shrimps and the salmon filet were excellent; the fish were perfect, just barely cooked. At $10.25, the steak with green peppercorn cream is a good deal (it is, oddly enough, much better than the filet mignon, which is too dry). We're usually skeptical about duck with orange sauce, but we liked it here.
But talking about sauces actually leads us to our biggest complaint: With a few exceptions, the sauces here don't add to the dishes, they detract from them. The kitchen seems to have the impression that more is better, so they bury the food in sauces -- they drown that lovely piece of salmon in thick hollandaise; threaten the veal with an ocean of cream; drench the fragile trout with a pool of butter. You can't get away from all that clarified butter at Cafe du Port -- there's so much of it on some dishes it starts to make one feel sick.
For dessert there's no question: Skip the washed-out chocolate mousse and the humdrum ice cream with meringue; don't be tempted even by the creme caramel. Instead, go for the wonderful strawberry cake: a simple vanilla cake in three layers, striped with strawberry mousse, then topped with freshly whipped cream and strawberries. This is the perfect kind of cake to savor as you sip a cup of espresso (if they fix the espresso machine, which blew its circuit). Then, stop next door at the cafe's nightclub lounge for a brandy and live jazz.