Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tweaking Tao at Cafe 5501

Posted By on Wed, Oct 2, 2013 at 6:37 PM

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It’s understandable if you are confused about the “new” restaurant that’s taken over the old RJ Tao space on Kavanaugh. It’s not Table 28—that’s the new joint inside the Best Western where Vesuvio used to be. It’s not Cellar 220—that’s the new name of the space once housing Lulav. It’s not Forty-Two—that’s the popular restaurant inside the Clinton Presidential Center. Rocket 21? That’s the old Ferneau restaurant in Hillcrest. No, this is Café 5501, and while it can be hard to keep all those numbers straight, just know that this new café is basically a scaled down, more casual version of RJ Tao—same owners (Robert Tju, who also owns Sushi Café), with a more affordable and often more familiar menu. Truthfully though, aside from the new sign on the door, you won’t see too many signs of change within. It remains a large, capacious building with a sizable patio, elegantly and boldly decorated with an Asian-themed influence. Expect lots of soft fluorescent lighting and larger than life Buddha statues.

I stopped in recently for lunch to get a feel for the menu changes and to see if there had been some significant improvements.

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The lunch menu was small, which I have no problem with, made up of about a half-dozen burger options, around the same number of sandwich options, and a handful of salads. Everything was reasonably priced and would not likely represent a significantly taxing bill to pay for an occasional lunch here.

Burgers come only from Creekstone and Ratchford Farms, serving “premium Black Angus beef.” The menu states that they are grinding their beef daily; it also claims that they are flying in fresh seafood daily. The latter seems a little hard for me to swallow, but if it’s true, more power to them and I appreciate the effort. There’s a “garden burger” to appeal to the vegetarian patrons, there’s a sweet and tangy teriyaki burger (panko crusted and deep fried), again hinting towards their decidedly Asian attitude.

I went with the “Famous 5501 Steakhouse Cheddar Cheese Burger,” because, you know, it’s “famous.” Gotta be good. How a burger becomes “famous” when it’s found in a restaurant that has only been open for two months is a question for another day.

The burger was fine. It’s a thick slab of beef formed into a rounded, almost spherical patty. The thickness definitely allows for the option of having your burger cooked medium or medium rare. I requested medium rare and was served a adequately juicy burger with a touch of pink on the inside. The beef is seasoned substantially, heavy on the black pepper and other salts one might commonly find in your average “steak seasoning” mix. The bun appeared to be made with whole grains, and while I appreciated the originality of the bread, I can’t say I preferred it. Cheese was adequately melted and flavorful. In all, a decent burger, but it won’t be making the “famous” list in my book at this point. Fries were enjoyable. Thickly cut Kennebec potatoes, moderately crisp, and freshly fried—they probably outshined the burger overall.

My dining companion, Kevin Shalin, ordered the warm cremini mushroom salad. He found it to be edible but underwhelming. Based on what I sampled of it, I would have to agree. The quartered creminis were soft and lightly sautéed, flavorful and enjoyable. Crispy bacon bits speckled the plate and sat upon a bed of spinach dressed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. It could have used a bit more dressing, really, and I’d not be rushing back to order it were I craving a salad at some point in the future.

I’m not completely writing off Café 5501. There are a few dishes on the brunch menu especially that are intriguing enough to cause me to visit them again—namely, steamed pork dumplings with ginger soy, umami udon noodles and egg with house smoked brisket, or lobster ravioli on cheddar grits. Perhaps the more causal route will better serve the space. But for now, there are still plenty of seats to fill.

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