I don't get to Houston or Dallas much (okay, except for the State Fair!), so I was unfamiliar with Cafe Express when I received an invitation to the soft opening of their first Austin location, and 18th overall. Located in the old La Madeline spot at 35th and Lamar, Cafe Express has completely transformed the spot from it's French bistro origins into a modern establishment enrobed in glass windows. Their website says "Cafe Express has always been distinguished by its 'made-from-scratch' philosophy. Every day we chop our own vegetables, and we make our own chunky chocolate brownies from scratch." That's a fairly impressive statement, and I would hope not to find any pre-chopped food service bags of vegetables in their walk-in cooler!
A little after 7 pm on a Friday, my friends and I were warmly welcomed, and told to order whatever we wish and to enjoy the evening. So for three of us, we did order a good amount of food (though one in our party is pregnant!). Here's the rundown of what we ate and how it fared:
Shrimp Campeche with Avocado & Chipotle Sauce -- A bit too sweet for my tastes. The tomato-based sauce tasted like it was made from Heinz Sweet Chile Sauce.
Fresh Guacamole, Chipotle Salsa & Chips -- The guac had good texture, consistency and taste, and I am not a big avocado eater. The salsa was a bit flat, though it did have a nice roasted, smokey flavor.
Creamy New Potato Soup -- Great flavor, we pretty much licked this bowl clean, but a little thin in the consistency department; chunks of potato in the bowl were nice too.
Caesar Salad (on the left in photo) -- This was the one main disappointment of the meal. Very fresh, but what typifies a Caesar salad is the bit of anchovy (or anchovy paste) in the dressing. This had none of it, no depth. I don't know if I would have known it was supposed to be a Caesar dressing if I hadn't been the one who ordered it. It seemed like a Caesar dressing you'd get with your salad at Wendy's; bummer, 'cause I love a good Caesar.
Veggie Chef Salad -- This almost made up for the Caesar! Here's the description of the salad: "fresh romaine & spring mix lettuce with avocado, glazed pecans, fennel, grape tomatoes, jicama, croutons, pickled carrots & onions with creamy parmesan dressing." Yum! This was great, and we unanimously agreed on that. Lots of "goodies" in the salad, a good tasting dressing. You can add shrimp or chicken to it. It also had the appropriate amount of dressing on it -- it wasn't drowning in it. I almost always ask for my salads with the dressing on the side (even Caesars sometimes) because restaurants generally put way too much for my taste. I thought about asking for it on the side when I was ordering, but I decided against it, as I wanted to see if they could pass the test, and they did. With flying colors.
Danish Blue Cheese and Smoked Bacon Burger -- This was a large burger. Grilled nicely, so still very slightly pink inside. Nice crisp bacon, blue cheese didn't overpower. Very tasty. Fries were good too. Next time, I'd like to try their sweet potato fries. Side note: any of the burgers listed on the menu can be a beef patty, ground turkey, chicken breast or veggie burger.
Mediterranean Salmon (top left in photo) -- A grilled salmon fillet on French green beans, with spicy lemon parsley sauce and artichoke hearts. I am generally not a fan of restaurant salmon unless it's wild caught, but this was fairly decent -- moist and not overcooked. I commend them for not over cooking the green beans, as it would have been an easy thing to do, especially since they place the hot salmon on top of them. I didn't get any spice to speak of in their parsley sauce, and my friend had already squeezed lemon juice on top of the dish when I tried it, but it did all taste fresh.
Spanish Chicken Romesco (bottom left) -- Grilled chicken breast with rosemary garlic butter & Spanish-style Romesco sauce (puree of roasted red peppers, almonds & garlic), with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. This was pretty delicious. I love Romesco sauces, and my friends weren't familiar with it so I got to explain what it was. It was a huge chicken breast (you can't really tell from the picture, but it was thick; I wonder if this will be the normal portion size) that was grilled perfectly, still moist inside, and when I ate my leftovers the next day, it was still good. The mashed potatoes were very smooth and flavorful; the spinach certainly benefited from some salt & pepper.
Fresh Limeade -- good and tart, and not too sweet.
Chunky Chocolate Brownie -- had espresso in it, which was a nice touch.
Dreambar -- their version of a seven-layer bar, tasty, but not outstanding. Crust a bit too crumbly.
Chocolate Lava Cake -- OMG! We all about died! This cupcake is soooo rich with it's chocolate ganache, and then you dig into it, and it's got a cream cheese filling in the middle. There's no way I could eat that thing on my own! The only downside, I needed a glass of milk!
They also have a super variety of condiments available; you don't often see these in a restaurant that's a step up from fast-food.
Overall, it was a great evening, and from the moment we walked in, the entire staff couldn't have been nicer. Everyone was friendly and accommodating, and apart from what appeared to be a little glitch in the computer system when we ordered, it seemed that things went smoothly.
Eeek! Here's the ironies of ironies. I was just verifying on the internet that the company (Schiller Del Grande) is Texas-based (they are, based in Houston), and found a 2004 article on their site. They have sold a 70% interest in Cafe Express to Wendy's International. I had no idea when I wrote that previous statement about the Caesar dressing, but NOW it really makes me wonder! It also makes me wonder if they really are chopping all of their own vegetables on a daily basis. I may never know for sure, but I will return with the hopes that the employee friendliness, freshness of the food, and portion size is still intact.