Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thataway Cafe

There’s something about the weekends. While I can’t put my finger on exactly what that ‘it’ is, I do know there’s some sort of force—a gravitational pull, if you will—that drags me far, far away from my kitchen stove. Try as I may, even if I wanted to, I just can’t seem to get close to it. So it seemed only natural for me and Maarten to once again lace up the boots, don the rest of our winter gear, and head out to dinner for food from someone else’s kitchen.

It was my turn to select the restaurant, but a phone call from my friend in Maryland halted my search efforts and Maarten eventually took over. His choice was Thataway Café in Greenwich. I had never heard of the place, but I was more than game. I mean, let's be real . . . it was food.

We arrived at Thataway Café and found that a small crowd had gathered at the front door and was waiting to be seated. I took this to be a good sign. Folks standing two-deep in line and clamoring to eat at a restaurant—surely this is a good thing, right? The fifteen-to-twenty minute wait that the hostess informed us of wasn’t too terribly long, so Maarten and I sidled up to the bar like a couple of trail-weary cowboys and took a seat.

The bar area of Thataway Café was fairly dark but had a pretty cool vibe going. The feeling was very saloon-like, but there was funky blues music playing throughout. The tunes were intermittently loud and then not so loud, but for a brief moment the guttural, sultry sounds took me right back to the saucy, late night clubs of Beale Street in Memphis.

It was still early so the family contingent was in full force, with various tables of moms and dads dining with their diminutive offspring. While we waited for our table, I ordered a tall glass of Stella Artois on tap. On any given day of the week, that is one deliciously bitter brew.

After a few minutes, the hostess approached us with an offer to sit at a table in the bar, next to the window alcove, and right next to a table with a shrieking child. It was the same child that I had heard emit a shrill scream that split my nose hairs when we first walked in. We politely declined and said we would wait for a seat in the dining room, which was located on the other side of the mirrored wall on the opposite side of the bar. Five more minutes elapsed before we were shown to a table for two in the dining room. Our table, ironically, was in between two tables with—you guessed it—little babies, each with the potential to break glass with their cries.

“Good luck,” the hostess breathed as she made a hasty exit from the dining room.

If I had been thinking straight, I would have snatched my boot off and thrown it at her retreating backside. However, we decided to make the most of the situation and, to our delight, we didn’t hear a peep out of the little ones.

The menu at Thataway Café was impressive looking—kind of like bar food with a slight notch up on the gauge to elevate to that gray area just above the average tavern menu. Actually tasting the food could be totally different, so opinions will be reserved until then.

Maarten and I broke from tradition and only ordered one appetizer to share instead of our usual one-appetizer-apiece. Before we ordered the Buffalo Chicken Wings, I had to ask the waiter if they were crispy fried wings (which is my preference) or soft baked wings. With assurances that they were the highest quality fried wings with a tangy mild sauce, we ordered the starter, along with our respective entrées.

While we waited for the appetizer, a waiter carrying a steaming, sizzling plate of fajitas stopped at a nearby table. The plume of smoke that trailed behind him nearly made me faint. I contemplated asking the woman who was about to dig into the meal if I could possibly borrow a fajita today and I would gladly repay her on Tuesday. At that moment, there were a number of things I was fervently hoping:

1. The fajitas tasted as good as they smelled;
2. My entrée smelled that good;
3. My entrée tasted as good as it hopefully smelled; and
4. Simon Cowell would return for another season of American Idol.

The wings arrived with a side of blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. They looked a bit orange, but I attributed that to the type of wing sauce they used. Still, that color made them look like they would burn a hole in the roof of my mouth, and I was very careful when taking that first bite. Some of the wings were rather large, while others looked like someone had hijacked a mother chicken and stolen her chicks before they had a chance to fully develop. At least I could say that the waiter didn’t tell a tale—they were crispy on the outside, but not dry at all on the inside. As for the sauce, it was more tangy-hot than hot-hot so the wings weren’t uncomfortable to eat. Even though I’ve had better, I can’t say these wings were bad. Hell, after we finished all ten of them and were licking our fingertips afterwards, I was still rummaging around on the plate, sifting through the chicken shrapnel looking for any last remnants of meat.
The appetizers filled me with optimism. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to happen? Good starter; great meal? I licked my lips in anticipation. As if on cue, the waiter breezed to the table with two plates of food snaking up his arm. He placed my entrée in front of me first, then Maarten’s. I looked down at my Ale Battered Fish and Chips. While the fish planks were large, those certainly weren’t “chips” lying trapped under the battered and fried cod. Just once, I would love to go to a restaurant, order fish ‘n chips, and actually get a more traditional styled UK thick cut ‘chip’, not shoestring fries. Guess I have to take a trip across the pond for that. To compound the catastrophe, the ‘chips’ were incredibly greasy and pretty much devoid of flavor. Yeah, there was a bit of crunch going on, but, really, who wants to munch on an oily, mushy potato stick? There was enough grease in a handful of those things to fry a whole darn chicken.
As for "ale battered" fish, you’d think that I would at least taste something besides more grease. From all appearances, they were deep fried a beautiful golden color, with the right amount of crunch and crisp. However, the whole allure was spoiled by one bite. At first I thought that maybe the wings were hotter than I actually believed them to be and my taste buds had been unknowingly and irrevocably damaged. But I shoved a forkful into Maarten’s mouth and his reaction wasn’t much different than mine. Oddly, it tasted like water—just a flat, unadorned sense of nothingness. On the inside, just on the underbelly of the breaded crust, was a layer of mush—not quite cooked, not quite raw. My apologies to Thataway Café (although they should be apologizing to me), but this was one of the worst plates of fish and chips I have ever had the displeasure of putting in my unsuspecting mouth.
Maarten was having far better success with his Gobbler Burger—a turkey burger, to those not in the know. Unfortunately, his burger also came with those same fries. He ordered the gobbler with nothing more than fried mushrooms on top. He got mushrooms, like he asked for, but they were sautéed, not fried. And guess what else they were? Greasy. (You must have been reading my mind.) Someone in that kitchen has a wildly unpopular fixation on grease. What saved his meal, and made it far better than mine, was that simple round patty of ground turkey. It was not too dry, not too juicy—cooked almost perfectly. The dish was served with a unique cranberry mayonnaise on the side, which Maarten thought tasted very good and complemented the simple burger.
I’m not really sure what to make of Thataway Café. One person I spoke with thought very highly of it and suggested that maybe I caught them on a bad night. I’m inclined to at least give this some consideration since the woman who graciously gave her unsolicited opinion is a raging foodie like I am. And to take that a step further, I’ll look at the good food/bad food ratio from my experience:
     1. Buffalo Wings:  good
     2. Fish and Chips: bad
     3. Gobbler Burger: average
Two out of three; those are decent odds. I’m just not sure they’re good enough to lure* me back.
*I apologize that you had to be subjected to this shameless attempt at humor. Lure…fish...get it? Yeah, apologies all around . . .
Would I recommend Thataway Cafe? This is one of the toughest spots I’ve ever put myself in. I want to be forgiving of that major fish faux pas, but it’s a little difficult, especially given that I can still feel the grease floating around in my stomach. This is someplace where I’ll say the choice is up to you. Thataway Café seems to be a popular restaurant and, like my friend said, I may have just caught them when they weren’t at their best.
Is Thataway Cafe a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? The prices are not bad at all. Starters range from $6.95 to $12.95, and they also serve nightly specials that are off-menu. The salads are a bit pricier, but I happened to catch sight of one of them at another table and it was monstrously huge. They also have a selection of sides, as well as entrées and sandwiches that won’t cripple the piggy bank.
What about atmosphere and ambience? I’ll give Thataway Café major points for ambience and atmosphere. There’s such a comfortable feel in the air, and while there is blues music in the bar area, there’s no music in the dining room, which allows you to talk and hear freely. If you go, be sure to check out that highly distinctive and attractive ceiling fixture in the dining room.
Thataway Cafe
409 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830  (203) 622-0947

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