Last week, I wrote how disappointed I was with the Garden Restaurant at The Barnes. Portions were small, prices were high for dishes plucked from the 1980s.
Everyone is talking about The Barnes. People from all over the world will make a pilgrimage to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. If you are planning a visit, I found a perfect spot for lunch or dinner just a few blocks north in Fairmount. It is called Blue Cat and if a recent meal is any indication, this bright, airy and casual BYOB will be jumping with delighted customers.
The brightly-lit, open kitchen is under the direction of chef Guy Shapiro. He has put together a menu of fresh Latin-inspired dishes with something for everyone.
Sandy, Edward and I were greeted warmly and shown to a roomy table. Blue Cat boasts a bright large mural of, well, a blue cat, along with large windows and hanging lights. The lighting was perfect, but it did get a bit noisy once the room filled.
Guacamole ($8) is a glistening mound of fresh whipped avocado nestled on a few romaine leaves with cilantro sprigs and the best homemade chips this side of Mexico. Our server told us the chips, including plantain, potato and malanga, are made at Blue Cat. They were thin and crisp and the perfect dippers for the guacamole.
A beef empanada ($8) was prepared open-faced. A mound of spiced creamy beef, enhanced by almonds, spices and raisins, sits on the flaky pastry. It is a knife-and-fork version and we all liked it.
Grilled asparagus with smoked mushrooms ($9) was a small portion, but a winner at our table. We received five slender spears with a handful of small mushroom caps that spent just the right amount of time in the smoker and imparted a heady, smoky aroma and flavor that I rarely see in a restaurant.
I brought a bottle of Allagash White and Stoudt’s Pale Ale to enjoy with dinner. We noticed everyone in Blue Cat brought wine, but beer also is a good choice for Latin flavors.
The special was soft-shell crabs ($25). Shapiro sautés them and tops them with reduced pan juices, lemon and white wine. They required a bit of seasoning so a sprinkling of salt and pepper did the trick. Two jumbo crabs came with the order, along with the best plantains I’ve ever tasted. They are usually tasteless, overcooked and mushy. These slices hit the mark along with whipped potatoes and greens.
I distinctively recall the first time I ever sampled arroz con pollo ($15). I was a young teenager enjoying dinner with my family in a restaurant in the Little Havana section of Miami, Fla. This chicken and rice dish is a classic and care is needed to prepare it properly. Shapiro uses meaty, moist strips of thighs, along with slices of spicy chorizo, that made a distinct culinary impression in all of the ingredients in this dish, including the rice that was a bit soft, a scattering of peas, olives, tiny bits of chopped tomato and cilantro.
“I’ve got to make this at home,” I said.
The next day, Whole Foods had a sale on wild caught South Carolina shrimp. I used them in place of chicken and the dish was a huge hit.
The only disappointing dish of the evening was Sandy’s fish taco ($12). It was not visually appealing. A large blue corn tortilla was topped with fried cod, guacamole, tomatoes and cilantro, which I helped Sandy remove from her meal because she detests it (so did Julia Child by the way). Sandy went the knife-and-fork route because it would have been difficult for her to fold it over and pick it up. The ingredients would have fallen all over the place.
Shapiro and his delightful staff have a fine culinary thing going in Fairmount. Blue Cat defines what a neighborhood restaurant must be: A friendly, casual BYOB where children are welcome and people of all ages will enjoy a tasty lunch, weekend brunch or dinner.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Blue Cat. SPR
1921 Fairmount Ave.
Contact the South Philly Review at firstname.lastname@example.org.