If it's true that location alone can jinx a promising restaurant, Cafe Bella has a Sisyphean task ahead it's already on its second cook. Unlike the neon, this is not a good sign, and something Belle B had struggled with.
Perhaps the most significant change owners Michael Fox and Beth Blake should consider, however, is some judicious restraint in the composition of their menu. It seems imprudent for a restaurant of this scope and size to include chicken, veal, pork, salmon, scallops, mahi-mahi, trout, shrimp, crab and duck on a menu that spans some 35 different dishes.
Given our fondness for the uncommon, we were drawn to the mahi, crab, duck, snails, lamb shank and an interesting concoction of goat cheese and artichokes called "artichoke pie," the only standout in our 12-dish feast.
We began our exploration of this Cajun-Italian-inspired restaurant with a simple but overdressed and surprisingly large spinach salad ($6). What should have been a fastball across home plate at any true cafe was limp and heavy an unpromising combination at any time. While escargots are not common, they are a standard. But chef Joey's pairing of what tasted like canned snails and fresh peas left us uninspired.
The involtini di granchi ($5), otherwise known as crab cake, seems mismatched with a Cajun potato salad. On previous visits we have enjoyed some very refined Cajun dishes at this restaurant from this chef of note was an outstanding gumbo ($4) but this potato salad is not one of them. The chicken soup (or Zuppa di Pollo alla campania) ($4) won our admiration for its richness and depth and, thankfully, its relative simplicity.
Other than the artichoke pie ($14), an inventive layering of roasted red peppers, goat cheese, spinach and herbed ricotta in a homemade pastry crust, our entrees failed to inspire. The braised lamb shank over white beans was overdone, cooked to exhaustion and into an indistinguishable stew of rich flavors. The roasted half duck ($16) was a strange combination of crispy and rubbery and accompanied with now standard mashed red potatoes and although advertised with fennel (a selling point) was delivered with cinnamoned carrots.
An equally disappointing array of desserts ($3-$5) closed out our meal. The selections themselves were unimaginative bread pudding, rice pudding, creme brulee, vanilla ice cream with berries, and chocolate mousse and their delivery was unconvincing. Among our party there have been few occasions that dessert has left the table unfinished, and yet all these were returned half-full.
We had hoped for better, and some of the side dishes promise a bright future. There was a creative cake made of capellinni tomato, garlic, basil in a wine sauce and the aforementioned carrots, which, while unexpected, were a gift. If the management will allow the chef latitude to change their concept and move in a direction well known to him that is, New Orleans-inspired Cajun and 86 the potato salad, Cafe Bella should have potential.
Cafe Bella ($$) 1223 Bellevue Ave. 515-9099 Monday - Saturday dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; bar munchies Friday Saturday from 10 p.m.-11 p.m., bar open until 11:30 p.m.