For starters, the service was abominable just getting a cup of coffee from the hipper-than-thou wait staff used to be a hassle. The food was hit-or-miss mostly miss. I still haven't quite forgiven the cooks for warming up a gone-cold panini in the microwave, thus turning the "artisanal" bread to Styrofoam and the cheesy filling to molten rubber. Nor have I forgotten the side dish of pasta salad that came with the panini that was about as large as a handout sample at Costco.
But the floodwaters and the subsequent three-month hiatus of rebuilding seem to have washed away much of what was wrong with Café Gutenberg. The service is markedly better (though it still leaves lots to be desired). And hats off to Chef Mike Andrews, who has risen to the challenge and managed to make his menu better by expanding it rather than the other way around.
Despite the previously mentioned microwave experience, Café Gutenberg's grilled sandwiches are my favorite menu items. The Bella Virginia Panini ($9.95), made with crab, mozzarella and tomato, and the Grown Up Grilled Cheese ($6.95) are inspired combinations; the side dishes that come with them are equally original and good. The only trouble is, the grilled items completely outshine the other lunch sandwiches. The Cuban wrap ($7.95) is nothing more than shaved, seasoned deli ham with a slice of anemic tomato and a leaf of lettuce rolled in a plain white tortilla and served refrigerator-cold. With Cuban sandwiches on the menus at Kuba Kuba and Capital Ale House, almost any Richmond diner could tell you this ain't the way it's supposed to be.
Come dinnertime, Café Gutenberg lowers the lights and ups the ante with a full tapas and entree menu. Tried-and-true standards like filet mignon, duck breast, crab cakes and salmon are prepared with New American flair and are either "topped" or "finished" with tasty things like onion confit, caper beurre blanc or crŠme fraŒche. A horseradish-crusted pork chop was tender and had a nice, spicy bite to it, and the wild mushroom lasagna ($11.95) made for a flavorful twist on a vegetarian favorite, though I could have done without the service snafu that brought the entrees to the table before I was finished with the tapas.
Which brings me to the tapas element. I confess, it bewilders me. When I think of tapas, true Spanish tapas, I think of small plates of food that are relatively inexpensive (so you can order several) and easy to share. Cheese soufflé ($9.95) and stuffed quail ($11.95), while delicious, are anything but you try dividing a tender puff of cheese lying in a plate of Parmesan sauce or halving a small stuffed bird!
Although the changes at Café Gutenberg have tempered my previous antipathy, I still have a wish list that, if fulfilled, would make the place truly wonderful. I wish the wrap sandwiches were made with better-quality ingredients and heated. I wish the tapas were more like tapas than fancy appetizers. I wish the dinner entrees were served with bread and butter so I could sop up some of those New American sauces. Most of all, I wish the management would get the table service straightened out once and for all. Then I could let go of any last vestiges of my love-hate attitude. SCafé Gutenberg1700 E. Main St.
Sunday-Wednesday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-midnight
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