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August 12, 2009 > Restaurant Review: Essanay Cafe

Restaurant Review: Essanay Cafe

By Denny Stein

Lights! Camera! Action! Named after Niles' historic movie studio, the Essanay Cafe was opened on Main Street with a vision that Niles could become an epicurean destination. These visionaries saw a restaurant that served elegant, sophisticated food yet welcomed and celebrated its local and historic community. It has certainly accomplished that goal without losing the down home touch. The Summer Menu's pasta is Angel hair with fresh vegetables and marinara sauce, the seafood entree is Tiger Prawn Paella, and the 'burger offering unveils the Essanay Half Pound Angus Cheeseburger with grilled red onion and heirloom tomatoes. Those aren't just any grilled onions, the Cafe's kitchen sautes both white & red onions in olive oil for six hours, until the caramel flavor deepens to perfection.

Three years after it opened, the Cafe has come into its own. Matt Close, the young chef who has been in charge for over 14 months, brings an exciting range of choices, in a seasonally changing menu, to the culinary scene. He has a fine supporting cast in Executive Pastry Chef Dave Benz, and Walter Chavez who started as dishwasher and now is Artistic Director of Plating. These three, in a small space, manage to serve up memorable food. Fine dining is alive and well in Fremont, right down the street in Niles. And it is affordable, unpretentious, good for you, and, like an Essanay movie, offers multiple scenarios.

The ingredients for the Cafe's menu items are local, coming from within 150 miles of Fremont; the vegetables are organic, and the meat is free range. That crisp, juicy roast chicken? Petaluma. The figs on the dessert plate? A friend's orchard in Santa Cruz. The lemons floating in the water? A patron's backyard down the street. The couscous? Well, probably a few more miles down the road. . . .

In keeping with the local, organic, seasonal theme, the Cafe has an outdoor seating area in the back. In addition to the ubiquitous tables and umbrellas there are outdoor heaters, flowering vines, and a large wall that doubles as a movie or television screen. Folks gather in times of national significance to watch events unfurl in the company of friends and neighbors, and good food. In another scene, the monthly Vintners Dinners are served here - pairings of wines from local vineyards with complementary dishes from the imaginative kitchen of the chef.

The scene changes. It is a Wednesday Open Mic Night. The patio now serves as a staging area for musicians and their instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, a bass, a case of harmonicas, violins, a dulcimer, an autoharp. Inside, the lights are dim, tables and booths are full, Bruce Cates (a managing partner) acts as emcee. Ballads, torch songs, jazz and rock numbers are interspersed with poetry, classical harmonica solos, story telling and comics. The servers sidestep and whisper through the shadows serving tapas, soups, and dessert. The applause and laughter says it all.

Turn up the lights!
The first Wednesday of the month is Family Night. In honor of the Depression, and today's Recession, dinner including dessert is $12 for adults and $6 for children. Week-ends the scene is set for Brunch with old favorites enlivened to showcase area ingredients: the Essanay Scramble with fresh asparagus tips and pancetta, Crab Cake Benedict, Chicken Pesto Scramble, the Sausage du Jour and Applewood Bacon; or enjoy an Essanay Classic Cheeseburger, the Mixed Market Greens salad, and a glass of sweet ice tea.

Thursday through Sunday nights the scenes change based on Chef Matt's imagination and the freshness of farm stand produce. In June, Dr. Park dined on Summer Vegetable Gratin that included Italian squash, red peppers, garlic confit, baby spinach, patty pan, broccoli, foccacia breadcrumbs, sheaved leeks, and a sundried tomato bechamel sauce. It was a perfectly choreographed cast of thousands. I ordered the night's special, Rib-Eye Steak garnished with Bleu Cheese. It was huge. But grilled perfectly. My personal beef favorite at Essanay is the ever popular Hanger Steak with hand cut shoestring potatoes. Other patrons swear by the Roasted Rocky Jr. Chicken.

In July we returned to make sure we didn't miss the French Baby Lamb Chops. Not only were they unspeakably superb (tender, succulent, accompanied by boiled potatoes and green beans), but Chef Matt started our meal with an aperitif of Ambrosia & Honeydew Juice finished with a single ball of salted melon - a tiny agua fresca Essanay style. The fresh-baked baguette swirled with Parmesan and green cheese, its saltiness smoothed out by sweet butter. Our Spinach and Smoked Salmon salad, with pine nuts and cranberries disappeared rapidly. Dr. Park pronounced the Vegetable Barley Soup, filled with a variety of vegetables (corn, potatoes, green beans, etc.), nestled in a creme fraiche base, "Velvety and yummy."

And the Hanger Steak lived up to its reputation. But the most amazing taste sensation that night was a Goat Cheese Ice Cream using Humboldt Fog goat milk cheese made by Cypress Grove Chevre that Chef Matt had made for the recent Vintners' Dinner.

The taste of sweet cheese graced the tongue, while complex undertones recalled California and French countrysides. We could only sigh and savor, then talk about the experience for the rest of the week.

The Essanay Cafe is a hard act to follow in the Tri-City area. It is a combination of fine dining, friendly local patrons and ingredients, and fair pricing. The Cafe deserves community support and the community is well served by the Cafe. A special note: The soups are worthy of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi" and the desserts are worth the extra calories. And to top it all off, there are the shops and sights of historic Main Street, the Niles Canyon Railroad, vintage bus rides, silent films at the Edison Theater, and coming soon - the new Niles Town Plaza.

Essanay Cafe
37533 Niles Boulevard
(between H and I Streets), Fremont
(510) 792-0112

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