There are very few BYO restaurants scattered throughout NYC. Prior to receiving their liquor license, many restaurants often start off as BYO - eager to set up shop, start cooking, and build their fan base. However, the moment that you realize this new, trendy BYO restaurant exists, you arrive with a pre-purchased bottle of wine only to learn that they received their license the day before - and now your dinner tab will be at least doubled. I am lucky enough to live around the corner from one of the most frequented, actual BYO establishments (Tartine) and work a few blocks northwest of another, A Cafe and Wine Room. No need to rush to A Cafe for fear that they will soon earn their liquor license - this restaurant is not changing. However,I do encourage you to hurry there for a great, affordable meal.
A Cafe is definitely off the beaten path, located in the Upper West Side on 108th street and Columbus Avenue. The restaurant originally opened over 7 years ago as a tiny, hole in the wall a few blocks south. The owners smartly expanded to a downtown location known as Ivo and Lulu - and eventually realized that the uptown location needed expanding as well. When you walk into Cafe A, you will be startled to learn that this is the larger, newer version of their uptown restaurant - it can now seat a mere 20 people! Nevertheless, A Cafe still operates on the bare minimum - a kitchen hidden behind bamboo curtains with one chef commanding a portable kitchenette. This set-up proves that food quality does not depend on fancy appliances - truly great food is left to the hands of the chef. At the same time, it made me realize that I can no longer blame my own hesitation to cook some nights on my kitchen lacking counter space, gas burners, and a reliable oven. My kitchen looks like Martha Stewart's compared to theirs!
A Cafe's setting is based around the concept of simplicity. The emphasis is on the food and that is more than apparent as wall and table decor are non-existent. The menu consists of only 6 appetizers, 6 entrees, and 3 desserts. But, each dish is far from simple - following a French, Caribbean theme which typically means a lot of spice and many ingredients. Every item they serve is organic and all-natural. While this has become a current trend in restaurants, A Cafe has been doing this for years - one of the many reasons that they are still going strong. Staying true to their original mission of creating neighborhood spots, they have also managed to keep their prices down - offering a $20 prix fixe if you dine from 6 pm to 8 pm. This is unheard of in New York City - especially for gourmet food! Even if you are not overly hungry, this is not an offer that should be turned down.
I greatly appreciated that the menu was so short because everything on it sounded so unique and delicious, making it nearly impossible to decide. The winning appetizer was baked pear with roquefort, raw honey and balsamic dressing. While it almost sounds like a dessert, the combination of all ingredients made for the perfect starter on a warm evening. But, the pheasant pate with fennel, white truffle oil and a raclette crust was a close second. This was different from any pate I had ever eaten, both in taste and in presentation (photograph above) - almost resembling a ground sausage dish with a light layer of baked cheese on top. I am pretty sure this would have been the winner had it been a cold, winter evening. Our favorite main course was the roast duck leg confit with jerk spices, peppercorn, and citrus jus reduction. This is a dish I have ordered in many French restaurants, but the Caribbean spices made it stand out from all the rest. I was also a big fan of the merguez sausages with harissa, dried figs, dates, and coconut creme fraiche; but, again, felt that this would be even more amazing in the winter.
I became more and more astonished with the kitchen as each dish came out. It just seemed impossible that one man was in charge up front and one in back. Each course came out perfectly timed and deliciously prepared. I was even more shocked when the dessert arrived. Since we were all pretty full from the prix fixe, we decided to just share one apple tart. Having no expectations other than satisfying a small sweet tooth, I was in awe when I took my first bite of the tart. I have definitely consumed many apple tarts in my day - and this was one of the best ones I have ever eaten. The apples were thinly sliced, and the pastry was equally thin and cooked to perfection. I normally take one or two bites of dessert and feel satisfied, but we were actually fighting over every morsel of the dish. Wishing we each had our own, I felt like I was in race to get the next bite in!
While I have eaten at Ivo and Lulu's several times, this was my first experience at A Cafe. Even if you do live and work downtown, I recommend that you take a trip to their uptown outpost. There will not be a line to get in and you will feel like you are truly supporting the neighborhood. It was nice not only being in a part of Manhattan that is not completely gentrified, but also feeling very welcome there. While times are changing, this restaurant stays true to its original, unique conception - affordable, BYO, simple, and organic with a French-Caribbean flare. It is a comfort to know that some things do stay the same in this city!
A Cafe and Wine Room
973 Columbus Ave
New York, NY 10025
Phone: (212) 222-2033