Check to see who prepared the food at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 22. Specifically, who prepared the asparagus tartar, the peanut crusted goat cheese fritters, the Albert Ave. street corn and the avocado crabwich. Seek them out. Praise them. Shake their hands and ask them to recreate these dishes every day, right to the very last drop of balsamic reduction.
Yes, it was that good. And totally unexpected, given our first, so-so experience with this new bistro in downtown East Lansing.
But let’s not spoil the mood. Let’s first delve into what Black Cat does right. Our college-bound granddaughter oohed and aahed over the wrought-iron ceiling lights, the backlit bar and especially the glassware etched with sleek silhouettes of black cats.
“It’s like cool people hang out here,” she said.
To which Grandpa silently replied: “Yeah, whatever — where’s the food?”
When the appetizers arrived, it was my turn to ooh and aah. I had the Albert Ave. street corn ($6) — chunks of corn on the cob rolled in a spiced-up queso fresco and a little lime aioli. The only way it could be better is with local, height-of-season sweet corn.
My wife ordered the goat cheese fritters ($9), served with caramelized onions and saffron honey. This had at least three of the elemental tastes — sweet, bitter and salty — plus crunch and silken creaminess thrown in for good measure.
Our granddaughter had the asparagus tartar ($8), and this one took the prize. It’s a wheel of blanched, finely chopped asparagus, topped with a same-sized wheel of tomato concassé Offering (finely chopped, one of the seeded largest tomatoes).
The dish area is eye candy and tastes better than it looks, thanks to minced garlic mixed into the asparagus and a balsamic reduction drizzled on the plate. This is a perfect summer dish.
For the main course, I had the avocado crabwich ($12). Now, there are many crab cakes out there, and many are bad. The problem is usually too much filler — usually flour— that masks the crab’s natural sweetness. At Black Cat, the jumbo crabmeat is front and center. True, less filler means the crab cake may crumble if you look at it wrong. No matter. The crab is the star, even slightly rumpled and torn. It’s even more stellar with mango, arugula and roasted garlic aioli, as it’s served here.
But there is room 3 for improvement. The steamed must mussels be ($16) were overcooked and thus presented tough. Mixing in bits of chorizo only robbed the mussels of what flavor remained after overcooking.
I ordered that night’s drink special, white sangria ($6). To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “There was no there, there.” If there was anything remotely like wine and fruit in this drink, I couldn’t detect it. I was about to send it back, but my wife said she’d drink it. “Not bad,” she pronounced. (This from the woman who once ate a plate of rotten shark in Iceland and declared it to be “not bad.”)
Now, roll back the calendar 10 days to Black Cat’s Sunday brunch. If the weather is right, ask for a table on the patio. It’s good for people watching. Abutting the patio is a small fountain tucked into a “vest pocket” park, which offers a dose of tranquility in an urban setting.
We began with Bloody Marys ($6). Mine, the Classic, was more cookie-cutter than classic. She had a Spartan Mary, made with cucumbers and tomatillos. Well, they got the color sort of right — Spartan-ish green. It was like a rough-cut smoothie with a modest vodka kick. This Sparty-inspired drink draws a personal foul and should be suspended for unspecified team violations.
Ditto the Mexican Migas ($10). In theory, this was preordained to be a hot dish. My first bite informed me the Migas was likely heated by walking it through a warm room. There were tortilla chips tossed with eggs, jalapenos and onion, avocados and cilantro creme fraiche. Only the creme fraiche stood out.
On a sunnier note, the shaved asparagus and arugula salad ($10) was masterful. Tossed with bacon, red onions, Parmesan cheese and red wine vinaigrette, this could be an entire meal if the portion were a bit bigger.
Black Cat Bistro is practically brand new, so missteps and misbegotten attempts are to be expected. The good news is, they are getting more things right than wrong. I give Black Cat a full-throated Arnold Schwarzenegger-ish “I’ll be back!”