Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence/City Pulse
Despite its broth-centric name, Soup Spoon Café offers a wide variety of dining options, including pasta specials (left) and lamb sliders.

Much more than soup

By Mark Nixon

“When in doubt, quote Yogi Berra,” an old newspaper buddy used to say. OK, here goes: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” I give you Soup Spoon Café, an enduring treasure of the local dining scene. In recent weeks, I’ve feasted on breakfast, lunch, dinner (and takeout) a total of seven times. Each time, the place was packed or quickly filling up.

Soup Spoon’s expansive menu crackles with unexpected flavors and textures. Every gem has its flaws, of course, and I’ll get to those in a moment. But first, let me indulge in tasting, all over again, some of the best bites in town.

The Yooper Benny ($10) is a Northern Michigan-inspired take on eggs Benedict, featuring poached eggs and a fillet of pan-fried fresh walleye on English muffins, all drizzled with tarragon-lemon aioli. Yoopers call their part of the state “God’s country.” The Yooper Benny earns a spot in my Yooper Heaven.

Next up is the lamb with feta cheese soup ($3). My instincts told me that combining these bold flavors inside a soup would result in a zero-sum game. My instincts were wrong. The lamb and feta flavors both shone through brilliantly.

The San Diego ($8) is another Benedict-like breakfast. It features poached eggs atop English muffins and avocado. To seal the deal, it comes liberally splashed with hollandaise sauce laced with tomatoes and ancho pepper.

Then there’s the pork schnitzel ($19). This lightly breaded cutlet gets a tremendous flavor boost from a demi-glace of Dijon mustard and mushrooms. Mashed potatoes blended with gorgonzola and Dijon round out this exemplary dish.

The Soprano ($8) is a salami sandwich, but so much more. Hard salami is embedded between two slices of focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes baked in. Add homemade pesto, provolone, tomato and what appeared to be lightly sautéed onion, and you’ve got yourself a heckuva sandwich.

The first time I ordered the lamb sliders ($10), I didn’t look carefully at the menu. I expected little lamb burgers. Instead, three little sliders held chunks of braised lamb, topped with a Greek yogurt-mint sauce and feta cheese. I should have ordered six, since my dining partner kept reaching for her fair share —and more.

Goat cheese points ($8) are a familiar small plate standby in restaurants, but Soup Spoon takes you far and away from the ordinary. This dish starts with a sturdy French bread and quality goat cheese. Next comes fresh tomato, garlic and herbs, all splashed with a balsamic reduction. This simple dish is wow-worthy.

I often judge restaurant food with a simple question: Can I make this as well or better at home? For the examples above, my answer is probably not.

Here are a few items from Soup Spoon Cafe that, given time and effort, I can make better at home:

First up, the dill pickle soup ($3 for a cup). I love dill. I love salt. (Thus, my need for high blood pressure medication). This soup was so over-the-top salty I had to send it away. I couldn’t taste the dill. A pity. My guess is that the soup base was allowed to cook down to a concentrate, turning it into a virtual salt mine.

Next, the Maryland blue crab cakes ($10). I have yet to find good crab cakes in a restaurant west of the Appalachians or east of the Rockies. Restaurants seem bent on making crab cakes more about the cake and less about the crab. Filler first, crab a distant second. Soup Spoon falls in line with that philosophy. As I write this, my stomach is digesting crab cakes that my East Coast-dwelling daughter overnighted us. They were incredible. They came with a note that said sometimes you have to reshape them by hand because they consist mostly of crab meat with little filler. The way God intended.

Finally, a nit pick. Soup Spoon should shop around for the best baguettes it can find. Some baguette slices I tasted were appropriately crispy on the outside and chewy beneath the crust. But my French dip sandwich ($8) used a sub-par baguette with little crunch or chew.

A few words are in order about Soup Spoon’s ambience and service. From its tile floors and arched windows to its odd fascination with fishing lures, Soup Spoon has “casual” down to an art form. On any given night, you’re likely to see long-haired hipsters rubbing shoulders with suited guys who look straight out of “Mad Men.” There are young families at one table and staff from nearby Sparrow Hospital in scrubs one table over.

In short, the place is democracy extant, where all are welcome. The waitstaff reflects the welcoming atmosphere, friendly but not fawning, attentive but not so much that you feel rushed.

And now I learn the owner of Soup Spoon, Nick Gavrilides, has taken over Gracie’s Place in Williamston, rebranding it as Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro. If he works some Soup Spoon magic at Gracie’s, Williamston is in for a treat.

Too big to fail
By Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence

The Soup Spoon Café has become a quintessential Lansing dining spot and an integral part of Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood. It’s a prime locale for awkward first dates, office holiday lunches and breakfast business meetings. Yet somehow, I’ve only been to this local institution a handful of times in the past few years. Greater Lansing’s expanding dining scene means plenty of dinner options, and sometimes old favorites get overlooked in the search for something new. But the Soup Spoon still draws a crowd.

That popularity boom is great for the café and for the Lansing dining scene, but I fear that it has also resulted in the Soup Spoon’s failure to constantly assess their dishes and make adjustments where necessary. During one of my own recent breakfast business meetings, I chose the Gabriel’s Gone Veggie sandwich ($8), partially because people think that Gabriel is my name on a daily basis (I’ve stopped trying with the Starbucks baristas) but mostly because I know this sandwich has been on the menu for years. I wanted to see if it stood the test of time.

I recently heard an interview with the food world’s biggest jerk, Anthony Bourdain, where he discussed the attributes of a perfect hamburger. If it must have a tomato slice, he said, it should be a thin slice to prevent the “tectonic shift” that happens when you bite into an overstuffed sandwich. That brings us back to the Gabriel’s Gone Veggie. There is a mound of stuff in the middle that falls out when you bite into it. The bread is nothing to be proud of, thin grocery store-style bread that starts to disintegrate in your hand. I scraped the filling — a fried egg, grilled peppers and onions, avocado, tomato, and provolone — onto my hash browns, which were overcooked, and left the bread behind.

On a dinner visit, Mr. She Ate and I started with the lamb sliders. We loved the aioli and the toasty texture of the bread, but the lamb was lacking the telltale grassy, rich lamb flavor that I was expecting. I followed that with the salmon ($20), which, since the implosion of Copper at Walnut Hills, might now reign as the best salmon in town. It was lightly breaded with panko — Japanese-style bread crumbs, instead of the more common and heavier Italian style — and topped with a roasted sweet potato cream sauce and candied gingered pecans, which were delicious and unexpected. The only thing I didn’t care for was the accompanying rice pilaf. There was nothing offensive about it, but I would have preferred a double portion of the seasonal vegetables — perfectly roasted kale, bitter greens and artichoke hearts.

Service was slow. I had to leave for a client meeting and abandoned my husband with his Voodoo Pasta ($18) and the check. The pasta is another Soup Spoon tradition, shrimp tossed with peppers and onions over linguini and a cream sauce. The sauce seems to have gotten in crementally spicier over the years, and it pushed his limits of comfort.

On another visit, a girlfriend and I started with the goat cheese points ($8) as an appetizer. The tanginess of the balsamic vinegar paired perfectly with the cheese and made for a simple and sophisticated dish. I wanted to give the lamb another chance, so I ordered the lamb meatballs ($17). While I’m happy to see so many lamb options on the menu, and I wonder if that’s a nod to the Greek heritage of the owner, the lamb meatballs were so mild in flavor that I would have believed that they were beef. I liked the accompanying orzo, and the feta crumbled on top was a perfect flavor complement, but the Brussels sprouts on the side were a miss. They were limp and mushy and needed at least ten more minutes in the oven to crisp them up.

My friend chose the seasonal pasta ($19), a thick pappardelle noodle tossed with seared scallops, mushrooms, spinach and an asiago and truffle cream sauce. It was heavenly. My restaurant philosophy of ordering only things that I couldn’t or don’t want to make at home frequently guides me away from pasta dishes, but this one tested my mettle. The sauce was full of so much flavor, the scallops had a perfect sear and the noodles had enough texture to stand up to the other components of the dish. It inspired me to make shrimp and linguini at home the next day, and as I twirled my fork, I daydreamed of my own truffle-hunting pig waiting under the Christmas tree.

From days when I used to frequent the Spoon, I remember the bread pudding ($6) being enviable. This is absolutely still the case. The dish is perfectly portioned to share — dinner daters take note — and it is laced with cinnamon so fragrant that you can smell it as the server approaches your table. The rum sauce is the glory of the Soup Spoon, and is so buttery and indulgent. I’ve said for years that this is one of the best desserts in town, and I challenge anyone to name one that’s better.

We also tried the grilled three cheese & tomato sandwich (forgettable) and the Cubano sandwich (an unorthodox spin, but one that we enjoyed), but I’m running out of room. To continue my reunion tour with the Spoon, I’ll go back and order the Johnny Cakes, a unique breakfast option comprising cornmeal pancakes with jalapeno and topped with smoked salmon. And in 2017, I’ll resolve to visit the Spoon more than once every other year.

Soup Spoon Café

7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-midnight Friday; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturday; closed Sunday
1419 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
(517) 316-2377,