Lunch Review: Cafe Phenix
First of all, it uses the French spelling. Let’s get that out of the way immediately, because the lack of “o” has potential to be distracting for grammar nerds (guilty).
Cafe Phenix (without the o) set up shop Downtown on Gay street a couple of weeks ago. It offers all sorts of stuff. There’s an extensive drinkable menu, there are baked goods, and there are lunch items.
Let’s start with the edible items, because eating is the general focus of personal obsessions. Guests will find a little chalkboard behind the order counter that lists the options. One of the best is the Croque Monsieur ($4).
You can’t just pick up a Croque Monsieur (or Croquet Monster, as spellcheck persistently demands) anywhere. It’s a French thing that score points right away, because it’s a sandwich that involves a bonus heap of melted cheese. The cheese bonus isn’t inside the sandwich: it’s a delicious lid that covers the top slice of bread with intense, cheddarly wonderfulness — it blankets something that approaches bechamel sauce; another bonus. But that’s not all, inside the sandwich are thick cut (neatly hacked, really) slices of ham layered with fancy swiss. Cheese, with two flavors and textures, savory ham, and white bread. What else do you need?
Vaguely related is the house Ham Sandwich ($4). It’s plain in comparison, but it does feel sort of… European cool. A skinny, chewy baguette is slit open and stuffed with more of that fresh ham (not those processed, perfectly uniform slices) and swiss. At four bucks, it’s a purist’s dream — but the croquet monster is a shinier penny.
There is world outside of ham. There’s Chicken Salad ($4.50), for example. You’ll get another long split baguette (or slices of rye bread — pictured), this time stuffed with sweetly dressed morsels of soft chicken topped with a salady-lettuce mixture. Again, it’s not exactly a stuffed sandwich, more like something you might make at home.
After lunch, comes (no, not the beverages yet) dessert. There is a great deal of dessert and snack-stuff to be eating at Cafe Phenix. Start with the Carrot Cake ($3) because it is made exactly how it should be: smothered in a thick layer of sweet-tart icing and dotted with plump raisins (the best part). The cake has the requisite nuts and carrotness too, you know the routine.
Or a Heath Muffin ($1.50). Because the place makes milkshakes with mix-ins, there’s a good bet you’ll find exotic muffin flavors on display — or at least, “exotic” in terms of “something besides blueberry, chocolate and bran”. The Heath Bar version works surprisingly wonderfully. The foundation is a coarse-crumbed muffin that suspends a generous supply of chocolate and toffee chunks. The baking process turns the toffee into soft (as opposed to crunchy) pockets of buttery sweetness.
Then there are chocolate chip cookies: good traditional versions with plenty of chunks priced at fifty cents. And a scone ($1.50), which is biscuit-ish in texture and served with butter and grape jelly. It’s certainly okay, but it’s hard to compete with carrot cake.
And then finally, the drinkables. Cafe Phenix has already attracted a crew of java addicts on the beverage front. The 134 house flavoring syrups might have something to do with that, or perhaps it’s the selection of single origin coffees and blends. The lattes have earned online raves. As a tea-drinker, it’s the tea options that are particularly endearing: the menu lists black teas, green teas, and more than fifteen herbal teas served by the pot for $3.20. Overall, there’s a great deal to gulp.
And for those who miss the sweet frozen yogurt scene of relocated former resident 39 Below, there are smoothies and milkshakes. The house makes them from apothecary-like supply of syrups and solids. You’ll find all the normal things (oreo cookies and butterfingers) and some novel ones too: crystallized ginger and pound cake. The cement-thick Mega Mixin Milkshake ($5.50) is recommended. You can choose any combo, but Reese’s Cups, Heath and Butterfingers works every time.
You can find the new joint at 39 East Gay Street.
For more information, visit www.cafephenix.com.
All photos by Walker Evans.