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Restaurant Tours: Mark Donaway's mad cafe

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If you're a strapping six-foot, five-inch redhead, it's easy to impose your whims, to give your restaurant a name that's liable to attract lawyers, and then inscribe your menu with the words "trust me." The latter refers to the "chef's whims." Whims vary from day to day. Ask what they are, and you might not get any. Wimp out and you get them all. The Feeding Frenzzy Cafe's executive chef-proprietor, Mark Donaway, may have a whim of iron, but his cooking caprices are winners. Trust him.

Donaway and his co-owner, Marco Avorio, also own Eughie in Homewood. In September they opened their new eatery, just south of Yoshi's on Halsted. It seats 40, and the clientele ranges from neighborhood regulars to a romancing police couple in bulletproof vests.

The cafe's theme is whimsy, from the name to the food to Donaway's take on retro kitsch decor, which is so outlandish it overshadows the food. Baseboards and ceilings are a deep turquoise. So are the fiberglass shark and marlin swimming up yellow streams of paint. A mannequin's legs with fruit attached dangle from the ceiling along with assorted strings of chili-pepper and fruit lights and lanterns with Barbie-type dolls sitting in them. Comfortable settees and flowered cushions line walls hung with Tarkay originals. It's all surprisingly warm and cozy, sort of like eating in the living room of a friend, albeit a very strange one.

Flatware comes inside paper-bag menus. Rolls of paper towels take the place of napkins on the oilcloth-covered tables, on which sit bowls of toasted Syrian flat bread and herbed olive oil. The latter may be served in a doll's ceramic bathtub or a shallow leaf-shaped bowl.

Food presentation is just as fanciful. Along with artful sauce swirls and spatters, plates arrive strewn with flowers, berries, and, on one visit, sprays of some frizzy dried stuff that looked just like my hair. I found out the hard way that it was just decoration. That was when Poppy said that anybody who would eat something that looked like their hair got what they deserved, and I said in that case she'd better give up shredded wheat.

Not to cavil, Donaway's presentations showed a great deal of creativity. An appetizer of fragrant baked onion, stuffed with greens and topped with bread crumbs, was served on a flower-bedecked glass window block. Gazpacho, chock-full of fresh, uncooked vegetables and sparked with cilantro, came in a hollowed-out baby pumpkin on an oversize black plate adorned with a chrysanthemum and a sprig of dried onion flower. A lobster pancake was surrounded by swirls of various sauces: light barbecue, honey mustard, peppercorn mustard, sweet-and-sour, sour cream, and honey. Although the sauces had a tendency to run together, each complemented the pancake's delicate flavor and texture. A small square of pine-nut-topped pesto pizza with a pastry crust would have been delicious had it not been for the strange sprinkling of sugar on top. Other appetizer choices included spicy Vietnamese crab cake, baked garlic, barbecued Cajun rock shrimp, spicy Thai scallops, and sauteed mussels. All appetizers are $4.

Along with the evening's specials, including a specialty pasta, Donaway serves a huge variety of grilled fare, prepared in any one of nine ways. Baby chicken, calamari, duck, scallops, filet of beef, venison chops, pork chops, fish, turkey breast, pheasant, and hearts of palm can be cooked with lemon-herb butter, pesto sauce, apricot glaze, Cajun sasonings, barbecue mustard, oriental spices, sweet-and-sour sauce, peppercorn mustard, or according to the chef's whim. Entree prices range from $10 to $15.

Poppy, who can't even decide which way she wants it at Burger King, let Donaway do the thinking for her. Fortunately, the chef's whim was sensational: firm and juicy grilled tuna ($14.95) topped with an interesting flavor combination of tomato salsa, pesto, and pine nuts. It was accompanied by the whims du jour of brown rice, a tiny roast red potato stuffed with vegetable mousse, a slice of sweet roasted green pepper, and a bit of zucchini stuffed with southern turnip greens. I opted for sweet and juicy Cajun-style jumbo shrimp ($14.95) served with the same sides.

On another visit I sampled savory eggplant stuffed with strawberry ratatouille ($9.95). You can't taste the strawberries; they just give it a nice tang. The eggplant, topped with melted provolone and Asiago cheese, was served with brown rice, a sweet red pepper quarter filled with chopped celery and chili peppers, two jalapeno peppers filled with melted provolone and chili cheese, and an escargot in puff pastry. Poppy's whole baby chicken Vesuvio ($10.95) was hollowed out and laid on its back, its little legs and wings cupping linguine and spaghetti. It came with roasted red peppers and the same whims.

Appetizer and entree sizes are generous, but on our first visit we could have used a microscope to see the desserts. Apple pie, served on a plate swirled with chocolate sauce and heavy whipped cream, was good, but it must have been the smallest slice in a developed nation. We found its crust overcooked and that chocolate sauce just doesn't go with apple pie. Flourless chocolate cake, served on a similarly decorated plate, was sweet and dense, but as Poppy pointed out, it was the size of a first wife's diamond.

On our second visit dessert portions were more generous. Strawberries and cream came in an adorable little white-chocolate box with the restaurant's name in dark chocolate on the lid and a preformed bite taken out so you could see inside. A best-dessert award goes to the rich caramel nut tart, made with walnuts and pecans and served on a caramel- and chocolate-sauce-swirled plate. Cheesecake and ice cream are also available. All desserts are $3.95, except the white-chocolate box, which is $8.95.

Sugar for our coffee came in a little ceramic cart pushed by a little ceramic boy. On one occasion our check arrived in a ceramic blackamoor toothpick holder, on another in a 1920s handbag. Unfortunately, the whimsy stops where the buck starts. Bring cash or a check. They don't accept plastic, which Donaway says increases costs. He suggests setting up a house account instead. The cafe does not have a license to sell liquor, but you can bring your own and there's no corkage fee.

(Morning-after scale report: net weight gain after each visit--two pounds.)

The Feeding Frenzzy Cafe, 3255 N. Halsted, is open for dinner from 6 to 11 Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and from 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday. It's closed Monday. You can call in reservations until 7. For more information call 929-9960.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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