Hearty and arty 

ShelBi Street CaFé ranks high on the barometer of cool

ShelBi Street CaFé ranks high on the barometer of cool
You can tell a lot about a restaurant by its salt and pepper shakers; it’s like reading a restaurant’s palm. At the ShelBi Street CaFé in venerable Fountain Square, the shakers look like Uzi bullets: small, sleek and confident. While the hordes throng north at the Scholar’s Inn, diners at ShelBi get a more sedate and streamlined bistro experience of equal cuisine quality, well worth the drive south just off of I-65.
Pecan crusted chicken breast with garlic beurre blanc ($15)
First up: the bread. It was a warm disc of focaccia, served with dipping pools of peppered olive oil and black balsamic. There are five bright salads on ShelBi’s winter menu, from a pistachio crusted goat cheese and roasted red pepper combo to a meal-sized salmon Caesar or antipasti with capicola ham and salami. My standing favorite is the Gingham salad with berries, mandarin oranges, blue cheese and toasted pecans, great for a light lunch ($5, $8 large). Joe ordered the Mediterranean salad with feta, artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives, a tangy combination of well-blended olive-infused flavors ($5). An icy February night called for some heartier entrees. Even with just six entrees to choose from, each was so well-conceived we had trouble deciding. Joe went for the chipotle BBQ ribs over roasted sweet potatoes and vegetable medley ($17). An assertive sauce coated the generously-portioned, fall-off-the-bones meat. Sweet potatoes, my favorite neglected vegetable, showed up in gently fried rustic hunks, along with a somewhat limp squash veggie mix — a dish that might do for all you poor Atkins diet devotees. Beefeater Mary Ann, my mom, selected the filets of beef tenderloin with balsamic demi glaze and portabello mushrooms ($19). She got a pleasing presentation of four perky tourniquets of beef surrounding a fine mound of garlic mashed potatoes topped by some overcooked asparagus fingers. (Wait two months for spring and the asparagus will no doubt perk up.) The meat was tender enough to banish the need for a steak knife, and the sauce added a good verve. Mary Ann requested medium-well, but found one filet on the bloody side of rare. So we doggie-bagged it for my bloodthirsty dad. My own choice was the pecan crusted chicken breast with garlic beurre blanc ($15). ShelBi was not kidding about the crust. The chicken filets looked like chicken fingers with a thick crispy coating, so rich I only ate one and decided to savor the other later. Sun-dried tomatoes with big pearl couscous and the same squash medley rounded it out. Portion size at ShelBi is right on the money: not too dainty, but not gluttonous either. For lunch and dinner, ShelBi also offers crafty thin crust pizzas with chipotle BBQ or Thai peanut sauce and portabellos and pesto (all $12 with soup cup or salad). Sandwiches are the same price and come with soup or salad, too. There’s blackened chicken with blue cheese, salmon cobb, yellow fin tuna, panini and more. For vegetarians, ShelBi has a porcini ravioli in sherry cream sauce and a grilled portabello sandwich with guacamole and chipotle mayonnaise. During our meal, Chef Matt Schwartz came to greet us. In a dining room that seats less than 100, you can get to know the chef. Matt reminded us that the Fountain Square Theatre opens its rooftop in the summers, and ShelBi Street CaFé supplies the vittles for this southern skyline dining experience, especially popular during July 4 and Labor Day fireworks shows. ShelBi is also the perfect launching pad or night cap for an arty movie at South Keystone, a night of blues at Slippery Noodle, or a Phoenix play, given the wines, cocktails and espressos available. The Cold War nearly resumed when Joe and I debated a dessert to share: homemade carrot cake or pineapple bread pudding? Bread pudding won out, though its stealthy pecans (not noted on the menu) prevented nut-allergic Joe from enjoying it with abandon. The beauty of the pudding alone was worth $5, with its pale yellow crème anglaise entwined with raspberry sauce and dotted with five plump blueberries. Firm instead of gooey, the pudding was like a rich pineapple upside down cake. For its jauntily accessorized dining room, its commitment to the Fountain Square neighborhood and its Mediterranean-inspired contemporary menu, the arty-but-hearty ShelBi Street CaFé deserves every appreciative diner and every notch on the Barometer of Cool.
ShelBi Street CaFé 1105 Shelby St. 687-4857 Dinner 5-close, Thursday-Saturday Lunch 11-2:30, Monday-Wednesday 11-4:30, Thursday-Friday Food: 4 stars Atmosphere: 5 stars Service: 4 stars

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