The newly revamped Central Library offers six sprawling floors of media in its futuristic, shiny paneled body. Now it offers sandwiches, soups, salads and more for those who linger for the day or lunch in the area.
The Question Mark Cafe opened in December. But Chef Travis Ellis — whom FLIK International staffers snatched from Crystal Catering — has just recently started placing his sandwich, soup and salad interpretations in the display case.
That seems to have been enough advertising to draw a lunch crowd, which gets bigger every day. Sometimes, in the rush, you have to remind the cashier to give you everything in your order: “Diet Coke?” “Chips?” They then readily grab them from the display case. The crew is a helpful bunch.
Ellis says he’s still experimenting with offerings. His first stabs at popular lunch fare: Cuban pork. Balsamic chicken and prosciutto. Mediterranean turkey on ciabatta bread with hummus, pesto and Swiss cheese, which Ellis proclaims the top seller. Most — if not all — sandwiches are $6.95, a price that includes a choice of Miss Vickie’s jalapeno, barbecue or regular chips. The salad lineup includes roasted Asian swai on baby greens with Asian balsamic vinaigrette dressing, Caesar salad with chicken and roasted eggplant, all $4.95.
To be honest, café entrees are only so-so, especially for what can become close to a $10 sandwich combo by the time you add a soda. The balsamic chicken sandwich comes on herb focaccia bread, which is supple and warm, and tries to soak up the river of green-tinged olive oil (presumably) that oozes out the sides. But the insides are a bit confused: The chicken is overcome by the prosciutto — or is it vice versa? Though you get a decent dose of the salty duo.
The Cuban pork is better, with chunks of fatty pork laid over a thin slice of ham, both sandwiched between two crisp, long pieces of pressed white bread. They stick a pickle in there, under a slathering of yellow mustard. It’s average as Cuban pork sandwiches go, but one of the better bites I’ve tried at the café.
The Italian roast beef with peppers and onions came with provolone cheese on a hoagie ($6.95). It’s pretty self-explanatory. It got better as I ate it.
Salad and fish lovers would do well to eschew the roasted Asian swai salad, which my cohort aptly summarized as fish-shaped potato. The boneless, chilly white fish could have benefited from a little salt or citrus, aside from the cilantro. The onions in the salad mixture had, at times, a blue and purple hue.
The roasted eggplant salad is a bit better. It has endive at the bottom, and pine nuts in its somewhat sweet, unctuous dressing.
This is not to convey that you should avoid the bistro entirely. It’s adequate (though pricey) if you’re a Central Library camper. But I suggest directing your cash and calories toward sweeter (and cheap!) offerings.
Chef Ellis offers mini cheesecakes and pretty, flower-topped petit fours that taste like birthday cake for 99 cents in his display case. Huge, chewy cookies and Rice Krispies treats go for $1.39 from countertop glass jars. The cookies, which could easily be 5 inches in diameter, come studded with big macadamia nuts or white chocolate chunks in some cases, sprinkled sugar in others. Ellis promises mini apple pies in months to come (I think I may have already glimpsed them).
Ellis promises more: “When it comes summertime, I’m going to start smoking my own meats up there; put ribs up there; maybe a pulled pork and chicken sandwich,” he says. “Right now I’m running two soups a day up there. I’ll probably do one soup in the summer, a lighter type soup, or maybe mess around with cold soup.”
I tried the small beef and barley soup ($3.95) to see if Ellis, formerly a saucier at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Chicago, is a soup maven. This soup was thick and chunky, with loads of barley, a bit of beef, carrots and other seasonings in the mix, but it was also a bit salty.
Manager Daniel Emerson says there will be wine dinners, afternoon teas and more in the café space, mostly after-hours, in the future. “We’re going to take it a step further — either Saturday or Friday evening after we shut down, we’ll have a restaurant, offer a small three- or four-course dinner,” he says. “We’ll do a prix fixe menu within a couple of months. We have to be creative. We have to think outside the box. We’re providing people with quality service, as well as food.”
And with Starbucks products, as well as other café knick-knacks, like yogurt cups, fruit and parfaits. So if you don’t like the sandwiches, you can try the fruit and cheese cups for lunch. Choices and convenience are the café’s strong suit.
The Question Mark Cafe at the Central Library
40 E. St. Clair St.
Monday-Thursday: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Sunday: 1-4 p.m.
Food: Two and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Three and a half stars
white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, Cuban sandwich