Decadent by Design Café brings color, spice to Fountain Square If you haven’t dined out in Fountain Square for some months, you might be in for a few surprises. With weekly wine tastings, flamenco dancers and rooftop dining in the shadows of the city skyline, the neighborhood continues to prove it’s no province of late-night diners and takeouts. Give it a few days, and this district is certain to change. A case in point is Decadent by Design Café. Step into the storefront at 1112 Shelby, and you’ll see that the cool, blue and white space that formerly housed Santorini Greek Kitchen has undergone a serious makeover — or a visit from a Jamaican cousin. Deep red and mustard yellow walls have turned up the heat. West African icons and painted guitars, as well as distinctly festive music, have metamorphosed the place into a vibrant, funky eatery.

Owners Kathy Jones and Holly Commons have relocated their catering operation to this cozy café, renamed it and created a joint that, in just a few short months, has become a lunchtime hotspot southeast of downtown. It’s not hard to see why. When you serve three crab cakes and a salad for $7, customers come back.

The café has just added dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings, and while the menu has only three appetizers and five entrées, all of the lunch options are available — if the noontime crowd hasn’t depleted them — broadening selections to anything from a trumped up PBJ to a hearty Cuban sandwich.

Keeping with the motto “Eclectic, Unique, Delicious,” dishes draw inspiration from several different culinary traditions. Indeed, blue crabs and fettuccine Alfredo have pretty disparate pedigrees. But Caribbean flavors dominate, giving necessary character to a concept that might have caused a little gastronomic chaos.

Hoping for some warmth on a chilly June evening, we ordered all things from tropical climes. Quesadillas ($8) came with a tasty filling of shrimp and bacon without too much cheese and a tortilla crust either baked or treated so lightly on the griddle that it hardly retained a drop of grease. A cumin-lime sour cream added a nice richness, but a relish reminiscent of pico de gallo had some peppers so high up on the Scoville Scale we were soon grabbing for our drinks. So much for the cool spring evening!

Black bean soup ($3.50), a Cuban standard, bore a rich flavor of smoky ham in a dark broth. A bit salty, it might have benefited from the brightness of a squeeze of lime or the tang of sour cream. Soon enough, though, we’d found the bottom of the bowl.

The “Decadent Salad” promised a grove’s worth of exotic fruits, along with hearts of palm and pine nuts. But the mango boat must have missed port, and a house-made raspberry vinaigrette was less a vinaigrette than a lightly sweet fruit puree with a surplus of seeds. It sat on the greens rather than integrating with them. A generous house salad with honey-key lime dressing fared much better from its acidity.

Among entrees, the Caribbean pork roast ($15) offered up both the highlight of the meal as well as some puzzling ancillary accompaniments. The pork itself came in the form of three meaty medallions with the perfect treatment of mustard and jerk seasonings, thankfully turned down a notch from what you might get in Jamaica. Utterly tender to the fork and caramelized around the edges, this was a testament to the talents of the chefs. But dilled new potatoes seemed both out of place and a little wan and flavorless. Asparagus, the day’s vegetable, was so gently steamed as to be tough and was served with a curiously Spartan “sauce” of sautéed garlic.

Those $7 crab cakes, the house specialty, were a little uneven to stake one’s fame on. “Island Style” seemed code for “spicy,” and these packed an unmistakable afterburn. But while the exterior was golden, the interior was soft to the point of being mushy. They barely held up to our forks. A horseradish sauce could have been a perilous condiment, given the heat of the cakes, but added only the slightest flavor.

Key lime pie seemed de rigeur for dessert. The silky filling smacked a perfect bite of tart lime without any of the gelatin undertones of lesser versions. Here, finally, was some decadence. Yet the crust was soggy and couldn’t quite stand up to that magnificently rich custard. Decadence without design?

This was one more dish that gave delicious evidence of the chefs’ skills not yet fully executed. Settling in takes time, though, and the highlights — and the cheery locale — were more than worth the trip. As change is the spirit of Fountain Square, one can only wonder what this creative duo will dish up next.

Decadent by Design Café 1112 Shelby St. 638-2967 Monday-Thursday, 10-2:30 Friday-Saturday, 10-9 Food: 3 1/2 stars Atmosphere: 3 1/2 stars Service: 4 stars


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