California dreaming
Darci's Cafe stays ahead of the soup-and-sandwich curve with West Coast cuisine

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The first time I visited Darci's California Cafe, it was perfect Californian weather outside -- foggy, gray skies -- just like the Bay Area in winter.

But stepping inside, the atmosphere changed to Los Angeles in May.

The restaurant's walls are sponged in the warm shades of a sunset over the Pacific. A glass of sunny California wine adds to the mood-heightening atmosphere.
Darci's
California Cafe

***

Food: Good.
Service: Good.
Atmosphere: Good.
Value: Good.
What: Small all-day cafe with a California theme in menu and decor.
Where: 2653 Erie Ave., Hyde Park Square.
When: 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Recommended dishes: Curried chicken salad, house greens, blackened tuna, cherry cordial cheesecake.
Vegetarian choices: Several pizzas, three pastas, vegetable sandwich, black bean burger.
Prices: Pizzas $5.95-$9.95, sandwiches $5.95-$6.95, salads $3.95-$7.95, dinner specials $7.95-$9.95
Sound level: 70 decibels Tuesday night; 66 at lunch. Reasonably quiet. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din.)
Reservations: Taken, but not usually necessary, except in summer for patio.
Miscellaneous: Everything available to go, children's menu, highchairs, patio dining in summer, coffee and pastries for breakfast, wheelchair-accessible dining rooms and restrooms.
Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover, Diner's Club.
Phone: 871-6167.

The paint job is part of a transformation of Darci's Cafe on the corner of Hyde Park Square to Darci's California Cafe.

The change of concept and menu starts at the Hyde Park location, but will move to the rest of the local chain.

Fortunately, Darci's hasn't changed its basic profile. It's still what I think of as a cup - of - soup - and - half - a - sandwich place.

In other words, a pleasant spot to eat alone or with a couple of friends, have lunch in the middle of the afternoon or a muffin in the morning.

Darci's food always has been a little ahead of the curve, a place where the chicken salad isn't made with just mayonnaise and celery, but curry, nuts and raisins.

How better to stay ahead of the curve than to take inspiration from California, source of most food innovation in the last three or four decades.

Hallmarks of California cuisine -- fresh vegetables, gourmet pizzas, field greens and goat cheese -- give a lightened, sophisticated feel to a menu that also includes more standard fare.

Chicken salad test

So how's Darci's chicken salad?

There are two kinds, cajun and curried, served as a sandwich ($5.95) or salad ($6.95). The delicious curried version is an adaption of a salad Darci's has served for years.

Instead of fresh grapes and apples, the mix is plumped-up raisins with chicken in a rich, slightly sweet dressing with a mild heat and shovelfuls of whole pecans.

A mug of soup with that might be cream of broccoli or chicken gumbo ($1.95 mug, $2.95 bowl). The gumbo is thick with okra and chicken, tomato- rather than roux- based, but spicily flavorful.

Individual-size pizzas include several vegetarian choices, such as the goat cheese, walnut praline and sundried tomato ''pesto za.'' ($9.95) I tried the chicken dijon za ($8.95). Nice spongy crust, good grilled chicken.

The saffron mayo squiggled on the top is bright yellow, the color of hot dog mustard. Maybe the psychology of color explains why I thought the pizza was too mustardy.

There are three hot pastas on the menu, all vegetarian. The sundried tomato pesto and cream sauce on spinach noodles ($5.95) was mediocre; the sauce too sharp.

Sandwiches are overstuffed. The Spa Turkey Delight ($5.95) is 3 inches thick with turkey and alfalfa sprouts, served with vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise. Among other sandwiches are a sub ($6.95), a club ($5.95) and a southwestern black bean burger ($5.95).

More than iceberg

While sandwiches are on the expensive side, changing dinner specials have moderate prices.

Blackened tuna with lime mayo cream is $9.95, a nice deal for a piece of fresh tuna, more bronzed than blackened, with a tangy and creamy lime sauce.

Chicken lasagne ($7.95) was a comforting casserole of black beans, lasagne noodles, chicken, marinara sauce and cheese.

The rotating list of wines by the glass and beers -- both micro- and macro-brewed -- is welcome at dinner. A glass of Villa Sandi Pinot Grigio was $3.75.

One of the lighten-up changes at Darci's is the replacement of sides of potato chips with a salad of mixed greens dressed in a vinaigrette -- very California. The same salad comes with dinner entrees and salad plates. I love the tangle of various baby greens, a few bitter lettuces, beet tops and unidentifiables. It makes a more challenging, interesting salad than iceberg or romaine.

If challenge is not something you look for in food, try dessert.

Desserts are acquired from various independent bakers around town.

There are always several kinds of cheesecakes displayed in the glass case up front ($2.95).

A moist, fresh cherry cordial cheesecake was dotted with maraschinos and coated with chocolate.

My daughters finished the chocolate mousse cake ($3.25) before I could get a fork in. They assured me it was just fine.

A brownie and a Darci's bar at lunch (each $1) were stale and dry. The brownie frosting still held the imprint of plastic wrap.

Some of Darci's decor, by the way, you can take home.

The decoratively bottled vinegars and oils are for sale, as are salad dressings, blackening spice and the spice mixture that used to flavor classic Cincinnati oyster crackers. The crackers have been replaced by more California melba toast.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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