Sidelines no longer

Eastside
305 Washington Ave. S.
612-208-1638
eastsidempls.com

If you build it — yeah, they’re coming. In fact, on a recent Wednesday night in the throes of a torrential rainstorm, the place was packed. Professors of economics can validate their supply/demand theories and marketing gurus point at surrounding canyons of new condos to demonstrate Eastside’s success, but I’ll pin the café’s instant popularity on those triune food-industry deities: food, service and ambience.

Actually, let’s shuffle that order a bit. It’s the swell servers we came away talking about — more like lifestyle coaches than wait staff (thanks, Carolyn.) And the room is an understated haven for adults that whispers ‘classy comfort’ rather than screaming a design statement — padded booths against the window walls, tables served with bentwood chairs, and the de rigueur kitchen-counter seating, all in muted tones.

The menu’s rather muted, too — not one of those lists that incite diners (well, a certain one, anyway) to crave every single item. No. In fact, too few dishes call “Eat me.” But, after sampling a couple of small plates ($9–$15) that read ho-hum but turned out to be “hurrah,” I’m guessing I’d be pleasantly surprised by the others, too.

Who’d begin an elegant meal with a carrot salad? Well, me, searching for something unique on the starter list (spinach salad, calamari, bison hanger). Word to the wise: It’s sensational. Slim carrot spears, wood-roasted for deep, sweet, concentrated flavor, arrive draped atop a decadent melting of triple-cream brie, dusted with powdered carrot and punctuated by spiky arugula inhabiting a platter dappled with puddles of cinnamon-carrot puree, all slicked with a hard-working lemon vinaigrette.

Our second starter was an also-ordinary-sounding snapper. Again, the delivery outshone the promise. It’s served, crispy scales intact, with Moroccan hints: minted yogurt, succulent pine nuts and sweet golden raisins, accompanied by a lemony chermoula sauce jiving with fresno chilies.

Eight large plates ($12–$35) once again read as mundane, then proceed to dazzle — especially the ultra-tender, ultimately juice pork shoulder, served with sweet stewed-apple slices and a huh? sauce of curried caramel that turns out to sooth and support the dish rather than cavort as a wild card.

Our second choice — fried chicken on a pretzel bun—also surpassed the offering we expected: supremely juicy meat in a crispy coating, supported by a husky, sweet-smoky barbecue sauce, sweet pickles and red onions. It’s accompanied by skinny, skin-on fries.

Four desserts (plus four cheeses with intriguing accompaniments) are listed, all $8: apple pie, pear tart, hazelnut-chocolate tart, and Carolyn’s strong endorsement of our own choice, a maple-pecan pie that puts all others to shame. Whole, sweet-savory nuts loll in its limpid filling, supported by Izzy’s banana-rum ice cream. Put a request in your last will and testament.

Fun cocktails, too, which Tatersall Distilling’s founder has developed. Ryan Burnet (Burch Steak, Bar La Grassa, Barrio) is the force who prophesied the rise of dining ops in downtown’s east side and adroitly filled the gap.