If more restaurants were like good friends—reliable, fun to be around and easy on the pocketbook—we’d all be eating out a lot more often. Moody friends, like inconsistent restaurants, don’t stay on anyone’s social roster for long. And with spending cash in short supply for many of us, who wants to spin the roulette wheel, not knowing which you could end up with?
Open since early September, Cafe Nell is just like that unpredictable friend we all put up with, but only for a while. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this upscale cafe varied so greatly during the course of our visits, one could only describe its personality as schizophrenic. Both food and service can range from stellar to extremely disappointing, completely overwhelming any bonus points scored by the comfortable and stylish redecorated interior.
And that’s too bad, because the inside is gorgeous. New York transplants Darren Creely and Vanessa Preston gave the old Hurley’s dining room a thorough makeover, creating a smaller, light-filled bar up front and a separate open dining room. Rectangular white subway tiles gleam behind the bar and enhance sections of the dining room walls, and the pared-down color scheme of white and black is livened with an occasional splash of red.
If only as much thought and effort had gone into training the staff as designing the interior. Service was genuine, knowledgeable and attentive on two visits; neglectful, disorganized and distracted on two others. Although the owners were in the restaurant every time we visited, they appeared not to notice servers giving different pitches to tables; I heard about the daily soup, menu changes and unavailable items from the next table’s server—after I’d already placed my order. Servers walked away empty-handed from tiny tables covered with finished plates, and simple drinks took up to 10 minutes to arrive from the bar.
Food, too, was a mixed bag.
Breakfast is served until 4 pm most days and offers healthier takes on the usual egg and omelette routine. An egg-white omelette ($9) is a testament to the cafe’s commitment to reining in flagrant use of butter, fats and dairy, mentioned on the menu. Peculiar crunchy-hard beignets with fruit compote ($5) would have been better if they were pillow-soft. Steak and eggs ($17) are both tasty and competently cooked to order, and the accompanying home fries were crisp and seasoned with a liberal dose of garlic.
Salads are basic and desperately in need of creativity and polish. A recent warm chicken and bread salad ($15) was thoroughly drenched in a Dijon vinaigrette, forming a pool on the plate and overpowering the wilted frisée, gristly chicken chunks, pecans and golden raisins that came with it. A boring beet salad ($10) had a light, sweet walnut vinaigrette, bibb lettuce and oddly crusty sugared walnuts, with toasted triangles of Grand Central Bakery’s campagnolo bread topped with bubbly, gooey blue cheese. Basic and sparse, the arugula, fennel and shallot salad ($9) was a small handful of the peppery greens studded with a few slivers of fresh fennel bulb and sharp shallot.
Meats and seafood fared better. The turkey burger ($12) was a surprise hit, well cooked and seasoned, and brought to the table just moments from the grill. Though a soggy pork confit sandwich ($8) had plenty of tender shredded meat, the most interesting flavor was the layer of braised red cabbage inside. Scallops ($19) were overcooked and tough, and garnished with a few sprigs of maitake mushroom.
Whole-wheat pasta with gremolata ($8) was improved greatly by adding chicken sausage, an extra $4, but still couldn’t escape being underseasoned and flat from a sparse sprinkling of fresh herbs. Do order whatever market vegetable ($5) is on hand; the broccoli rabe was cooked just enough, with delicious garlic and olive oil. Another side, braised kale with bacon ($5), was tender, smoky and addictive.
For dessert, steer clear of the ice creams and sorbets—wacky flavor combinations like sweet summer corn (in November) and strawberry jalapeño just don’t work together, and the ice creams often taste too salty. Do choose the gigantic, gooey warm chocolate cookie ($7), and pick a pedestrian ice cream to go with it. Just don’t expect to have the same Cafe Nell experience twice.