Café Lia: Almost Just Right
New Italian bistro in Cranford has a few kinks to work out, but off to a great start.
We were fortunate enough to catch Café Lia in its infancy during its Grand Opening on Friday, Nov 12. In fact, we were the second group of patrons the restaurant served. In a review, this is an advantage: we got a taste of the restaurant's ideal offerings, a glimpse of what the restaurant is capable of, and also a look at the kitchen's weaknesses. However, let me note that over time, a restaurant tends to serve better dishes and has time to figure out its personality.
The opening meal was lunch, and the dining room let the daylight in perfectly; it felt like any fall day should. Café Lia is equipped with a full bar near the entrance and a dining room dressed like any decent Italian restaurant. The periphery consists of paintings of scenes from Italy, reserves of wine bottles and cheerfully colored walls. Waiters checked up on us like a small army of Italian mothers, although it may have been an incidence of the occasion. Anticipation, anxiety and excitement filled the air through the hurried and frenzied movements of these servers. The speakers played a mix of Italian favorites, 90s hits and songs you've heard enough of while waiting in hotel lobbies.
The lunch menu features a small arsenal of simple Italian small plates, four soups, creative salads, a panini menu and a modest list of pasta and entrees. We ordered the baked portabello to start, followed by the chicken panini and spaghetti pescatore. The meal came with basket bread, which was airy on the inside with a flaky, crunchy crust.
After I ordered the portabello, with roasted pepper, fresh mozzarella and an aged balsamic reduction, I started to worry we would end up with a finely cooked mushroom smothered in balsamic. However, not only was the balsamic reduction proportioned well, the mozzarella and mushroom itself were both perfectly cooked. The dish came together as one collection of flavors, not separate tastes.
Considering how complete the panini menu was – chicken, broccoli rabe and sausage, portabello, salmon, eggplant, prosciutto, vegetable – it was surprising how plain the chicken panini came. The sandwich was literally a (well cooked) piece of chicken between two toasted pieces of bread. The menu implied the sandwich came with romaine lettuce and a dressing in the sandwich, with a mixed salad and Tuscany fries on the side. However, the only greens were on the side, not in the sandwich. The fries were a bit greasy and soft, but delicious. I still don't know what the difference is between fries and Tuscany fries.
Lastly, the spaghetti pescatore was billed as a triad of clams, mussels and scallops, but the dish also came with two jumbo shrimps. The seafood had a kick of spice and bordered on this side of fresh, although all were a bit hard. The pasta was also a bit too undercooked to be called al dente, but was more than made up for by the tomato sauce with herbs. It came subtle enough to play background for the seafood, but had enough flavor to make each bite of spaghetti worth it.
So, it seems that Café Lia has some things to work out, such as making sure the dishes match the menu description, letting the pasta spend a little more time boiling and the music. (Also, it wouldn't hurt to lay off the patrons a little bit. My water never dropped below the halfway point, and although this isn't a bad thing, it is to check up too much.) But it's also clear that the bistro is off to a good start to becoming the type of casual Italian restaurant that's good to fall back on. The café should soon be full of dates and families filling up the place on nights throughout the week.