Columbus Café

An altogether underrated South End treasure
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  January 25, 2006
3.0 3.0 Stars

This space used to house the Claremont Café, which outgrew its origins as a gourmet cafeteria to become a serious Mediterranean bistro with Peruvian menu incursions. Now, new owners are putting Central American influences on the same canvas of Mediterranean-type foods. Our server told us the chef is from Honduras, and we ordered everything even vaguely Latin except the “Argentine Steak,” but the kitchen seemed equally adept with risotto or meat loaf, as with a Salvadoran-enchilada special.DISCOVER COLUMBUS, a South End find.

Some early criticisms must have been answered by the time I got there, and we had a most enjoyable meal, although desserts are still clearly underdeveloped. To start with that Salvadoran enchilada ($6.95), it’s based on a tostada, a crisp flat tortilla. Since enchilada in culinary terms means “wrapped roll” (although the old Hispanic community in the Southwest has a stacked enchilada made of soft tortillas), this doesn’t look like your idea of an enchilada. And it isn’t really hand food. But as a kind of salad or morsel appetizer, it works quite well, with the organizing flavor of black beans and large pieces of beet, hard-boiled egg, strips of chicken, and lots of salad heaped on.

Rhode Island calamari ($7.95) are also not what you might expect — they’re not deep-fried. An early critic wrote that they were bland, so my party had to deal with quite a lot of sautéed squid strongly flavored with jalapeño peppers. I did like squid in this preparation, and there was a lot of it, and a lot of baby spinach underneath. This is an appetizer to have as an entrée sometimes.

Platano frito ($6.95) isn’t really what we expect in fried plantains, either. The thin rounds of plantain are fried, but not to a crisp, and then topped with guacamole and cream. Crab cakes ($9.95) are good and meaty, almost to the point of falling apart, with an especially garlicky cream sauce and, again, a lot of salad.

My favorite entrée was Tuscan meat loaf ($11.95), reportedly made of boar and beef, though I didn’t get a wild-boar or even game-farm-boar flavor — just a rich, meaty taste. The loaf is heaped on superb mashed potatoes, with some sweet-sour greens on the side, a layer of mushrooms on top, and just a wisp of sauce. Could be the meat loaf of the year.

I also liked a quasi-Mediterranean dish of cod and mahogany clams in a lobster broth with polenta ($14.95). The twist here is that polenta isn’t usually part of this kind of fish stew in Europe, but it could be, as the combination of creamy grits and seafood broth is comfort food. The side vegetable was broccoli rabe, a little bitter as it gets into the winter, but a nice foil for sweet-tasting seafood.

My seafood taste was captured by a special on ocean perch ($13.95), a wonderfully sweet and fresh piece of fish accompanied by a beet risotto (alarmingly pink, but with the familiar flavor dominated by cheese, with bits of varicolored beet). The side vegetable was “roast cauliflower,” and this deserves a steady engagement. Cauliflower is bland, and invites spice in most cuisines. But here they really roast it to a point where there is some browning at the edges, and that intensifies the real flavor of the cauliflower.

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