When Fat Cats openedin Tremont almost a dozen years ago, the area was far from the gastronomic playground it is today: Lola had opened its doors just one month prior, and Fahrenheit was still a good five years down the road. So to call Ricardo Sandoval, chef and partner of Fat Cats, a Johnny-come-lately would not only be discourteous, it would be disingenuous as well. With Felice Urban Café, Sandoval is, in essence, going back in time.
Working with owner Margaret Mueller, he launched a restaurant in a neighborhood that may have its best days ahead of it. Like Tremont a decade ago, the area around Larchmere Boulevard is largely middle-class residential. Go too far past its borders, however, and things can get a little interesting. "I love that neighborhood," Sandoval told me. "It reminds me of Tremont 12 years ago."
Like Fat Cats, Felice is tucked into a building that has seen more babies than bistros. Mueller purchased a century-old Craftsman-style home intending to fix it up and rent it out. But perhaps too easily, she was convinced by her architect to transform the private dwelling into a very public place. "I did it for the fun of it," confessed the 79-year-old Mueller. "I like what's happening on the street."
If not for the discreet signage out front, few would know that the charming property houses a restaurant. Inside is no different. Crossing the threshold, one feels as if he or she has dropped in on friends, not arrived for an 8 p.m. reservation. I resist the urge to remove my shoes and instead take a seat at the tiny four-seat bar. From here you can see pretty much everything: small lounge, snug dining room, enclosed front porch. The homey interior is loaded with leaded glass windows, sumptuous wood fixtures and a cozy hearth. Round the corner and you'll find a semi-secluded booth facing an open kitchen.
Apart from shaking them, Mueller acknowledges that she is entirely hands-off: "I just said, 'Ricardo, do your thing.'" Sandoval's "thing," it seems, is serving unfussy and affordable Mediterranean food in eminently comfortable neighborhood settings. He has perfected that style at Fat Cats, Lava Lounge, and, too briefly, Halite.
Meals at Felice might begin with a charcuterie plate ($10), layered with thin slices of chorizo, sopressata, speck and buttery crostini. Fat chunks of zesty chorizo reappear alongside choice mussels ($9.50) in a big, deep and brothy bowl. Chili flakes and mango chunks lend a sweet-and-spicy afterglow to a trio of large grilled shrimp ($8).
There is a decidedly Spanish streak to the menu, evidenced by the appearance of Manchego cheese and sherry vinaigrette in a mixed greens and apple salad ($7). An absolutely delicious corn and garlic soup ($5) is like a Midwest-meets-Madrid twist on sopa de ajo. Squeamish diners might want to steer clear of the grilled baby octopi ($7), which are served whole and look somewhat menacing. Everybody should avoid the pan-roasted sardines ($8) if all portions contain as many unappetizing bones as did mine. It's a shame, too, because they got in the way of an otherwise tasty and uncommon treat.
On no visit did I find a meal over $19 (most are priced at $17 and below). For that amount, you can tuck into a pleasantly chewy skirt steak, here piqued with a vinegary chimichurri sauce. For the same price, you could order sautéed medallions of monkfish, served atop creamed corn and drizzled with bright cilantro chutney. Featured as a special one night is a filet of ruby-red sockeye salmon ($15), capped with a poached egg that, when pierced, glazes both the fish and green salad below.
Wines, like the food, tend to be Mediterranean and economical. There are some great Spanish blends for just $25, plus interesting and affordable reds and whites from Italy, France and Argentina. Hop heads will doubtless gravitate toward elixirs from Magic Hat, Ommegang and Rogue.
When four of us returned for dinner recently on a glorious Friday night, it looked as though we had the place to ourselves. But as we worked our way through the petite bistro and out the back door, a secret landscape unfolded. There, beneath the canopy of a towering oak, scores of diners were savoring the last of summer's charms. It was as if we crashed a neighbor's well-catered affair.
Midway through the meal, I popped inside for a bio-break. Just as I did, a young couple walked in, looked around the empty room and then at each other. Knowing that look all too well, I tipped them off to the gathering out back. Nobody likes eating alone.