Café Quirky

An old-time eatery for an old-school neighborhood.

A savory roast-beef sandwich nestles between satiny red-pepper soup and tender strudel. - Walter Novak
A savory roast-beef sandwich nestles between satiny red-pepper soup and tender strudel.
Like a flower bed featuring only carnations, a dining scene composed solely of chains and upscale bistros is pretty and predictable, but bland. What's needed is a wildflower or two, to add character to the landscape: Some quirky charm here, some oddball fun there, and suddenly you've got yourself a garden.

This brings us to Café Marika, the newest endeavor from veteran foodies Michael and Marika Feigenbaum, owners of Lucy's Sweet Surrender, Cleveland's most venerable Hungarian bakery and strudel-works. More than a bakery, less than a full-service restaurant, this "European-style café" in North Collinwood will never, ever be confused with a garden-variety coffeehouse. Instead, from the lace curtains hanging at the windows of the renovated, charming, old-world-style building, to the small but smartly chosen collection of top-shelf booze and imported brews, Café Marika is clearly one of a kind.

Most of the time, this singularity is something to celebrate -- like on a recent Saturday night, when it yielded a bakery case full of strudel, Sacher torte, and New York-style cheesecake, brought in from Lucy's. The menu that night boasted such dishes as homemade chicken schnitzel, stuffed Hungarian peppers, and cool, creamy lecsó salad (a toss of spaetzle-like dumplings, paprikash-style sauce, and flecks of carrots, onions, and cabbage). Chase 'em down with a fruity, unfiltered Pyramid Apricot Weizen ($4) or a dark, manly Lion Stout ($5, ABV 8 percent and almost thick enough to chew), and give a toast to the fact that Starbucks this ain't.

Completing the "café cum neighborhood tavern" theme this night was the presence of affable server/bartender Brian West, a 20-year industry vet who fancies working to a steady beat of Dylan and Buffalo Springfield, while pouring brewskis like a pro and mixing killer Kamikazes.

But besides the colorful vibe, there's also an integrity to the place, thanks to its close association with ArtsCollinwood, a nonprofit that supports local artists and works tirelessly to help stabilize this older, transitional neighborhood. Not only did ArtsCollinwood volunteers help renovate the space, but the café is also physically connected to the ArtsCollinwood Gallery. Factor in the ever-changing collection of local artwork hanging on the café walls and the local musicians who sometimes entertain here, and it's no wonder the spot gives off a sense of down-home authenticity, like something you'd expect to stumble across in a small college community.

Even the choice of ingredients supports the homegrown theme, with meats, produce, and cheeses often sourced from local farms -- no surprise, since the Feigenbaums are staunch supporters of the North Union Farmers Market, where Michael Feigenbaum long served on the board of directors.

Besides finding their way into the café's Hungarian specialties, those fresh, seasonal ingredients also show up in dishes like quiche, beef-and-pork meatloaf, pizza, hefty meat-and-cheese platters, deli sandwiches, soups, salads, and veggie plates. If that should be somehow not enough, a large blackboard by the counter features a handful of daily specials.

Because of the café's limited cooking facilities, most entrées and hot dishes are made off-site and reheated in the small "finishing" kitchen. But by and large, the food suffers surprisingly little from its travels: Bisque-like roasted red-pepper soup arrived at the table thick, satiny, and plenty hot; sliced meatloaf was moist and robustly seasoned, thanks to a spicy ketchup and pepper glaze; and while the breading on an order of chicken schnitzel had long since lost its crunch, the meat remained fork-tender and tasty.

Other satisfying choices include the café's made-to-order deli sandwiches, which can be customized from a "create-your-own" listing of Lucy's freshly baked breads, assorted spreads, deli meats, cheeses, and garnishes. While the potential combinations seemed nearly astronomical, we somehow hit upon a keeper on our first try: thinly sliced smoked turkey, buttery Havarti, and spicy hot-pepper preserves (from a local farmer), topped with market-fresh lettuce on firm-but-tender sourdough bread -- a towering edifice more than large enough to share, and so scrumptious, the thought of it still makes our mouths water.

Also because of the kitchen's limitations, early-morning visitors won't find eggs, pancakes, or other traditional breakfast/brunch fare. However, baked goods like muffins, scones, and Russian tea biscuits are plentiful. And during a Sunday-morning brunch stop, warm, flaky veggie strudel, stuffed with broccoli and carrots, made a satisfying stand-in, as did an unusual crumbed-and-pan-fried crêpe, filled with bits of tender pork.

Just don't count on always snaring a fave: During the course of two visits, the list of "don't haves" included cheese stix (a toasted bread snack), Hungarian sausage, Italian bread for sandwiches, and the much-desired quiche. Nor could we snag a cappuccino during that Sunday-morning visit, when a staffing emergency found the Feigenbaums manning the helm. Neither of them knew how to make the café's specialty coffees, including espressos, Café Americano, or the enticing-sounding Mexican coffee, with cinnamon, vanilla, and whipped cream. We made do with the regular joe -- a smooth, sturdy house blend from local roaster Kokopelli Coffee.

Also that morning, the credit-card machine was down, and the air conditioner's performance was under par -- all of which threatened to nudge the quirkiness factor from "charming" to "mildly annoying."

Then again, that's the thing about those colorful wildflowers. Once you welcome them to your garden, you have to be prepared to accept the occasional weed.