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Cafe Sausalito Might Have a New Address, but the Food Remains the Same 

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Photo by Emanuel Wallace

The picture had all the hallmarks of a winning Instagram post: The lighting was natural and flattering, the angle coyly inviting, and the food blooming with just-made vitality. But when I read the caption — "pan-seared walleye with lobster gnocchi and saffron butter sauce" — I was genuinely perplexed. Just one night earlier we had eaten at Sausalito, ordered that very dish and even snapped a photo. After comparing the two pictures, all I could conclude was that our meal had been tipped into a paper bag, shaken like fried chicken, and poured onto a plate. All the elements were there, but they were rearranged into an abstract version of the original.

Perhaps the very thing that has kept Sausalito chugging along all these years at a nearly dead shopping mall, namely private events, was precisely the thing that torpedoed our dinner. While the main dining room was sparsely populated on a recent weekday evening, a large group was gathered above our heads on the mezzanine, commanding more of the kitchen's attention than it likely could provide.

An overtaxed kitchen might also explain why the calamari ($8) was pulled from the deep fryer while the rings were still pale. Given the popularity of the dish city-wide, this version also seems to be a missed opportunity in its aggressive austerity — all rings and a smattering of jarred banana peppers. Heck, if those peppers had simply been battered and fried like the squid, the dish would have been twice as good. A lack of originality also prevented a fried goat cheese appetizer ($8) from rising above its three-word moniker. Three blobs of "fried goat cheese" are laid to rest on a bed of greens without so much as a slice of bread or cracker. Had the cheese not been so metallic tasting, it might not have been such a glaring absence.

This winter, after 30 years at the Galleria, Cafe Sausalito made a major play by relocating to a high-profile location across the street. The contemporary new restaurant at the corner of East Ninth and St. Clair will likely charm longtime customers, but in order to wow new fans, everything from the food to the service will need to improve.

I recently spent two painstaking hours peeling fava beans for a Spanish bean salad recipe, so the moment our server set down our crab cake appetizer ($10) and accompanying bean salad, I knew what we were in for. On each and every bean is a tiny leather jacket standing between the diner and the tender core. How that detail is overlooked by the kitchen I'll never know. As far as the crab cakes go, they taste fine, but there isn't a lump of crab meat in the lot.

It wasn't just that food-porn shot that left us disenchanted; we managed to experience another instance of bait and switch during the same meal. Any seasoned diner knows to take flowery menu descriptions with a grain of salt, but others are nearly contractual in nature. When you read "double bone-in pork chop," for example, that's what you expect to see on the plate. What arrived ($18) was a tasty, but much trimmer, single-bone chop. Predictably, the meat was paired with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

For three decades, lunch has been the wind beneath Sausalito's wings, so to speak, so we expected much better results during a midweek, midday visit. It didn't take long to see how the restaurant has managed to survive all these years as every chair was occupied both downstairs and up, where we were seated. Suits filled the seats and CNBC ruled the flat-screens as servers hoofed it up and down the open stairwell to keep up. Ours dropped a cold, thick bowl of seafood bisque ($5.50) and literally did not return until she brought our mains 25 minutes later and noticed that it went untouched. "Cold?" she asked.

A flank steak salad ($10.50) flirted with success, but was hampered by poorly trimmed beef that was surprisingly fatty for the typically lean cut. Also, the meat wasn't sliced all the way through in spots, leaving ungainly pieces. If you expect a meatloaf patty melt ($10) to be built around a nice thick slice of meatloaf that holds it shape, this version will confound you. The filling is so loose that the sandwich sheds pieces from every side as one attempts to eat it. As a knife-and-fork dish, however, it's not all that bad.

If you're in the area and looking for a place to grab a cocktail, you could do worse than Sausalito. The glassy two-level space has great city views and the drinks are creative and well crafted. We enjoyed the London is Calling ($11), a gin martini dosed with grappa, and the Despacito ($11), a smoky mescal-fueled drink with a bitter amaro backbone. That is, until a staffer dropped a bowl of guacamole that bounced onto a companion's jacket and soured the mood.

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