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Smile Time 

Grumpy's turns those frowns upside down.

Homemade jambalaya hits just the right peppery note. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Homemade jambalaya hits just the right peppery note.

Brief, burly, and froufrou-free, breakfast is the workingman of meals: a way to fuel up for the day's paycheck production, not an event to anticipate in its own right.

Brunch, on the other hand, could be considered the mealtime lady of leisure: a slow and slightly luxurious way to ease into the weekend's diversions, whether those include tackling some household chores, checking out a gallery, or simply whiling away the day on the front-porch swing.

To our tastes, the hurried weekday breakfast is a bore. But give us a cheerful setting, a fat stack of reading material, and an amiable companion, and we can easily lay waste to an entire weekend's worth of late mornings and early afternoons, sipping endless cups of java and nibbling on anything from syrup-drenched pancakes to savory, meat-based fare.

Which is exactly what brought us to weekend brunch at Grumpy's Café, Kathy Owad's relaxed and friendly restaurant in Tremont. On a late spring morning, when the sun wrestled with overcast and a fine mist played tag with patches of blue sky, Grumpy's airy dining rooms surely must have been the most pleasant spot in town.

The bright, artful surroundings are a huge improvement over Grumpy's former digs inside a small, cramped storefront on nearby Literary Road. That space infamously caught fire in the fall of '04, and until the new site finally opened this past January, Tremonters had been without Grumpy's unpretentious offerings, with its signature blend of homey midwestern cookery and zesty Cajun and southwestern flare.

The result of this intra-national marriage is a menu -- or, more accurately, five menus, including lunch, dinner, weekday breakfast, weekend brunch, and late night on Fridays and Saturdays -- that runs the gamut from homemade chicken salad and meatloaf to salsa-slathered chorizo burgers and Mexican lasagna, with its tastebud-hugging chorus of chicken, chorizo, and cheddar.

At dinner, for instance, chef Kim Reksis and her staff turned in an award-worthy rendition of homemade jambalaya, featuring a bright, tomato-y Creole sauce and plenty of flavorful meats -- shrimp, ham, andouille, and chicken breast included. We ordered ours at "5" on a proffered heat index of 1 to 10, and it arrived at the table just as we had hoped, packing plenty of peppery firepower, yet not so hot as to obliterate the other flavors on the plate. Meantime, a thick-cut ham steak -- that day's dinner special -- was just like what Mom would have made: lean, tender, soused with a rosemary-scented pan jus, and settled on some first-rate macaroni and cheese, the firm rotini seductively slathered in a rich, mellow, and remarkably ungreasy sauce. (BYOB, by the way, is OK; we snagged a couple of $3.50 bottles of Great Lakes Brewing Company's Holy Moses White Ale from next door's Lincoln Pub, and our server provided glasses and the church key.)

On the other hand, an appetizer of stuffed mushroom caps wasn't particularly awe-inspiring. Although the finely diced crab, shrimp, and Swiss filling tasted fresh and wholesome, it lacked punch; worse, the caps were barely cooked and proceeded to release unappealing puddles of brown liquid onto the dish below.

A cup of soup or a simple tossed salad are included in the price of dinner entrées, helping to make Grumpy's a notable value. One night's homemade lobster bisque was prettily pink and expectedly creamy, if a little too salty; no sign of actual lobster meat either. And while the greens in a simple tossed salad seemed a little tired, the lively sesame-ginger dressing helped perk up the performance.

As for sweet endings, offerings were limited: some cookies, cheesecake, and a peanut-butter mousse pie -- which our server implied was homemade, although clearly it was not. Very sweet, a little stale, and served on a plate scribbled with bottled chocolate sauce, it wasn't worth the calories.

Still, that jambalaya alone was enough to lure us back for Sunday brunch. While the amiable companion and the reading material were our call, Grumpy's pulled out all the stops in terms of providing the cheery surroundings.

From the outside, the handsome building (complete with its own enclosed parking lot and a small patio destined for outdoor dining) is reminiscent of an old southwestern saloon, complete with bay windows and burgundy awnings. Inside, though, the space is entirely up-to-date -- done in brilliant shades of sunflower, sage, tomato, and violet, and set off with gleaming white woodwork, soaring ceilings, and gallery-style lighting. In fact, the rear dining room actually is a gallery of sorts, currently displaying the colorful, collage-like artwork of Clevelander Hector Vega. Filled with local landmarks, Vega's 3-D street scenes, in particular, make a good fit for this neighborhood eatery. And should you fall in love with a particular piece of art over a stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes, a plump western omelet, or a sturdy chorizo-stuffed burrito, not to worry: All the pieces are available for sale.

As it turned out, we had more than ample time to study them before our check finally arrived -- thanks mainly to the big Sunday-morning crowd, which gummed up both the service and the kitchen's pacing. Other small annoyances included being served buttermilk pancakes instead of the pumpkin ones we had ordered, and receiving wheat toast with our West 14th Special (lean, meaty corned beef hash, topped with two eggs and sided with fried spuds) in place of the requested rye.

But did it make us grumpy? Hardly. Name notwithstanding, inside this handsome, homey setting, good spirits are always the order of the day.

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