Fresh ingredients and fresh takes on inspired dishes
After securing some easy parking off of Restaurant Row – not always the simplest or cheapest thing to do in Harrisburg – I walked into a bustling Cafe Fresco on a recent Friday night.
Having never visited the restaurant, I was immediately impressed with the sleek, modern décor, with hanging colored lights, simple votive candles on each table and earth-toned walls and furniture.
The worries of the work week just melted away.
After meeting the hostess, I was directed to a table in the back where I had a view of the entire restaurant. From this vantage point I was able to watch and enjoy the clientele.
A joyful crowd packed the bar and I asked the hostess about the buzz. Cafe Fresco regularly has a full bar at happy hour, she explained. Later, the bar crowd drifts to open tables for dinner. Because the business stays open until 1 a.m. on the weekends, I wondered just how late dinner is served. So, a few days after my visit, I called general manager Brian Fertenbaugh to find out.
He tells me that Monday through Wednesday they stop serving at 10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday it’s 11 p.m. – but they serve pizzas until midnight to cater to the late-night downtown crowd.
This is good to know. Not much irritates me more than walking into an establishment and being denied a table because of the hour on the clock.
I arrived at Cafe Fresco at 7 p.m. — the witching hour between early dinners and the late rush. The restaurant was filled with two distinct groups – young, professional singles, and couples out for a romantic dinner.
As the evening wore on, I noticed an obvious detail — Cafe Fresco seems to be the place to go when celebrating a special event. I overheard a couple announce their anniversary, and at the table across from me was a woman’s birthday celebration. Just as I finished my small plates, a jovial group of ladies in a bachelorette party sat right next to me.
“We get a lot of bachelorette parties on Saturdays. Lots of birthday parties; wedding groups,” says Fertenbaugh.
Cafe Fresco offers a wide variety of ultra-premium spirits like Auchentoshan Distillery’s Three Wood Scotch, Angel’s Envy hand-blended bourbon and Louis XIII de Rémy Martin (otherwise known as “the King,” this cognac costs $115 for a half-ounce pour). The wine list features 15 whites, 32 reds and nine champagnes. Selections range from old-world staples to trendy designer labels. Cafe Fresco also offers imported, standard domestic and craft brews — from breweries like Stone, Dogfish Head and Lagunitas.
Impressed by the bartending skills I observed, I chose to order something off the signature cocktail list. After giving some consideration to the New Old Fashioned and Cucumber Mint Gimlet, I went with the Bonsai – a hoptail made with a combination of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, maple syrup, rhubarb bitters and Yards ESA (Extra Special Ale), stirred and served over ice.
“Our beverage director, Jason Wilson, has been with us for seven years. He does a lot of research,” says Fertenbaugh. “Over the past few years, there has been a surge in the use of fresh ingredients. Fresh herbs, syrups and purees are all used in our cocktails. We look for all the seasonal ingredients that are popular, and we incorporate them into our cocktails.”
The Bonsai is a seriously delicious hoptail, blending spirits and beer perfectly. Hoptails are a hot new trend, and I’m glad I found one in Harrisburg. The combination of the bitter-style beer and bourbon made this drink refreshing. The maple flavor appears on the back end of the drink, and the rhubarb bitters help to create a fresh aroma. Cafe Fresco also has a hoptail twist on the traditional shandy: Stone IPA mixed with house-infused pineapple vodka, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur and lemon.
While waiting for my cocktail to arrive, I took the time to review the appetizers on the menu. Making a decision from the collection of inspired dishes was harder than settling on a drink. I took advice from my server, who recommended the edamame hummus, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and served with warm flatbread triangles. I’m glad I took his advice because the dish was scrumptious, but it is definitely meant for two or three people to share.
As good as the hummus was and despite the bountiful portion, I wanted to try another small plate before moving on to an entrée. I ordered the spicy tuna tartare. Served atop diced avocado, the raw tuna dish was created with sriracha mayo and yuzu oil. The plating was beautiful. The dish was tasty, but my observant waiter noticed a look on my face and asked if the dish was spicy enough for me. After hearing my reply (“No”), he headed back to the kitchen and returned with two small dishes of sriracha and yuzu oil so I could tune the entree to my liking.
Finished with the appetizers, I started to consider the other side of executive chef Travis Mumma’s menu. While drawn to items like the Mongolian-glazed short rib and honey-miso sea scallops, I knew I couldn’t handle an entrée of epic proportions. So, I decided to rely on the Asian influence at Café Fresco and ordered the Chinese sausage fried rice.
While I waited for my entrée, I chatted with the bachelorette party who by now had ordered pitchers of sangria to start the night. I also had the opportunity to observe a staff member set a table with absolute precision and incredible attention to detail.
My entrée arrived and I dug in, cracking the sunny-side-up egg so the yolk drizzled into the rice and vegetables. With options from edamame ravioli to barbecue chicken pizza, I was curious which menu item was Fresco’s biggest seller.
“Probably our most popular dish is our Chilean sea bass. That’s really become our trademark,” says Fertenbaugh. “It’s a great piece of fish. The texture is meatier than white fish. The flavor combination that the chef created is really good — the fish is served over soba noodles. … When you blend all the ingredients and flavors together, it makes a great dish.”
Well, now I know what I’m getting when I go back to Café Fresco. I’ll have to check the wine list to find a pairing for Asian-inspired sea bass.
• 215 North Second Street, Harrisburg; 236-2599
• Monday-Wednesday, 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 6:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.