It is tricky to manage the transition from cult of personality to a rationalized institution. The specter of Candidate Obama, with his audacity of hope, haunts President Obama, with his tepid proposals for "nonprofit member-owned health insurance cooperatives." It's a let-down. But who knows, those cooperatives might just get the job done. Here in town a restaurant has managed the transition from labor of love to neighborhood institution quite nicely. The Café at Pat's reminds us that institutions can offer an appealing predictability that transcends the vicissitudes of personal charisma.
The Café, located above Pat's Meat Market in the Deering neighborhood, was originally a labor of love for chef Greg Gilman. He salvaged the old wood that gives the restaurant a cozy rustic feel, hired all the staff, and treated them like family. It was a great spot. Gilman moved on about five years ago, and since then the helm has been passed from one able chef to another a few times. The staff has turned over as well. But if Pat's has lost a little of its magical personal touch, it has grown into something else: a reliable neighborhood institution.
Many of the places we think of as neighborhood restaurants on the peninsula lack an important qualification: You can't simply walk in there and expect to get a table without a long wait. At Pat's, even on a weekend, you can expect the restaurant to be pleasantly bustling but not quite full. A spontaneous meal never becomes an ordeal.
The menu is classic American with touches of Greek and Italian. As you would expect at a restaurant above a meat market, it is the grilled meats that are most appealing. The hanger steak had been rubbed with a smoky paprika. The spice gave the dish a distinctive aroma without overwhelming the flavors of the perfectly grilled meat. A similar balance was struck with a blackened mako shark, caught off the coast of Maine. The flesh, firm like swordfish but a bit juicier, has a distinctive tangy flavor that stood up nicely to the orange-black coating of spices.
The chef likes to slice garlic thin, like the Italian prison-chef in Goodfellas, rather than mashing it and dicing it up. Those sharp little slices show up everywhere — from the mussels diavolo, to the pasta, to the sautéed chard and the grilled zucchini that arrived as sides. Mussels in this kind of spicy tomato sauce are often served over pasta, and in its absence we used up plenty of bread soaking everything up. The fettuccini with chicken, on the other hand, could have used a sauce with a bit more assertiveness than a thin and sweet marsala. The big pieces of chicken were juicy and tender, but did not do much to make the dish more interesting. Grilled pork sausage from the market downstairs was also sweet, especially when dipped in the red wine gravy. But there were enough herbs in the meat to balance the sweetness of the pork and wine.