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Updated: 1:51 p.m. Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | Posted: 1:49 p.m. Wednesday, July 11, 2012

At Cafe Malta, good intentions



By Matthew Odam

You have to give credit to Jessica and Nick Goulding for pushing back against homogeneity.

On a stretch of Brodie Lane predominantly occupied by popular chain restaurants, the couple's Cafe Malta offers thoughtful dishes at excellent price points. Unfortunately, the kitchen at the self-styled Tex-Med restaurant does not deliver on the ambition of the menu.

The small island of Malta does not evoke the same defined sense of enticement as neighboring Italy and Greece, and I imagine few customers could define Maltese cuisine. The menu at Cafe Malta, which opened in December, is vaguely Mediterranean, and the restaurant's space enhances that idea.

Large wooden booths ring the white-walled Cafe Malta and resemble quaint seaside seating. Posters on the wall celebrate French and Spanish influences and the butcher-paper-covered white tablecloths have the feel of a casual coastal bistro in one of the two countries.

Despite the massive and oddly placed flat-screen television, the inviting bar in the small restaurant offers a nice respite from the summer heat, the sun's menacing glare kept at bay by stylish blinds. At a recent dinner customers lingered and chatted over wine at the packed bar, lending a convivial vibe to the place that feels like it could mature to an authentic neighborhood staple.

The Tex-Med moniker is certainly represented in a crostini di Hill Country ($6). Melted brie cheese layers local Smokey Denmark's jalapeño sausage, which sits atop an Italian pesto. The brie, sausage and Parmesan-forward pesto make for a salty snack, but the kick from the jalapeño is enough to give complexity to the appetizer. Begilla ($7), a Maltese bean puree spread that resembles the more familiar hummus, carries an oily sheen but balances nicely with a puckering, vinegar-heavy jardinière of carrots and celery.

Triangular ravioli called pansotti ($9) come stuffed with a tart goat cheese that gets a bitter accompanying note from arugula and richness from a brown butter sauce. The flavors had a nice balance, but the pansotti was woefully undercooked. The same timing problems also affected an entrée of a maltagliati ragu ($13). The homemade pasta had nice texture and density, but both should have stayed in the boiling water an extra minute.

The crowded restaurant seemed short-staffed — an extra waiter or food-runner would have helped immensely — which might have been the cause of the rushed dishes. But even a perfectly cooked maltagliati (which means "badly cut" in Italian) could not have saved the dried pork shoulder and brisket in the sauce that also needed the acid zing of more tomatoes.

The pork shoulder ($9) didn't fare much better on its own at lunch. Large chunks of unrendered fat circumscribed the pork steaks that promised whole garlic cloves but arrived bland and dry despite a liberal dousing of date demi-glace. A bottle of smooth, plummy Podere Montepulciano d'Abruzzo helped add a little flavor to accompany the dish, and at only $25, the bottle that retails for $15 is a great value. You might pay $35 for that wine at other restaurants.

Hanger steak had a nice char and rosy center, but the chewy sliced medallions required considerable work. A roasted tomato and red onion marmalade atop the steak had a deep tanginess. But the topping arrived cold, when I would have preferred it at room temperature. The highlight of the dish was a gratin of potatoes that had nice snap and held a creamy gorgonzola spread between its layers. An accompanying sauté of marinated spinach, zucchini and squash was well-seasoned and crunchy and spoke to Cafe Malta's commitment to freshness.

The best thing I had at Cafe Malta might have been the simplest: a crunchy, creamy and crispy croque monsieur ($7). An open-faced baguette topped with sliced ham, Gruyère and béchamel with a mild sting of Dijon mustard. Simple, affordable and worth a return visit.

Northern Africa, Malta's neighbor to the south, gets a shout-out with the grilled branzino's ($19) bed of harissa-polenta. The trouble is there was no heat coming from the traditionally fiery harissa, and the orange and mint flavors intended to enhance the grilled Mediterranean sea bass were more seen than tasted. More flavors advertised but mostly imperceptible in the dishes included preserved-lemon washed away in a runny risotto that tasted like instant rice and the honey-lime gastrique of a rubbery and overgrilled baby octopus appetizer ($8) at lunch.

This tends to be the problem with Cafe Malta. They have nice ideas that read well, and really have no right being as affordable as they are, but the execution falls short. What reads as complex and flavorful generally arrives uninspired. The types of flavors they intend to deliver deserve more care.

Despite any misgivings with the kitchen, the front of house at Cafe Malta shined on each visit. Even on a night when they were obviously deep in the weeds, servers helped one another with refills and food delivery, and a hustling Nick Goulding did everything short of washing dishes to make sure his guests were accommodated.

Goulding's efforts prove that Cafe Malta has noble intentions, and the restaurant fills an important role as an affordable and unique neighborhood bistro. But if Cafe Malta wants to build its customer base beyond a small group of area regulars just happy to get out of the box of chains, the restaurant needs to spend as much time executing their menu as they did creating it.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam


Cafe Malta

3421 W. William Cannon Drive. 853-9584, CafeMaltaAustin.com

Rating: 6 out of 10

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (Lunch served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner served 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.)

Prices: Lunch: Appetizers and salads $5-$9. Sandwiches and entrees $7-$12 Dinner: Appetizers and salads $6-$12. Entrees $13-$19.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line: The promising Cafe Malta needs more attention to detail if it wants to become the unique neighborhood Mediterranean bistro it strives to be.

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