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Epicerie switches to table service only

Matthew Odam

I like a restaurant that knows how to be flexible and adapt to the demands and needs of its clientele. So I was happy to hear that Epicerie Cafe and Grocery has decided to adopt full table service. My experiences at the cafe, which was previously counter-service only, were generally good, but I had heard several complaints from guests about inconsistent service and attention. Today the restaurant did away with counter service and will offer table service only.

“I never dreamed we would be this busy, and because of that delightful surprise, my staff and I want to do everything we possibly can to accommodate our loyal patrons and make their Épicerie experience as special and seamless as possible,” chef/owner Sarah McIntosh said. “The switch from counter service to table service just makes sense, and we feel this is the perfect time to do so.”

Below is my May 2013 review of the restaurant, which made my Top 50 last year:

Some Rosedale residents may not want to hear it, but Épicerie Café & Grocery is an excellent addition to their neighborhood.

Certainly some of the people who live on Woodview Avenue, which faces the café at the corner of North Loop Boulevard and Hancock Drive, take understandable exception to diners using the street for overflow parking. Last year residents concerned about increased traffic and noise in the quiet neighborhood just west of Burnet Road attempted to block the opening of the new restaurant from former Olivia sous chef Sarah McIntosh. Épicerie opened in December, and those neighborhood advocates’ loss is a gain for fans of bistro fare, baked goods and high-end snack purchases.

Housed in former salon Innu, the space has received an architectural and design upgrade from the ubiquitous Michael Hsu (Uchi, Olivia, Fino). Wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling windows allow light to stream into the genteel restaurant. They also give potential diners the chance to check out the size of the crowd, a sneak-peek that can mitigate time wasted standing in line or waiting on a table.

White cabinetry, light-colored marble countertops and taupe subway tile give the restaurant a modern French country aesthetic. The restaurant seats about 40 inside at bleached wood tables that match the exposed rafters. A side courtyard seats another 50 or so, but with no shade, that outdoor area might have limited appeal in the summer.

Épicerie has no trouble filling the main dining room during a robust lunch service and an equally busy dinner. The place can get rather boisterous during peak hours, but without the amiable commotion, Epicerie could feel a bit too antiseptic. The restaurant offers efficient counter service, avoiding the sin of having one register unmanned during busy periods. But there is a gap between the expectations of counter service and table service: An employee will bring you a plate, but you have to get up and fetch your own silverware once you realize it won’t be materializing on its own.

The menu is a nice balance of salads, sandwiches and bistro plates offered at both lunch and dinner. The asparagus salad ($9.99) features generously portioned firm spears topped with a paper-thin poached egg and salty curly queues of fried prosciutto. While the duck prosciutto salad ($10.99) seems like a good idea, it is too cute by half. Crunchy garbanzos give a nice texture, and julienned grapefruit squirts a bitter blast across the impressive prosciutto, but the salad is completely deconstructed, making it impossible for one bite to easily accommodate the salad’s various components. For can’t-miss simplicity, go with the traditional wedge ($8.99).

Épicerie’s cheeseburger ($10.95) has found a place on my list of the best in the city. The large, brioche bun looks like it might overwhelm the burger, but its absorbent softness makes it the perfect carrier of this juicy and fatty patty layered with tangy Vermont cheddar, fresh lettuce and bright tomato. But the accompanying French fries had a limpness that indicated oil that was not quite hot enough to get the job done properly.

The sandwich successes continue with a massive lamb sandwich ($12.95) shaved into velvety folds, enlivened with Greek flavors of cucumber and yogurt and served on a soft roll that resembled a rumpled breast of fried chicken. The salmon sandwich ($11.99) gives a spin on lox and bagel, a buttery rye taking the place of a bagel, with fragrant dill punctuating the pink-and-purple palette of cured salmon, pickled radish and thinly sliced red onion. Slivered egg and cream cheese add smoothness to the sandwich that makes for a great late breakfast.

McIntosh offers familiar bistro staples like roasted chicken and mussels, but you probably won’t see veal breast on many menus in town. Like a pinker version of brisket, the veal breast ($11.99) comes seared and slow roasted, stringy meat encased in a crisp outer shell with surprising tenderness from the fat inside. Sweet and smoky cippolini onions and pearl barley deliver a contrast in textures in the earthy peasant dish grounded by a well-developed jus.

I don’t know whether McIntosh got her boudin recipe from her former Olivia boss James Holmes, but her coarse-ground smoked pork and rice sausage can stand up next to the ones found at Holmes’ Lucy’s Fried Chicken. I just wish that at $8.99 the serving had been larger than two short savory links. One of the things that sets McIntosh’s boudin apart are the large, flaky and abundant homemade saltines. Épicerie may not have bakery in its title, but it’s producing high quality baked goods, from delicate macaroons to dense brownies, an eye-opening lemon bar and a seductive salted chocolate chip cookie that resembles a scone.

The grocery moniker on Épicerie might be a slight misdirect: Yes, there are marcona almonds, artisan jams from Sqirl in California, a quality cheese case (with some of my favorite selections from Utah’s Beehive Cheese) and excellent salumi like Petit Jesu from New York City’s Salumeria Biellese. But at prices marked up higher than what you can expect to pay at Whole Foods or Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Épicerie’s grocery section seems like mostly an indulgence. Despite the nice selection of cheeses, the cheese knowledge at Épicerie could use a crash-course in curds. When I order a $12 cheese board with dinner, I don’t want the description to be, “A hard, a soft and a blue.”

Épicerie offers large format bottles from Austin’s Jester King, Adelbert’s Brewery and Argus Cidery, as well as a draft beer of the week (Live Oak Pils for $5 a pint and $18 a pitcher on one visit). The wine selection leans French and Californian, and I’ve received some helpful guidance from the generally attentive staff, who one night turned me onto the deep fruit of a Parcel 41 Merlot from Napa’s Nine North. At $28 a bottle, it’s about 50 percent higher than retail prices but much less than you’d expect to pay at a table-service restaurant.

But most people going to Épicerie won’t be heading there for groceries and cocktail party provisions. People will be drawn to the handsome cobalt blue building by mostly well executed bistro dishes in an elegant setting. There goes the neighborhood.