Henry & Jeff's is a deli on the first floor, a bar in the cellar, and a restaurant upstairs. It's where medical students eat, law students eat, punk rockers eat, couples, groups, gaggles, bevies -- anything that collects and gabs is a potential eater at Henry & Jeff's, if not standing at the deli, then in a chair at the bar, or at a table in the restaurant or on the sidewalk outside, where Henry & Jeff's does a lively business in good weather.
What gets eaten and drunk? Lots of different things. Sandwiches with fancy names, e.g. the Berlin Wall (Black Forest ham, brie, $6.25), Hokey Smokey (Virginia baked ham, smoked turkey, Swiss, $5.95) and Morris the Mechanic (baked ham, havarti, bacon, lettuce, tomato, $5.95). Sandwiches without fancy names, e.g. for $4.35, American cheese ("American yellow"), Cheddar cheese ("Also yellow") and Monterey Jack cheese ("Not yellow").
There are 1/3 -pound burgers with unexpected combinations on them like pineapple and Swiss ($5.75), chicken breast sandwiches with normal stuff on them, like jalapenos, onions, lettuce and salsa ($5.95), "veggie sandwiches," e.g. the tossed salad in pita with dressing sandwich ($3.95). And there are also matzo ball soup ($2.95 a cup), omelets ($5.50-$7.95) and sesame noodles salad ("Oriental style pasta with green & roasted red peppers & scallions," $3.50 for a large).
The mood of the place is slouchy but not aggressively slouchy, playful, not cocky, as suitable for office parties and astrological society meetings as it is for tort talks. Solitary eaters with books munch there, too.
The tables are small, the chairs aren't uncomfortable, and the paintings on the walls aren't uninteresting. Most of the paintings, when we were there, shared Caribbean subject matter -- machetes, cotton, fish, crabs, bananas, tomatoes and sugar cane.
A glossy ad on the table told us what cocktails would do for us. It said each of six drinks "possesses an extraordinary character that sets it and you apart from the merely ordinary." Liking the idea that a drink could make us exceptional, we ordered Manhattans, which the ad said were "distinctive, elegant, and oh so sophisticated." They came iced, which we took as proof we'd been inept.
For starters, we ordered a cup of chili ($2.95), a chicken quesadilla appetizer ($5.50) and a small house salad ($3.25). Everything was OK but no better than OK. Great chilies taste slow-cooked and coordinated. The beans were sweet, bland and virginal in this one, like canned beans stirred around in spiced hamburger.
The chicken quesadillas tasted just as committed to staying north of the border. They consisted of four heated soft tortillas folded over chopped white onion, pieces of grilled, dry chicken and a semi-tasteless blond cheese. A tomatoes-and-hot peppers salsa was meant to introduce some Spanish spark. In the salad, a mince of mushroom over the top was appealing, and the cooked bacon was real, but a sugar-sweet honey mustard dressing didn't do much for the aging, here-and-there-browning romaine.
We were beginning to realize what common sense perhaps could have told us before we'd come. Henry & Jeff's isn't a restaurant, it's a deli that has some tables upstairs where you can sit down and have food brought to you. Sometimes there's no knowing the lay of the land until too late. Our entrees were on the way.
We'd ordered Catherine's Bar-B-Q spare ribs (half rack, $6.25), a fried flounder dinner ($7.95) and chicken fajitas ($5.50). Who's Catherine? Was Catherine's recipe scrupulously obeyed? Was its objective super-sweet, super-oily ribs that taste a wee bit burned? Are char chemicals maybe part of the recipe? Some french fries were dull and the coleslaw, sweet.
Two fried flounder fillets were liftable intact off the plate by their firm, unspiced, unsalted crusts. A featureless flesh was inside. An attendant simple, probably microwaved potato had a damp, dense texture.
Best of the three were the chicken fajitas, a combination of soft tortillas with grilled onion, pepperoncini and, unfortunately, waxy, bland Cheddar and dry, grilled chicken. Salsa was served on the side.
Uneasy at how much food we were leaving on our plates, we nonetheless ordered three sweets ($2.95 each): banana chocolate chip cake, chocolate mousse cake and Kentucky derby pie. The first two had ersatz qualities, but the pie was easy to like -- warm, nutty, definitely chocolate and soothingly soft.
Our waitress had energy and humor. The music wailed but didn't blare. We enjoyed the nifty deep-mint green walls. What seemed to matter was to have fun passing the time while tucking in. We did. Had fun. Even tucked in some.
` Next: Gypsy's Cafe
HENRY & JEFF'S,
1218-1220 N. Charles St., 727-3322
8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Thursdays,
@until 3 a.m. Fridays,
10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to midnight Sundays
ACCEPTS: All major credit cards
FEATURES: Eclectic fare
NO-SMOKING AREA: No
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No