Cafe Manet keeps the portions large and the prices low

July 17, 1992|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

The problem I have with gourmet carryout is that whether the food is gourmet or not, the prices usually are. Not so at the Cafe Manet. For the cost of a hamburger at some places, you can take home rack of lamb, veal marsala, paella or lobster ravioli. Everything on the menu is under $7.

Although still primarily a carry out, the cafe has added 10 tables and created a pleasant little place to have an inexpensive dinner. I wish I could say the food is unforgettable -- it's not, but it's certainly decent enough at these prices.

The snazzy little room is painted a bright white, with white tables and chairs. If you call to make reservations, try to get one of the choice tables by the big bay window. One whole wall of the room is shelves of wine bottles.

The cafe has an extensive menu, but by dinner time much of it has sold out. You'd do best to go up to the counter and choose from what's left in the case. That way, of course, you can see what you're going to get before you get it. Once you've made your selection, it's zapped in the microwave. (Well, if you had bought it to take home, you would have done that yourself.) Then a waitress serves you your dinner -- on china, even if odds and ends of china, not Styrofoam. And you'll get delicious French rolls with your meal: crusty outside, soft and fresh inside.

As for the food itself, it's uneven. First courses are limited to salads and soups. The minestrone ($2.35) is really a white bean soup, hearty and filling but a bit bland. Salads ($1.95) are a better bet: generous with fresh greens, mushrooms and tomatoes and a vinaigrette with pureed herbs and Parmesan.

Chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto ($5.95) had been cooked forever, but the good sauce made of wine and olives kept it moist. Cafe Manet has a fish of the day, this day it was orange roughy ($6.95), perfectly fresh and simply prepared with a nice golden crust. Both the chicken and the fish come with rice or a vegetable. The rice is problematic: it's flecked with kernels of yellow corn and doesn't have much taste. I recommend the flavorful ratatouille made with plenty of fresh vegetables and a zestful seasoning. (It can be had as a side dish for $3.75.) Avoid the overcooked green beans and carrots ($1.95), which tasted canned.

If all of Cafe Manet's pasta is as good as the cannelloni alla Rossini ($4.50), pasta is what I'd always get here. The tender rolls are filled with spinach and bathed gently in a creamy bechamel sauce, then topped with a bit of tomato sauce for color and flavor.

Desserts come from Patisserie Poupon; they contrast oddly but not unpleasantly with the cucina rustica feel of the rest of the meal. Here are elaborate little mixed fruit tarts, chocolate mousses, layered chocolate squares, all for $2.50 and all as decadently rich as anyone could possibly want.

Portions are large at the Cafe Manet and prices are low, but if you aren't careful dinner could be less of a bargain than you expected. In the middle of serving the table next to us, the waitress shrieked and ran out the door. Disconcerting.

She came back a few minutes later with an $18 parking ticket. Because Cafe Manet is relatively close to the new stadium, meters have to be fed until 10:30 at night.

Cafe Manet

Where: 1020 S. Charles St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, closed Sundays.

Credit cards: MC, V.

Features: Italian and eclectic fare.

Non-smoking section? No smoking allowed.

Call: (410) 837-7006.

** 1/2

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