Good food, confusing setting
Songbird Cafe reviewed
by Lee Lawrence
Even after several visits to the Songbird Cafe, I'm still trying to figure out what it wants to be. The enticing pastries and fancy lattes--cardamom rose, rosemary sea salt--and customers who spend hours with a single cup, their files, papers, and laptops spread across long tables, say "coffee shop." The inventive sandwiches and quality ingredients, on the other hand, fit the "cafe" part of the name--but without the ambience and skillful service you'd expect in a restaurant.
It seems like owners Youn Song and daughter Jenny Song want the place to be everything to everyone. That's certainly a generous goal, and perhaps others don't find the lack of focus as frustrating as I do. For, as I eventually discovered, much of the food is tasty and nicely made.
My husband and I first visited on a Saturday morning in mid-autumn. After a long wait in line at the counter, eyeing a couple of selections from the list of breakfast specials, we arrived at the front of the line--only to be told, when we tried to place our order, that breakfast had ended; they had run out.
I stared at the young woman. How does a breakfast place run out of breakfast? Should we move on or settle for an early lunch? Irritated, yet hungry and conscious of the people lined up behind us at the single register, we made a couple of quick lunch choices from the regular chalkboard menu--a turkey and avocado sandwich and a kogi hoagi.
She gave us a numbered placard to post near our chosen perch in the sparssely decorated dining room. Once your order is ready, it's brought to your table eventually (the staff is often hapless). Fortunately, another lengthy wait brought us an admirable lunch.
The hoagie, a crusty oblong bun stuffed with thin slices of Korean barbecued pork (beef or tofu are other options), grilled peppers and onions, and a sweet and spicy hot sauce, was particularly delicious, as were the thick-sliced, house-made potato
chips on the side. Elevating the turkey sandwich from the ordinary was a nice lemon mayonnaise and the bread, slices of Pugliese lightly toasted on a charcoal grill. (Except for those that come in a bun or a wrap, most of Songbird's sandwiches are made on that same bread.) A chocolate brownie cookie, moist and rich, also helped mitigate the earlier disappointment.
Breakfast specials are only offered on the weekends, so we returned a couple of weeks later to try again. Though cornflakes-breaded French toast and a prosciutto-egg sandwich were among the possibilities that day, we opted for an egg Florentine sandwich on a brioche bun and a Korean beef-and-avocado wrap. Excited to see that American fries were Songbird's breakfast starch--not many places make these anymore--we were a bit disappointed to receive deep-fried chunks rather than traditional pan-fried, parboiled slices. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our breakfast, including the potatoes. A cranberry scone and hot chocolate sweetened the meal's end.
Later, for a weekday breakfast alone, I chose a tomato-mozzarella omelet from the long list on the regular menu, and, if not as soft and lightly cooked as I prefer, it was still quite tasty.
From then on, I focused on lunch. Generally, I'm not a member of the Zingerman's overstuffed-sandwich club; I like to taste all the elements, from bread to spread, from filling to lettuce, and, when making a sandwich at home, I give equal weight to all the parts. So I appreciate the way Songbird Cafe creates inventive and enticing spreads and fillings, and applies them with a light touch. Occasionally, though, it's too light, even for me. I tasted only the most tantalizing bit of pistachios and fig jam on the pistachio-turkey sandwich and wished that I had enough turkey and apple slices to finish off the last bites of toasted Pugliese bread. A grilled cheese constructed of three different types, however, was so thick that a light toasting on a char-grill wasn't sufficient to fully melt it. Untried sandwich options include a smoked salmon, corned beef and cheddar, ham and smoked gouda, and a goat cheese and arugula.
Songbird usually has a couple of soups available at lunch, and I saw several cups and bowls go out each time I visited. I tried a mushroom-brie soup, and it was as richly decadent as one might wish. The restaurant's salad bar presents the usual suspects in a self-serve cooler, with a few intriguing dressings--Asian ranch, for instance--to dress up the ordinary ingredients. But I'd stick to the sandwiches--or a soup and half-sandwich special--garnished with those addictive chips.
If I sound confused and uncertain, it's due in large part to the mixed messages I mentioned at the beginning. Am I eating at a coffee shop or a cafe or a diner? The criterion is different for each, and a sharper focus in food, service, concept, and design would tell me, as a customer, what to expect.
I hope that in its second year the Songbird Cafe decides what it wants to be, so I know before I go in if I'll be settling back with a cup and a magazine, or wiping up the last bits of my omelet with toast, or treating myself to a wonderful lunch, an inspired fusion of grilled Korean pork and American sub, at my local cafe.
2707 Plymouth Road (Plymouth Mall)
Mon. 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m., Tues.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Breakfasts $4.95-$10, sandwiches $5.95-$10.50
[Originally published in December, 2013.]