Cassatt's: It's the Zeal Deal
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005
WHEN NEW Zealanders talk kiwi, they're talking the flightless bird, not the fuzzy
fruit. And there are times when some patrons of Cassatt's, subtitled "A Kiwi
Cafe," may feel rather as if they're surrounded by a flock of careering chicks.
That's mostly when the kids get wound up, though; avoid prime feeding time and
this Arlington snuggery can be a very ingratiating place.
"Kiwi," of course, is the nickname for New Zealanders themselves. And actually,
it's nearly always fun here, although the childless, and those who'd hoped to
enjoy a little reading with their Reuben, may find the semi-confusion and self-seating
a little crazy. But that's part of the charm of Cassatt's, a coffeehouse-cum-wine-
bar-cum-short-order-grill -- with a little art gallery thrown in -- inspired
by cafes that Cassatt's owner Art Hauptman frequented while his wife completed
a fellowship in New Zealand.
The menu is fairly simple and on the light side: a half-dozen panini, a similar
number of small plates and mains and eight or nine largish salads. There is also
a list of "Kiwi meat pies," i.e., pasties, of which two or three are offered
at a time. Breakfast includes waffles; weekend brunch gets you eggs Benedict.
Most of the wine is New World, Australian, New Zealander or South African; the
cream soda's pretty good; and there's a first-rate version of cappuccino, but
with a creamier foam, called a Flat White.
The daytime routine is a little bewildering at first: One approaches the front
counter, orders, grabs a number card and then -- with luck -- moves to an empty
table, or to stools by the front window or grill. That can be one of the drawbacks:
In a place that invites you to sip coffee or wine and read a book, and where "short
order" can be more of a style than a time concept, tables don't necessarily turn
over very fast (hence the popularity of Cassatt's carryout service). And it's
a little hard to know whether you should get your own water -- there's a pitcher
and glasses to one side, but the supply often runs out -- or expect the waitress
to bring some. Ditto the flatware and napkins. The answer, in true no-worries
manner, is: either way. Regulars sometimes help themselves, but if not, the waiter
will catch up. And at dinner you'll be seated by staff anyway. Just go with the
A more curious drawback seems to be a reticence to season anything much beyond
what kids might eat, particularly when it comes to the panini. The Reuben, a
nice though untraditionally slender version, is desperate for mustard (there
is none visible on the condiment counter, though there are ketchup and steak
sauce) and seemed positively averse to its sauerkraut. The "horseradish" on the
roast beef with caramelized onions and cheese was undetectable on two occasions,
and the combination of oily onions and melted cheddar made for a little more
grease than might have been desired. And the roasted veggie could certainly use
a little of the chutney from the sliced chicken. It's hard to pull panini apart
to adjust the seasoning in any case; perhaps there could be a G- and R-rated
One of the best sandwiches is the BL Double T -- bacon, turkey, lettuce and tomato
-- and it gets enough bite from the bacon to hold its own. (It is grilled in
the panini iron but made with sourdough; the Reuben is on rye. All the rest are
made with ciabatta.) And the pesto-chicken-provolone recipe was pleasant enough.
The main courses, on the other hand, are frequently happy-making, and a nice,
moderate size to boot. The scallops, five or six nice large and tender sea scallops
gently cooked in a thick orange sauce (actually something like a mango-orange
juice jam), are bedded down on what sounds like an unlikely partner, hummus;
but in fact the very slightly sour hint of the garbanzos works quite well. The
marinated lamb kebab may not be as assertively chunky as at some gyro joints,
but it's a nice plate's worth, a seven- or eight-inch skewer over rice. And the
Cajun tilapia actually benefits from lighter-than-Lagasse seasoning.
Among the small appetizers are a trio of spreads with toast rounds; the spreads
vary by the day, but have included hummus, spinach, roasted pepper cream cheese
and a very creditable pimiento cheese. The seafood soup is nice -- one of those
rice and oyster stews that would be a gumbo if it had okra -- but make sure you
ask for the Tabasco. The tomato-feta quesadilla is easy to get along with, sided
by salsa and (very cold, tortilla-chilling) sour cream.
Those walls that aren't hung with menu boards and pastie posters serve as a rotating
gallery for the Arlington Artists Alliance, which is fun. There is sly fun on
the menu, notably a "special price fixe" on Wednesdays: "Any appetizer and main
course, $18.35" -- which is exactly what $7.34 and $11.01, the usual prices for
appetizers and entrees, add up to anyway. And instead of the usual early-bird
special, there's the "early Kiwi" deal from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The most family-friendly concept is Thursday fun night, which is fun for the
parents because while they're eating upstairs, the kids are playing (with supervision)
downstairs. For those without children, better bets might be Saturdays, when
the cafe hosts local jazz or acoustic musicians; or Tuesday wine nights: three
courses and three 2.5-ounce glasses for $19.72. Once I was charged for the free
dessert, but on the other hand, there were a few extra ounces in the flight,
and I was perfectly happy with the exchange.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company