Restaurant Review - A soupcon of advice

Margie’s Pantry needs to restock with quality ingredients

Don’t think of this as a review. Think of it as a conversation — as though you and I had run into each other on the street and fell into a discussion about a neighborhood restaurant. We would surely express admiration for someone who would undertake such a business virtually single-handedly. Who took off only one day a week, week after week. Who attempted better than hamburgers and wraps and charged precious little for the experience. Who was enthusiastic and ambitious enough to organize monthly wine dinners around a theme. And because of all that, we would be willing to make allowances for how some of the food turned out.

Margie’s Pantry is that place. Opened three years ago, the urban-rustic 34-seat storefront is the work (and I do mean work) of Margie Yondorf, executive chef and everything else.

There’s something endearing about the industrial-strength orange extension cords stretched across the restaurant floor. Bottles of wine and olive oil are as decorative as the paintings for sale hanging on the bright yellow walls. And with such a friendly staff (Margie and a friend behind the counter), it isn’t an inconvenience to place your order at the counter and pay for it first, it’s part of the charm.

But plain or fancy, swanky or tacky, haute cuisine or not so haute, at bottom, only one thing determines a restaurant’s culinary success or failure: the quality of the ingredients. Given that Margie’s Pantry is so clearly a labor of love, it is distressing to report that the often below-average ingredients scuttle the most interesting dishes.

I could tell you that the White Bean Cassoulet ($8.25), for example, lacks the more traditional substantial meats — duck, pork, mutton, preserved goose — and that it is unappealingly watery and could benefit from a dose of kosher salt. But the real problem is that the garlic sausage lacks depth (it tastes more like a hot dog), and that the beans and shredded chicken have no flavor whatsoever.

Similarly, the Shrimp, Garlic & Chive Bruschetta ($4.95) — chopped Gulf shrimp with garlic and chives — sounds grand. But it doesn’t taste grand when the shrimp reeks of iodine from the preservative solution often used to hold aging shellfish. This is the fault of the vendor, not the chef. But I wonder how a chef could handle the shrimp without noticing the odor. No amount of olive oil (nor anything else, for that matter) can disguise it.

In general, the less lofty the goal and the less involved the dish, the better the results. Thus, Hot Pork Roast Diable ($8.95) is more satisfying than some other choices — even though the pork loin slices are thick and obviously not top grade — thanks to the heavily peppered brown sauce over it and the mashed Red Bliss potatoes with garlic alongside.

The star, though, without question, is the onion soup (8-ounce crock, $3.35; 16-ounce crock, $4.35). Made the traditional way — plenty of caramelized onions in beef stock laced with sherry under a canopy of melted Gruyere cheese — it is rich and sweet the way only a well-crafted onion soup can be.

Happily, the onion soup is available all of the time except weekend brunch. Although, if you go late enough, brunch runs into lunch. Otherwise, brunch possibilities include a Brunch Wrap ($5.95) of scrambled eggs, shredded cheddar cheese and your choice of two fillings (crumbled bacon, mesquite-smoked turkey, fresh tomatoes, sauteed onion, mushroom, spinach or the filling of the week) in a flour or wheat tortilla; Calvados Baked (in egg custard) Stuffed (with Granny Smith apples) French Toast ($6.95); Pantry Frittata ($6.25), a three-egg affair with the fillings of the week; and potato pancakes in two sizes — jumbo ($6.25 for two) and silver-dollar ($2.25).

The menu thoughtfully notes that the sherried mushrooms appetizer ($3.95) — portobella, domestic and crimini — is non-vegetarian, due to the demi-glace. But there is Tapenade with Lahvosh ($3.95) — black olives, capers, garlic, lemon zests and herbs — and baked double creme brie en croute ($4.95).

Slow-roasted Herbaceous Chicken appears as a dinner entree ($8.95) — with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan reggiano.

One of the better lunch sandwiches is mesquite roasted smoked breast of turkey with sliced Granny Smith apples and melted Vermont white cheddar ($6.95).

Lunch salads include Asian Chicken Noodle salad ($6.95) — marinated, roasted chicken breast with snow peas and peanuts with angel hair pasta; Herbed Tortellini salad ($6.95) with small cheese tortellini and herb pesto dressing; and a Roasted Vegetable stack ($6.95) of red peppers, zucchini, onion, squash, potatoes, mushrooms, garlic and sundried tomatoes.