Still on the Comfortable Side of Adventurous
In the old Asteroid Cafe in Wallingford, you spent the evening eating hearty Italian comfort food pressed elbow-to-elbow with your fellow diners. The feeling was cramped and convivial and it turned even the most indifferent patrons into avid eavesdroppers.
The new Asteroid, set oddly in a low-slung office building in Fremont, has room to spare. It's half-full the night I visit, and the space feels light and open. The dining room has been thoughtfully decorated, the walls a deep pumpkin with wood wainscoting resonating nicely with the expansive bar and dark wood tables. Lightly stylized paintings of photographs (the iconic Dorothea Lange migrant farm worker looks down wistfully on a happy couple enjoying Manhattans at a table by the window) stud the walls, lending appealing notes of color to the duotone space.
A few things haven't changed. The kitchen is still in the back and you still pass it on your way to the bathroom, where you can still nibble on timely political fare—I peruse a printout of a piece entitled "Karl Rove's Scheherazade Strategy," which, let me tell you, is pretty scary. The service remains bright and cheerful; the maitre d' offers to move a table outside for us if we want (we don't) and our server makes us laugh while conveying useful information about the specials (goat cheese and garlic bruschetta) and the Chianti ("blueberry and tobacco with a hint of licorice"). My dining companions and I settle in to the soft accompaniment of jazz and the complimentary amuse bouches, which are perfectly sized pieces of Tuscan bread topped with a savory puree of roasted garlic, chickpeas, and basil.
While waiting for our food, my friend begins telling us about a class she took at Babeland and we look around to see who's listening. The closest table is a few feet away, though, and whatever they're saying is lost in the space between us. So we discuss the attendees, the fruits used to represent various body parts, and the best techniques for, well, you know. Time flies (as it does when talking about such things) and before we know it our appetizers have arrived. The calamari all'arrabbiata ($11.95) features somewhat tough pieces of squid swimming alongside spicy pickled peppers in a sauce that approaches Dead Sea levels of salt. We concentrate instead on the scrumptious assorted bruschetta ($8.95), two pieces of Tuscan bread whose toppings change daily. We devour the first piece with its sweet and salty goat cheese and roasted garlic, before plunging into its mate, strewn with juicy Roma tomatoes and aromatic sprigs of basil.
The elegant presentation of the main dishes almost makes us forget the bruschetta. Fagioli in torta con porcini e mascarpone ($21.95) consists of a squat yellow cake of cannellini beans sitting atop an autumn mix of squash drenched in a porcini-mascarpone sauce. The cake crumbles nicely in the mouth and the squash is something not of this world, sweet and tender, reminding me of crisp October nights. The tasty sauce, unfortunately, is overrun by an extravagant dose of salt that leaves me feeling decidedly non-autumnal.
The New Zealand lamb chops ($23.95) arrive accompanied by cooked kale and braised red pepper, piquant islands amid a sea of polenta. Nicely ridged with crisp fat, the medium-rare chops are juicy and flavorful and the kale provides a crunchy counterpoint to the salty, somewhat flavorless corn-meal mush. My companion's baked penne with roasted eggplant ($13.95) is enlivened by a hearty smoked mozzarella, but again oversalting mars the chunky tomato sauce.
Lucky for us, the desserts contain no salt whatsoever and they are superb. The crisp burnt sugar crust of a pillowy crème brûlée has me licking my lips. But the true star of the evening is a flourless chocolate cake the consistency of thick mousse and almost unbearably rich. I savor the last bite with a sip of espresso followed by the last hint of Chianti in my glass. The result is something very close to bliss.
In the new Asteroid the food hasn't changed: It's still hearty, satisfying, and just on the comfortable side of adventurous. If you liked it then, you'll like it now. But be prepared to bring your own fodder for conversation. As our talk travels from condoms on bananas to the soft, euphemistic flesh of plums, no one jumps in or even looks askance. It's almost disappointing.