1530 Bellevue Ave (Capitol Hill), 329-5388. Dinner Tues-Sun 5-10 pm; brunch Sat-Sun 10:30 am-3 pm; closed Mondays.
If you're crazy enough to go into the restaurant business, then you know your restaurant's location is crucial. A smart real-estate decision can have more to do with a restaurant's success than what's on the menu. Places with mediocre food and shitty service stay consistently busy because of their prime addresses.
I'm not talking about destination spots with superstar chefs. I'm talking about the kinds of restaurants you depend on after work when you're too tired to cook, or when you're meeting friends at a place everyone can agree on. And even then, these simple neighborhood places--oftentimes indie labors of love (nobody gets into this industry for the money)--need more than a desirable locale to stay comfortably afloat. Actually, if faced with the slow season and harsh economic times (like right now), excellent real estate can be both a blessing and a curse.
Take the Cobalt Cafe. It's right in Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine corridor with tons of pedestrian traffic, surrounded by boutiques, art spaces, crowded coffeehouses, and apartment buildings. But--and this is the curse--other popular restaurants with devoted clientele also surround it. What's challenging about being a restaurant like Cobalt in this neighborhood is that you've already got competition that serves similar food: burgers at Linda's and Six Arms; pasta/pizza at Bill's Off Broadway, Hot Mama's, and the always-packed Machiavelli (where people happily wait up to an hour for tables); and other niche places (Bimbo's, 611 Supreme, 1200 Bistro, and the Capitol Club, which is also owned by Cobalt's owners).
Unfortunately, this means that the bar is set excruciatingly high for the Cobalt Cafe. It cannot make mistakes, cannot afford to have the occasional "off" night, and cannot show any signs of weakness, because there are simply too many delicious alternatives nearby. Cobalt has to be superb--perfect, even--to lure finicky customers away from their established neighborhood hangouts. And, well, the food at Cobalt is far from perfect.
The menu, with its unadulterated devotion to comfort foods, suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Sweet potato fries, baked artichoke cheese dip, and hushpuppies can be found alongside sandwiches (I did love the jerk chicken sandwich with pineapple, $7.95) and burgers, mac 'n' cheese, a "rustic pizza of the day," and pork medallions. The brunch menu is more standard, offering scrambled eggs with a variety of ingredients, granola, biscuits with vegetarian country gravy, French toast, and sandwiches.
Hushpuppies ($4.95)--deep-fried cornmeal fritters, with butter and a mild chipotle aïoli--are a great idea, but limply executed: much too dry and stiff, lacking any flavor beneath their breaded armor. What usually makes eating hushpuppies, a Southern favorite, so much fun is crispy outsides that reveal softer, moist, polenta-like insides subtly seasoned with onions, chilis, or other vegetables. None of these qualities were found in Cobalt's version.
The chef's salad ($6.95) was solid, if a bit uninspired, with a spread of turkey, bacon, bleu cheese, tomato, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts on "mixed" lettuces so disproportionately comprised of radicchio and frisée that each mouthful of greens resulted in distracting bitterness.
Three-pepper pork medallions ($11.95) with dense mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach fared much better, although the cracked-peppercorn-encrusted pork, while beautifully cooked--neither over- nor underdone, with its juicy, natural flavors intact--needed to be seasoned with a much lighter hand. That thick veil of crushed peppercorns was too overwhelming, so much so that I could not really enjoy the meat without getting aggressive splats of pepper in my mouth with each bite. Macaroni and cheese ($7.95)--cheddar, Gruyère, and mahon (a Spanish cow's-milk cheese) over rigatoni--was tasty and basic, but cried out desperately for a few spoonfuls of heavy cream to bind everything together. Without any cream to smooth things over, mac 'n' cheese can wind up being sticky cheese melted over sticky noodles, all of it parched from intense oven heat.
With its attractive interior (striped walls, candles everywhere, gorgeous windows) and exceptionally kind waitstaff, Cobalt Cafe is the type of place I usually root for. I'm still rooting for it. It's just that there are too many delectable other options only a few doors down.