by Caroline Dodge

Still Life Cafe

705 N 35th St (Fremont), 547-9850. Open daily 6:30 am-10 pm.

Who knew? Caroline's been quietly working as The Stranger's promotions assistant for the past nine months, and despite all of our shared lunchtime leftovers and conversations about pie, I had no idea that she was an aspiring food critic. This week, I convinced her to shift gears at the office and try writing about what she's obsessed with. --Min Liao

It's no news that Fremont has changed a lot. If you left town five years ago and just returned to visit old haunts, you'd find that entire blocks of eccentric pubs and shops have been replaced by swank condominiums and overpriced boutiques. As a former Fremonter who lived and worked there for almost 10 years, I've accepted this. Until I went to the Still Life Cafe.

No one can argue that the Still Life in Fremont Coffeehouse was a pulse point of Old Fremont: it was where you went to meet friends for a bowl of soup, where students read, moms gossiped, hippies pontificated, artists hung out. The "old" Still Life (now just called the Still Life Cafe), owned and operated by Ruth Quinet and Nancy Weintraub since 1988, was sold about a year ago to Bob Day.

I cooked and managed at the old Still Life for many years. That Still Life had dirt under its nails--it was inefficient, constantly breaking down, always busy, and absolutely divine (much like the Fremont of days past). But New Fremont doesn't have time for lingering tea-drinkers anymore: There is money to be made.

The new menu offerings are similar, with the exception of a full table service in the evenings. (They've still got the same great daytime menus, strong coffee, and a great selection of beer and wine.) But when I tried the new dinner soups ($3.50-$4.95), the very symbol of the old Still Life, I found them to be ferociously disappointing. Cajun chicken soup was a watery stew of stringy thighs and careless vegetables. Mushroom purée needed everything: salt, body, definition. It was difficult to enjoy those soups in the old familiar bowls, with the same chunks of La Panzanella bread, and NOT have them be exceptional.

Wild mushroom pâté ($5.95), however, was rich and delicious. Roasted mushrooms were puréed with almonds, and served with lightly dressed greens, roasted red bell peppers, and kalamata olives, spread on perfectly toasted peasant bread. I devoured it, cheering up from the disappointment of the soups.

Other dishes were beautifully presented, but then fell flat. Grilled tenderloin skewers ($7.95) were gristly and uninspired, with an amateurish marinade of soy and sesame, perched atop a tepid carrot-daikon slaw. Gorgonzola-beet ravioli ($8.95) was misguided: drowning in a hot, creamy dill sludge, it felt heavy and clogging. The ravioli itself--rich, and perfectly cooked--cried out for a lighter sauce. Like the "Cajun" chicken soup, flavors seemed to be thrown together without sophistication or subtlety.

Our waiter told us that the garlic-roasted boneless half chicken ($9.95) was becoming the Still Life's signature dish. It was truly wondrous, with chunks of garlic and capers, meltingly tender chicken, and crackling, well-seasoned skin. Served with Yukon gold potatoes, corn on the cob, and fresh tomatoes, all roasted nicely, this felt like the Still Life I remember: robust, satisfying, comforting.

Baking was a hallmark of the old Still Life, so I ordered dessert with some anxiety. I had a slice of "chocolate-chocolate" layer cake ($3.25), and it was quite simply the best piece of cake I've ever eaten: four lovely levels frosted with a bittersweet chocolate ganache--not too sweet, and totally sublime. I also tried a piece of lemon cheesecake ($3.95) that was yawnable, somewhere between dense and mealy, with barely a trace of lemon tartness.

What works well here at the new Still Life seems to be the simple classics--crispy roasted chicken; fresh, creative salads; house-made sweets. The newer menu items, too ambitious and decidedly more "upscale-international," try too hard to entice the throngs of nouveau Fremonters.

I'm rooting for the new Still Life. Its heart is in the right place, but it doesn't seem to know what it is yet. The food at the old Still Life wasn't always perfect, but we knew our clientele, and we knew what they wanted. The new Still Life is stranded between cozy neighborhood institution and trendy design restaurant. Go help them decide what they're going to be.