Existing as a beloved neighborhood cafe can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’ve got the reliable audience of the neighborhood. On the other, you need the reliable audience of the neighborhood.
For many years, 128 Cafe has existed as that place. It was quiet, yet better than it really needed to be, and literally underground, in the garden-level of an apartment building. Their barbecue ribs were legendary (no longer available!) and routinely brought tourists to the tiny Cleveland Avenue spot.
Some recent changes to 128 could bring a few more.
First, the new name is Stewart’s, actually the name of the joint before it was 128. There's also a new, full bar including a craft cocktail program helmed by former Marvel Bar drinks-master Jesse James Ostendorf, with everything from a boozy, pineapple pina colada to a classic daiquiri. The new menu is no less eclectic, from a “Lake Wobegon” shore lunch with fried walleye to a Japanese tonkatsu-style pork cutlet.
The underground feel of the place is enhanced by a glowy, 10-seat bar illuminated from beneath. Stewart’s could give out lessons on how to light a room; they’ve got the ambiance portion down pat, especially for a space that clearly has to make use of every corner and bend. It uses this subterranean space to the fullest, a la New York City’s wee underground eateries, and this aspect alone is charming.
We liked the menu best when it was showcasing smaller bites that pair well booze. A half dozen pitch-perfect Oysters Rockefeller are little $3-apiece showstoppers; try sharing them and watch your regard for your tablemates melt away.
A skewer of coffee-rubbed beef tips served with Coca-Cola BBQ sauce was another winner. We would have prefered to see these riding solo on the plate instead of with the bland, wedge-style potatoes that accompanied them. It’s a cheeky take on a steak frites, but we gotta have our frites fried.
A man-sized portion of tonkatsu pork cutlet, pounded thin, crusted in Panko, and deep fried was done with technical grace, but maybe a little too restrained. It arrived with plain white rice, shaved cabbage, and a scant swipe of applesauce-based “bulldog sauce.”
We’re looking forward to seeing what the kitchen can do with the likes of a kimchee tostada and a sunny egg, or a Mediterranean panzanella using pita and grilled plums instead of the traditional baguette and tomato. Both are available on the small plates list. This sort of tinkering with classics can be a whimsical way to while away the hours, as you gently drag your cocktail straw through cocktail after cocktail.
Cleveland Avenue is boxed in by two college campuses here, but nevertheless suffers from a dearth of good drinking dens. Use Stewart’s as such, and be refreshed by this classic update. You'll come to view the neighborhood bistro with a fresh perspective.