December 12, 2013

Dinner at Ants Pants: Take Two

The popular South Street brunchery Ants Pants Cafe added dinner service about a year ago.  We visited soon after (unfortunately, we still haven't been for brunch or their infamous coffee) and liked it, but weren't overly impressed with the simple sandwich-heavy menu.  Recently, the restaurant hired a new chef (Nicole Loesch, formerly of Fork) who has revamped the menu.  We were invited back to sample the new eats, and happily obliged.

The menu still includes some of the original dinner options, including an Aussie-themed burger and sweet potato fries- pretty solid basics, so we can see why you'd keep 'em around.  However, the rest of the menu is much more inspired, including a few delicious daily specials.

One of these specials was the mussels du jour, a crazy big bowl of bangin' shellfish for only $5.  The flavor of the day was Thai chili & coconut, a great sweet and spicy combo.  Tiny discs of sliced chilis found their way into the open mussels and gave it a good kick.  We all wanted a spoon to slurp up the rest of the broth, but the perfectly grilled baguette served that purpose well enough.

We were clearly on a seafood mission, so also opted to order the salt n' pepper calamari.  These two dishes make up 2/3rds of the appetizer choices-- they're going for quality over quantity.  The calamari was another generous portion, freshly fried, and served with lemon myrtle aioli ($10).  Lemon myrtle is an indigenous Australian herb, so this sauce was a delicious shout-out to Ants Pants' Aussie roots.

Between our apps and the arrival of our entrees, our server cleared the entire table and brought fresh silverware- just another little touch that brings the experience up a notch.  The service was perfect overall, with a single server adeptly managing all of the tables with a smile (granted there are <10 total tables, but still!).

My entree was another special of the day, a grilled sea bass with homemade kimchi and rice ($16).  The kimchi was thickly cut, not the long thin strips of cabbage I'm used to, but it worked well to deliver an addition of texture and crunch.  The sea bass was well cooked, but I did discover a few small bones- nothing I couldn't eat around, but I can see it making other customers unhappy.

We brought our mom along since our dad was out of town, and she instantly decided to order the scallops with pumpkin risotto ($16).  A smaller portion than some of the other dishes, but rich enough to satisfy, with plenty of creamy risotto and crunchy macadamia nut topping.  Risotto does tend to be a hit-or-miss dish, and may be a little too ambitious for such a small cafe.  We thought it could have used a bit more salt to balance the sweetness of the squash.

The Ants Pants Burger is actually NOT the Australian burger, but instead includes all of the American favorites- melty Roquefort, lots of crispy bacon, and sautéed onions ($15).  A bit of sliced tomato and a pile of arugula complete the sandwich, which we compared to the infamous Good Dog burger.  Although the cheese is on the outside, not stuffed into the meat, I'd say that's a pretty big compliment.

The Pork Bahn Mi represents a total 180º from the original Ants Pants sandwich options.  It might not be the most authentic bahn mi you can get in the city, but it's pretty darn good, with lots of crunchy pickled veggies, sharp spicy jalapeños, grilled sliced pork and a salty pate spread ($12).  The option of a (large!) lightly dressed side salad is always appreciated, too.

Our server pushed us to try some of Ants Pants coffee options, so we ordered a decaf "short white."  Huh?  Yeah, we were also confused to see this option on the drink menu, next to "tall black."  This lingo stands for two common espresso drinks: a small latte and an Americano.  The decaf version was both easy to drink and lovely to look at.

The restaurant treated us to three of their signature desserts, which absolutely blew us away.  If I lived nearby, I'd stop in just for dessert on a regular basis.  All three were desserts I know I couldn't get anywhere else- an espresso and anise pot de creme, a Lamington cake with Tim Tam ice cream, and a fruit Pavlova ($7-8/each).  The pot de creme was creamy, rich, and full of flavor- even our mom, who notoriously hates even a hint of coffee, loved this dessert due to its strong licorice flavor.  The Lamington is a traditional Aussie sweet, with layers of sponge cake dipped in chocolate, sandwiching a bit of cream between.  As for the ice cream.. well, if you've never had a Tim Tam, you're missing out.  The pavlova may have been our favorite, however, as it has an extremely interesting texture.  Named after famed ballerina Anna Pavlova after she visited Australia, it is a super light meringue yet eats "like a gummy bear" once you hit the bottom layer.

I'm not going to lie, besides the general cafe decor and our awesome server, it's hard to believe this is the same restaurant we visited last January.  The new chef definitely stepped it up many notches, and is producing affordable dishes with a special touch.  The nod to original Australian eats remains, but with a much more sophisticated feel.  If you went once and weren't impressed, we definitely recommend another visit.  Thanks again to Ants Pants for treating us to a dinner I'm still thinking about!

Ants Pants Cafe
2212 South Street

** Our meal was provided complimentary by Ants Pants but all opinions are our own**