Lively Lunchtime Dining at Café Mae Mae in Lower Manhattan’s SoHo

Café Mae Mae in “olde New York” on Vandam Street off Hudson Street, occupies the street level space of an old warehouse building on the western edge of New York City’s popular SoHo district.  Named in memory of the owner’s daughter, Café Mae Mae with its commitment to local and seasonal foods, honors her memory by its integrity in caring about the source of the food it serves.

The Soho café is part of a group of cafés operated by the popular Manhattan caterer, Great Performances [www.greatperformances.com/], which owns Katchkie Farm [http://katchkiefarm.com], a 60-acre organic farm in Kinderhook (Columbia County, NY).  The other cafés operated by Great Performances provide local and seasonal food in a variety of museum and stylish settings, including the Wave Hill Café (an English country-style mansion in Riverdale, Bronx with beautiful public gardens overlooking the Hudson River) [www.wavehill.org/], Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Café [www.bam.org/], El Café at El Museo del Barrio on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue overlooking the Central Park Conservatory [www.elmuseo.org], Atrium Café at the Studio Museum in Harlem [www.studiomuseum.org/], the Catherine K. Café at mid-town Manhattan’s International Center of Photography (ICP) [www.icp.org/], Sotheby’s Terrace Café at the world renowned Manhattan auction house on Manhattan’s Eastside, and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Frederick P. Rose Hall (the home of jazz at Lincoln Center).

In early spring, the upstate New York farm’s bounty used at the various cafés is limited, but with the use of greenhouses, the farm’s website indicates that in early April it is harvesting spinach, salad mix, microgreens (micro kale, arugula, red choi, red komatsuna, and mizuna) and still has in storage a variety of root vegetables: turnips, rutabagas and celeriac (celery root).  Katchkie Farm’s year-round operation is commendable and reflects the growing commitment of an increasing number of local growers in colder climates to provide a reliable source of healthy, sustainable food beyond the traditional growing season.  Katchkie Farm also deserves kudos for its Sylvia Center, an educational non-profit located on the farm that introduces children to healthy, sustainable food through farm visits and cooking workshops [http://katchkiefarm.com/the-sylvia-center/overview/].  The farm with the Salvation Army has hosted children from New York City shelters who participate in gardening and cooking workshops.

With the feel of a neighborhood café and wine bar, Café Mae Mae has limited hours of operation: lunch is served from 11:30AM-4:00PM on Mondays through Friday only, and dinner is served only once a week on Wednesday from 5:00PM-10:00PM.  Its Wednesday dinners are dedicated to “Slow food, old ways and lasting friendships” and includes live jazz from 7:00PM-9:00PM. Despite these limited hours of operation, Café Mae Mae is a unique spot in the hustle-bustle of the metropolis and worth seeking out for a unique weekday meal.

The café, with a life-size fiberglass llama painted with swirls of bright colors, standing guard on the sidewalk just outside the entryway, is also a festive environment for a delicious and healthy lunch with a focus on local food sources.  The cozy dining area, with approximately 12 tables, also offers seating along a bar-like counter that runs along the back of the dining area.  Brightly painted magenta walls set a warm tone for the lively café scene.  A word of caution though is in order given the limited seating: when my dining companion and I arrived for lunch at noon on a Friday, the café quickly filled up.  In contrast, the scene was different when I arrived for lunch on Thursday at 2:30PM, with a roomy window table, the best spot in the house, available for solo dining.  My advice is to arrive for a late lunch to truly enjoy this unique café.

The lunch menu offers a grilled flatbread of the day ($10.00), which during the week when I enjoyed two lunches at the café consisted of lightly grilled flatbread topped with Coach Farm (Pine Plains, Dutchess County, NY) [www.coachfarm.com] goat cheese, tomato, eggplant and oregano.  An irresistible choice, it was so delicious that on my second visit the following day, my dining companion and I shared this satisfying blending of rich, fresh flavors.  My other selections for my late, solo Thursday lunch at the café was a wonderful plate of lightly grilled vegetables ($5.00), consisting of a generous helping of baby carrots, and slices of eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini squash, prepared to a perfect al-dente which accented their sweet flavors.  With a plate of delicious deviled eggs ($3.00) and slices of baguette, my solo lunch at Café Mae Mae confirmed the café as a wise choice for lunch the following day with a friend, who I had not seen in a number of years.

The café’s menu is available on-line, and my friend’s lunch choice of pasture-raised chicken pot pie ($13.00) had been made a couple of weeks earlier.  This comfort food did not disappoint, with its flaky crust, chunks of white meat chicken and root vegetables in a creamy sauce and was complemented perfectly by a traditional Caesar salad ($6.00) with its romaine lettuce from Katchkie Farm and a creamy Caesar dressing.  In addition to sharing another order of the grilled flatbread of the day, which was the same delicious blending of Coach Farm goat cheese, tomatoes, eggplant and oregano, I was pleased with my selection of stuffed peppers, with radish and fava bean salad and smoked paprika and a helping of creamy, whipped turnips ($12.00).  The lightly grilled green peppers were stuffed with a delicious mix of Cayuga Pure Organics grains, grown near Ithaca in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region.  The chilled radish and fava bean salad was crisp and surprisingly sweet.  Who knew fava beans were so sweet tasting?  The café offers a variety of excellent wines by the glass, and I enjoyed with my lunch a glass of delicious Pino Noir (2009) from Millbrook Vineyards (Millerton, Dutchess County, NY) with its fruity flavor and fresh aromas [www.millbrookwine.com/].  My friend returned the toast to our reunion with a Brooklyn Brewery pilsener [http://www.brooklynbrewery.com/].

Satisfied with our lunch dishes, we passed on dessert though the old-fashioned strawberry short cake, lemon meringue pie, and house-made nutter butter cookies were tempting.  A cup of Kobrick House [www.kobricks.com] coffee (a Manhattan based coffee importer and roaster established in 1920 and which offers a variety of organic and fair-traded coffees) was a perfect ending to the meal.  The café also offers a wide selection of organic and fair-traded teas from Serendipitea [www.serendipitea.com/].  I’ll look forward to enjoying another one of the cafés operated by Great Performances, while visiting one of the hosting museum and cultural centers that have made the wise decision to use a caterer with integrity and heart for their food concessionaire (FW Barrie, 4/18/11).  [Café Mae Mae by Great Performances Caterer, 68 Vandam Street, 212.292.5109, Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30AM-4:00PM, Dinner: Weds 5:00PM-10:00PM, www.greatperformances.com/cafes/mae-mae-cafe]

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