Review: Comfort food haven

Popular breakfast spot Joanie's offers equally soothing dinner menu

Opened for more than a quarter-century, there is little point discussing Joanie's ever popular breakfasts. Likely, you've eaten there. Usually, there is a line, a sign-in sheet and a wait. Ditto lunch, but once seated the food comes quickly, as does the check and you're on your way.

Dinner is slower paced, quieter, but with the same comfort food for which the cafe is known. The menu is large for a small space -- more than 50 items offered from appetizers to desserts. That's a tall order for the kitchen, and while the food is respectable, some of the dishes can be unbalanced.

The fish tacos ($12), for instance, featured two unevenly made tacos, one so fat with tilapia, pineapple salsa and chipotle aioli, it was impossible to roll up, and the other was of a more modest construction. The accompanying coleslaw was overpowered with cilantro and inedible.

The food came pretty fast, perhaps too fast. My sense was the kitchen sometimes traded details for speed. No need at dinner, There were no lines, no wait to be seated during my visits.

Better executed was the brie and crostini ($6). Three thick slices of toasted French bread, covered with smashed kalamata olives, chunkier than a tapenade, and topped with warm gooey brie.

French onion soup ($4.95/ $7.25) was thick with onions and broth. The crostini and Swiss cheese topping was appealingly mushy. The deep swell of flavors was designed to soothe jagged urban nerves.

The crab cakes ($10) were crisp and sea-breeze fresh. The two cakes tasted like crab with not much filler to distract. Cilantro aioli was drizzled across the cakes. This time, the cilantro was a hint and not a statement.

The uber comfort food, baked macaroni and cheese ($11.95), didn't disappoint. The portion was large and filled with tender diced ham and shallots. The blend of cheeses was baked until the top was golden brown and aromatic.

Tortellini carbonara ($15.95) was more than I bargained for. Besides the cheese-filled tortellini, pancetta, peas, sun-dried tomatoes and cheesy cream sauce, the pasta was blanketed with tender slices of chicken breast. I did a double-take and checked the menu. No, the chicken, apparently, was a bonus from the kitchen. Thanks.

Delicate sole ($16.95) had been dredged in panko crumbs, rolled in sliced almonds, and pan fried in butter. Accompanied by a pile of French fries and vegetables that had also been sauteed in butter, it was lick-the-plate good.

Slightly healthier was the grilled salmon Provencale ($18.95) topped with capers, olives, chopped tomato, green pepper and white wine. Served with rice and sauteed vegetables, the dish rang Mediterranean.

Joanie's offers a myriad of dinner salads, sandwiches and burgers which echoes the lunch menu. My only criticism of the lunch menu is that if you don't want a salad or soup, the two dozen other offerings are all sandwiches, nothing without a bun or bread.

That being said, the panini del mar ($13.50) with grilled scallops, crab, shrimp, avocado, provolone cheese and basil pesto on soft focaccia, was a kiss from the sea. It's served with fries.

The well-priced wine list was small but appropriate. Prices ran $6-$8 per glass and no wine exceeded $32 per bottle. Drinkable was Forest Glen's Kern County pinot noir at $26 for the bottle and it came with a real cork.

Desserts were all $7.25 but only two of the eight were house-made. The tiramisu was more a study in layered whipped cream than rum- and espresso-soaked ladyfingers. The puddle of fruit purees at the bottom of the plate didn't help.

Somewhat better was the chocolate mousse. Airy and chocolaty, but it too was awash in colorful, but conflicting fruit purees.

Joanie's is a neighborhood cafe that specializes in comfort food with comforting prices. Nothing fancy, it's not intended as a fine dining establishment -- at least not yet.

Bernard Cartal, owner of Joanie's Cafe, as well as Pastis Bistro several doors down, said he looks forward to the California Avenue renovation. "We'll devote much more effort to our dinner business when the work is complete," he said.

The long-delayed city project, finally slated to begin this spring, will narrow California to two lanes, expand sidewalks and add plazas and new streetlights. Restaurants will be able to expand patio seating. The multimillion-dollar streetscape project aims to inject vitality to the street.

"We plan to add umbrellas and planters in front of Joanie's and Pastis. The street will be much more pedestrian friendly when completed," Cartal said.

When that happens, there might be long lines and sign-in sheets for dinner.

Joanie's Cafe

405 S. California Ave., Palo Alto



Breakfast and Lunch: Daily, 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-9 p.m.


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