During my time here in Shreveport, I’ve heard a lot about Columbia Café. Perhaps the comment most often heard from friends and acquaintances is that it just isn’t what it used to be.
Obviously, I had to see for myself. My companion and I had been to Columbia once before, for brunch, long before Savoring Shreveport was even a twinkle in my eye. “Disappointing” is a suitable term. Our server didn’t know a thing about the brunch menu, and consequently, he led us to believe that we had a choice between an omelette with toast or…an omelette with toast. I now realize, in fact, that they have quite an extensive breakfast and brunch menu, so our guy was just ill-informed.
But, that being so long ago, and my experience there being somewhat of a moot point, I was interested in giving it another shot for the sake of the blogosphere. So my companion and I got cleaned up and headed out for a Friday night dinner at Columbia with open minds.
I’m not sure when Columbia is supposed to be crowded, because they were virtually empty at 7:30 on a Friday. This could be both good and bad. Columbia Café blends in with most of the other houses in Highland–and yes, that’s a compliment. Its original layout has been preserved, and the individual dining rooms lend an air of intimacy. Large, sheet-like cuts of cloth hang over recessed lighting, diffusing the light and creating a cozy (if not dimly lit) space.
Our server presented us with the specials and seemed glad to see us. We immediately ordered the stuffed portabella mushroom appetizer. True to its name, a large portabella mushroom cap is stuffed with sautéed spinach, artichoke hearts, tomato, feta cheese, and sweet, intense balsamic vinegar. It’s then draped with a good bit of romesco sauce–which is sort of like pesto, substituting roasted red peppers for the basil. I liked this appetizer option. It’s just enough to tease the palates of two people, and it’s a nice, healthy alternative to fried shrimp cocktail or crab cakes.
In a nautical mood, I chose the evening’s special: grilled amberjack with crab-mango salsa. I chose squash and asparagus as my two included sides (hey, I have a girlish figure to maintain). My companion, who has never been known to turn down a piece of fish, ordered the pecan-crusted trout with garlic-chive beurre rouge.
You don’t see amberjack on many menus, especially around here, so I was eager to sink my teeth into it. The generously-cut fillet was lightly seasoned and grilled. However, amberjack, a relative of the pompano, is an extremely mild fish. I’m afraid that this preparation didn’t allow it shine to its full potential. The crab salsa was a pleasant, vibrantly flavored stopgap, but once that was gone, I didn’t have much interest in the fish on its own. The vegetables were fine, though, especially the squash; it was a seasonally-appropriate mix of zucchini and yellow tossed in a very light garlic butter. My companion’s trout, on the other hand, was dynamite. “Pecan-crusted” might be a little misleading; there was definitely a spiced sweetness there, almost as if the fish had been crusted in candied pecans instead. I’ll admit, I was unschooled on the subject of beurre rouge, but a quick Google search revealed that it’s the red wine cousin of the more popular beurre blanc. It’s made with butter (duh) and the wonderful crust from a deglazed pan. Boy, do I love that crust.
While we were originally intending to stop at post-dinner coffee and tea (the owner of Columbia roasts his own beans on the premises), dessert was on the house that night. (Lest you think I’m abusing my nonexistent “powers,” it was on the house for the rest of the restaurant. I’m not sure what the occasion was, but we didn’t complain.)
Desserts that evening were a chocolate marquis, which is basically a flourless chocolate cake, and a blueberry creme brulee…companion’s favorite. I had the chocolate marquis. There’s just not enough chocolate in my life. It was dense, rich, and unfinishable…like dark, dark chocolate brownies barely cooked through. I enjoyed it a lot, but was dismayed to notice, a few bites in, a faint refrigerator flavor. Obviously, it would be completely unrealistic to expect a restaurant to make each dessert when it’s ordered, but the flavor definitely threw me. Maybe Columbia should invest in a few boxes of Arm and Hammer.
The creme brulee was surprisingly pleasant; not only was it topped with blueberries, but the entire dessert was infused with a faint-but-discernible fresh blueberry flavor. The coffee was excellent, and for $50 + tip, it was a nice break from our usual Friday night special of PieWorks or sushi.
Would I call Columbia Café an “institution,” like so many others have? No, probably not. But then again, I haven’t been here for very long, and I haven’t witnessed their apparent evo- or devolution (it depends on who you ask). Still, Columbia Café fits the bill for a modest date night, or any evening that you wish to spend tucked away over a nice piece of fish and some ultra-fresh coffee.
A brief aside: In light of the current city- and statewide political campaigns, restaurants like Columbia must be patronized if we’re serious about Shreveport becoming the city we’re all wishing for. Businesses like this help improve the landscape of our forgotten neighborhoods (like Highland), provide refuge from large, boring chains that are infiltrating the city, and give neighbors something to talk about. They keep us communicating. In a healthy city, people talk, they eat, and they talk about eating–for better or for worse. Let’s reinforce the threads that tie us all together. Let’s get out there and eat.