Anyone who follows the yellow-and-black signs to Berenice Denton's weekly estate sales knows it's best to keep an open mind. You never know what you're going to find. Sometimes you land at a pristine midcentury house filled with treasures lovingly collected over a lifetime. Other times you find yourself in a modern-day McMansion anchored by oversized sofas and high-priced knick-knackery amassed for the purpose of staging 8,000 square feet of speculative real estate. Depending on your taste, shopping can be hit-or-miss when it comes to estate sales.
Over the years, the same could be said about dining at The Cottage Cafe, the lunchroom attached to Denton's Bellevue consignment boutique. (In addition to her weekly sales, Denton operates a year-round shop stocked with art and antiques.) Denton recently acknowledged the uneven dining experiences at her restaurant when she sent out an email introducing her newest cafe concept and promising improvement over previous operations.
The most recent team to run the ladylike lunchroom, which is sandwiched between Denton's shop and the Bellevue Antique Mall, is a hit in the Cottage's hit-or-miss history. You might recognize the cheery face of Lorie Burcham, owner of Crumb de la Crumb bakery, as she bustles between the open kitchen and the small tables in the pastel dining room. She and husband Jason took over the lunchroom operations this spring and have introduced a well-priced and bountiful menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and quiche made from scratch.
Lunch opens with a tiny sliver of a cheddar cheese ball studded with scallions and bacon, topped with strawberry preserves and served with Ritz crackers. At this point, treat yourself to a glass of vanilla bean lemonade, Burcham's answer to the current trend of lemonades infused with mint and basil. "There are floaties in there," she warned as she handed over the cool beverage speckled with floral detritus of vanilla beans. In any case, the foreign bodies added unexpected smoothness to the bright citrus.
Never fear — Berenice's famous chicken salad is still on the menu. The medley of minced white meat, dried cranberries, grapes, celery, pecans and red onion is as distinctive for its cranberry-purple hue as for its scarcity of mayonnaise. (There is a scant amount of the condiment, to help bind the ingredients, but you might not know it unless you asked.) By contrast, the tuna salad is stirred with a generous amount of mayonnaise. Textured with diced hard-boiled eggs, celery and green onion, it arrived with a ramekin of onion-poppy seed dressing, which would make an appealing vinaigrette but was somewhat extraneous on the tuna plate. Both chicken salad and tuna salad are available by the scoop or on a full or half-sandwich with wheat bread or croissant.
Burcham puts the panini press to good use, preparing grill-kissed sandwiches with combinations such as roasted chicken with provolone, tomato and pesto aioli and turkey with brie and apricot mustard. Other sandwiches include club, French dip, grilled cheese (with pimiento cheese and bacon) and ham and brie with grilled pineapple and onion chutney.
Salads include spinach with cranberries and almonds and a Caesar tossed sparingly in creamy dressing with housemade croutons. Among the prettiest meals was the so-called dressed avocado, a ruffly bed of greens with buttery slivers of avocado fanned across the top. Accented with pink onions, olive oil, lime juice, cracked pepper and sea salt, and plated with two crisp cheese biscuits, the large salad was elegant in its simplicity.
For $2, salads can be upgraded with a cup of soup, which varies by day of the week. Next time, we'll plan our trip for Friday, when she-crab soup is on the menu. Lemon-artichoke soup is always available and is a gorgeous blend of earthy and bright flavors, with tender roughage of artichoke leaves and celery bobbing in chicken broth laced with a hint of cream.
Crumb de la Crumb, which is located downtown on 10th Avenue North, has been featured on Food Network for its decadent desserts, so it's no stretch to think that quiche would be among Cottage Cafe's strongest points. Baked in a thin and slightly sweet shell, the quiche changes every day. On one visit, it was still baking when we arrived, and the final product landed on the table piping hot, with diced tomato, spinach and molten curds of goat cheese suspended in a fluffy cloud of egg, inside a bronzed crust that simultaneously crunched and melted when we bit into it.
From our table, we could see past the dining room into the consignment boutique, where a curio cabinet held a selection of figurines and decorative whatnots. No doubt, there were treasures within. But for our money, the real gems on display were in the glass case adjacent to the kitchen counter, where Burcham stocks a made-from-scratch inventory of fresh pastries, available by the slice. Among the berry pie, peach cake, key lime pie, caramel cake and other confections, two particularly indulgent sweets stood out. The first was a glorious coconut cake with two layers of moist sponge infused with coconut milk and topped with a whipped cloud of creamy frosting and shredded coconut. The second was a dense square billed as peanut butter icebox pie. It was tasty enough in the restaurant, but when we neglected the leftover portion in the un-air-conditioned car for several hours, it melted into a sublimely delicious pool of nutty mousse under an oozing coat of warm dark chocolate.
Sure, we don't usually think about food in terms of how it holds up in the hot car. Then again, Berenice Denton has built a small empire on the idea that some things — art and furniture among them — get even better with time. Now, with the skillful assistance of Crumb de la Crumb, Denton's restaurant is the latest thing to improve with age.
The Cottage serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed for repairs until Tuesday, Aug. 16. Crumb de la Crumb bakery is open by appointment. For information, visit crumbdelacrumb.com.