By Phyllis Stein-Novack
Australia is the home of koala bears and kangaroos, an enchanting opera house and some fabulous wines. It’s amazing how this continent down under has become popular with the Yanks in such a short time. Aussie slang has become part of our culture: “Throw a shrimp on the barbie” and “g’day mate” are instantly recognizable. But “ants pants” is not.
I wondered why this small yet delightful restaurant on South Street was called Ants Pants Cafe. Their Web site said it was an Aussie term meaning “height of fashion” or people who have a high opinion of themselves. It’s the 21st-century version of “the bee’s knees.”
Ants Pants Cafe opened two years ago as a coffee shop for breakfast and lunch. Regulars wanted dinner, as well, and the owners obliged two months ago.
The atmosphere is funky; the staff, friendly; and the food, pretty good. Comfortable banquettes line one wall of the dimly lit dining room. Like so many places nowadays, Ants Pants is BYOB and the server brought us an ice bucket for our white wine as Mom, Edward and I looked over the options.
Ants Pants must have the smallest dinner menu in the city with four appetizers and four entrees, as well as two specials scrawled on a blackboard. Keeping the choices down is a good idea, as the owners may still be finding their way in dinner service.
The offerings are a combination of new-American plates along with classics. Dip trio ($8) consisted of three small, round dishes each holding a different spread. The tapenade was heady with the rich olive and anchovy flavors of southern France. The chopped eggplant salad included finely diced ripe tomatoes, which was a nice addition. Roasted red pepper spread became popular 20 years ago and it’s nice to see it on a menu. Triangles of warm whole wheat and white pita came with the dips.
It’s comforting to see a restaurant use perfectly ripe tomatoes when they are in season. The tomato salad ($7) consisted of the plum version cut into strips, tossed with torn pieces of fragrant fresh basil and diced sweet red onion, bathed in a light olive oil. A good-quality balsamic vinegar, reduced on the stove to thicken it, was used to make a pool on the side of the plate. This is a good practice, as so many chefs have a heavy hand with the condiment.
Beet and goat cheese salad ($8) was a special of the evening. Sliced roasted beets were topped with rounds of warm, tangy goat cheese and finished off with walnuts. A mound of arugula, baby lettuce and crisp romaine sat in the center of the plate and was dressed just right, requiring only a sprinkling of salt and pepper. It was big enough to share.
Australia is a country, a continent and an island, which means they love their prawns, but also like their burgers — topped with a fried egg. This should not surprise. Burgers at Ants Pants ($10) come with a choice of two toppings, including caramelized onions, cheddar or Roquefort, as well as a fried egg. Being a purist, Mom requested her’s with the onion. Ants Pants’ patties are served on a toasted challah roll, which was inspirational. The beef was medium-rare and juicy, and came with romaine, sliced plum tomatoes and a pile of hot shoestring fries.
There is nothing more classic, especially in the fall, than roast pork loin with applesauce, cabbage and mashed potatoes ($12) — it’s the kind of satisfying home-cooking I really go for. Three thick slices of tender pork loin were roasted, pink inside, and the juices ran onto the plate when I cut a piece. (There is no higher culinary crime than overcooking pork to a dusty mess.) There was a squiggle of homemade applesauce, laced with cinnamon; a pile of braised red cabbage, which contained a bit too much vinegar, to my taste; and a small mound of hot, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes. This is comfort food as it should be.
Halibut ($14) is becoming a fish of choice among restaurant patrons. At Ants Pants, it is seasoned, seared and served with a warm fingerling potato salad, mixed greens and peach salsa. The salad and salsa did nothing for the fish, which otherwise was very good. A nice green vegetable would have been much better.
One of the desserts was described as an apple pecan tart ($5), but was more like a round, pecan Jewish apple cake — and it was superb. Loaded with cinnamon and apples, the single serving arrived warm. It was topped with toasty pecans and came with vanilla ice cream. For $1.50 more, we received three good-sized scoops.
Ants Pants has an outdoor, walled garden fitted with a Parisian heat lamp, now that the weather turns cool on any given day. The dinner menu changes monthly and can be perused at www.antspantscafe.com.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Ants Pants Cafe.