Hidden Treasure

Photo by Steve LoweryWe had spent a couple of hours at Sport Chalet stocking up on provisions for a backpacking trip, and all that dwelling on all that exercise made us really hungry for something notfreeze-dried. So we headed for Café Lafayette.

You can do that. You can be right in the middle of your daily routine and jump in the car and drive right over to Café Lafayette and order . . . oh . . . mozzarella caprese and steak au poivre and swordfish and cream of lemon chicken soup and a nice fresh house salad. Yep, you can do that. We did.

We only just started doing it because we only just found out about Café Lafayette—never mind that the place has been serving its imaginative and evolving menu of California cuisine for something like a dozen years. And we eat on Main Street in Seal Beach quite a bit—sometimes before hitting a movie at the Bay Theater, sometimes after leaving the beach. We've been to Ruby's and Walt's Wharf and the Abbey and Bayou St. John—but we had never even seen Café Lafayette.

“We're easy to miss,” allows Steve Torabi, who co-owns Café Lafayette with his sister, Sima Tabrizi. “We're not down by the pier, where the heaviest foot traffic is, and people just driving in are usually looking for parking places—but the thing is we have our own parking in the back!”

But it's not just impulsive interlopers like us who overlook Café Lafayette while sweeping through Seal Beach. “Even people who live here in Old Town Seal Beach come in here for the first time and are surprised they never knew about us,” says Torabi.

That anonymity hasn't prevented Torabi from working up a pretty good list of regular clientele. In fact, it's part of Café Lafayette's appeal. From its bay windows to its terra-cotta walls, it is airy and understated—kind of a blank canvas for whatever dining experience you're having. You don't have to live up to the accouterments, and you won't be talked down to by the wait staff.

Meanwhile, the menu is terrific.

“We do some Mediterranean stuff—Italian, Spanish, Greek—and some French,” says Torabi. “Those are the flavors, the influences, but the cuisine is Californian. We use traditional and fresh ingredients, but we do a lot of things with them. The core of the menu stays the same, but I go to a lot of food shows and monitor trends, so the specifics change almost every six months.”

My friend Darls and I started with a couple of bottles of Pellegrino and shared an order of mozzarella caprese—four patties of freshwater cheese atop aromatic basil leaves and garnished with tomatoes, roasted peppers and vinaigrette—while struggling to choose an entrée. She chose the swordfish (and for once, I didn't mention that the poor fish are swimming toward extinction), which was so tender and seasoned that it actually amounted to a very touching eulogy. The cream of lemon chicken soup had long taste that mutated like a taste-bud acid trip—a very good trip, I must add. I opted for the steak au poivre—that means “with pepper,” and they weren't lying. The crust of peppercorns was a worthy opponent but never quite overwhelmed the tender striploin cut, which I ordered medium and never struggled to chew or enjoy, thanks to a delightful dijon cream sauce.

Both entrées were accompanied by young, chopped vegetables and chunky smashed potatoes. We were stuffed before we were half-finished, so we couldn't even think about dessert.

But we are already thinking about going back, maybe for breakfast or lunch. The menu ranges from omelets to wraps to panini to burgers and sandwiches to pasta.

“We'll try to make just about anything that sounds good,” says Torabi. “What can I say? I love food.”

He loves it even more than electrical engineering, which was his major at Long Beach State.

“I don't have any formal culinary training,” Torabi admits. “When we are considering adding something to the menu, we just practice for a while in the kitchen until we know we have it right.”

Café Lafayette, located at 330 Main St., Ste. F, Seal Beach, is open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. N 5-9 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (562) 598-9566. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $40-$50, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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