Walking into Café 101 can be a little mind-boggling. The decor of the new Chinese restaurant might as well be an allegory for Buford Highway itself; colors and cultures collide and meld together in a delightful, dizzying, surreal room.
The restaurant is housed in a tall, round building, and has so many incongruous design elements that it's hard to know where to look. The most startling of these is the wallpaper, which covers the central wall that separates the dining room and the kitchen, and reaches up toward the high ceiling. It is a collage of cultural artifacts, from artwork to magazine and album covers to fashion photos to '70s-era nudie shots. The wall is huge and endlessly fascinating; once you've made it to your seat your eye will be continually caught by oddities such as Vincent van Gogh staring down at you from one angle, or an unnamed publication's headline demanding "Was Jesus a heterosexual?" from up behind the shelf where the juice glasses are kept.
Besides the wallpaper, design elements include outer walls painted in brown, black and goldish swirls, strange mottled colored-glass windows, and light fixtures that look like those '70s fiber-optic lamps. Hungry yet?
The cultural mishmash stops there, because Café 101's menu is strictly Chinese and Chinese-American, with a focus on Szechuan cuisine. You won't find the tongue-thrashing spiciness or mind-blowing bold flavors of the best authentic Szechuan cooking here, but the food is solid, and there are some standouts worth returning for again and again.
If you have a fondness for roast chicken surreptitiously stolen from the fridge the following day, order the cold smoked-duck appetizer, with chilled, smoky, clean-flavored meat and just enough congealed fat to moisten without overt greasiness. Spicy dan dan noodles also make for a satisfying appetizer; peanut, chili and sesame meet to bring slick, savory flavor to the small bowl of noodles.
Café 101 excels at vegetables. Subtle, soft wedges of Chinese okra have a flavor somewhere between zucchini and cucumber, and sing in a light sauce flavored with dried shrimp. Basil eggplant is soft, creamy and addictive. The menu says it is spicy, but our waitress said it was not. On request, though, they added a healthy dose of jalapeños for a nice fiery counterpoint. Sauteed pea shoots are left to their own, fresh devices (apart from perhaps a small sprinkle of flavor enhancer – wink, wink) and taste wonderfully bright green.
The kitchen has frying down to an art form, and fried tofu dishes especially benefit, avoiding the spongy problem completely, instead creating bites that start with a gently yielding crispy skin but soon give way to a bursting creamy center. Sizzling tofu with pork is cubes of tofu in a rich sauce, while house special tofu with pork features large fried tofu wedges stuffed with ground pork and coated in garlicky black-bean sauce.
Hot pots stand out, and if you ask your waitress nicely she will tell you about the restaurant's lamb specials, which are not on the menu and include lamb hot pot. The slightly gamy lamb sports yummy, stewy bits of leeks and cabbage swimming in the broth. Tiny morsels of bone marrow hide in the crevices and add to the richness of the sauce.
There aren't many Chinese restaurants in town that are renowned for their desserts, but this is one place where Café 101 stands out. Apart from delicious smoothies (particularly the mango), it serves piles of shaved ice covered in fruit and swathed in sweetened condensed milk. It looks and sounds a bit unappealing, but bite into that slushy ice with supersweet kiwi fruit glossed with the milk and you'll be a convert.
Another surprise is that Café 101 has some of the nicest bathrooms around. They are warmly decorated in almost Moroccan-looking tile, and they smell like frankincense. Even better is the lighted sign in the dining room announcing the bathroom's location; at first glance it looks a lot like a regular ladies/gents stick-figure sign, but if you look closer you'll see that Mr. Stick Figure is shown from behind as if he were standing at a urinal, and Ms. Stick Figure is sitting down as if she were ... well you get the idea. The general surrealism of the place takes on yet another dimension.
The decor of Café 101 is awesome in literally thousands of ways (is that Frida Kahlo staring at me from four feet up?), and it's worth stopping by just for a peek. But stay for the food – if you're a die-hard ethnic-food grubber, Café 101 isn't going to blow your mind, but might remind you why you fell in love with Chinese cooking in the first place.
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