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Tuesday, July 12, 2005 

Cafe Alex: Small dishes with big flavors

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Somebody has to go to Cafe Alex and write a review, and that job has fallen to me. Tucked away on First Avenue under a black and white striped awning, Cafe Alex is a wine bar that offers a tapas menu. Quite frankly, it's been a favorite of mine since I moved to Fairbanks and began going there alone for wine tastings. Chef Alex Mayberry offers up a creative menu with frequent changes, daily specials and lots of special events. Looking for a beer or cider tasting? How about an evening of Indian food? You've found the right place.
I met up with two friends, and we settled into the disco room for the evening. Cafe Alex has a main room with a wine bar and piano, plus four side rooms. Added with the low ceilings, the rooms make you feel like you're in a cozy basement. The disco room was painted in shades of purple, with record albums under glass on the walls and marabou-trimmed mirrors.
All menu items at Cafe Alex are meant for sharing, so each table boasts a stack of small, mismatched plates and a flowerpot full of forks and knives. The constantly changing wine selection is cleverly printed on labels stuck on old wine bottles. My boyfriend opted for a sangria, while I queried our server about the zinfandel. "It'll be a cold day in hell before we have a white zinfandel," Molly assured me. Savage perused the list and chose a bottle of the Cline de Oakley Five Reds ($28). I found his wine to be the best. The combination of reds was very smooth and light, with a barely perceptible finish.
Our first dish, jalapeno bacon wrapped scallops ($9.75) had five scallops, negating our plan to split everything equally. Since I'm not really a scallop fan, I had just one. The combination of flavors blended together beautifully. The bacon was crisp and smoky, and the jalapeno hit after a few seconds, then lingered. "They got some fancy spices in there," Savage noted. I detected cilantro, but he argued it was cumin.
Next up was the blackened certified Angus pub steak with a creamy gorgonzola sauce ($11). "It's kind of substantial for a steak here," Tom said. Usually portions are small at Cafe Alex, but this one filled the serving plate. Served medium rare as requested, the steak was lightly fragranced with spices, and rested on a pool of gorgonzola sauce. While the sauce was tasty, it would have been better if it were thicker. I found the consistency too thin to cling to the steak, and I considered ordering a side of bread to sop up the delicious sauce.
A staple on the menu is the lobster martini mashed potatoes ($11.25). A large martini glass is used to serve a portion of mashed potatoes with lobster, capers and vermouth. The lobster was just enough to flavor the potatoes without overpowering them, and the capers were a nice twist, adding some tang to the dish. My only quibble is that the texture of the potatoes seemed too smooth for me. I usually prefer my potatoes roughly mashed, and these felt like they were whipped.
At this point, Savage was ready for a break, and he rolled a cigarette while I tried to explain that Cafe Alex was a nonsmoking establishment. Ever doubtful, he asked Molly, but she directed him outside. "I can't believe they don’t allow smoking at the bar," he griped. "It's offensive! Clean air Nazis." Fortunately, he was distracted from his rant by the arrival of the macadamia crusted halibut in a coconut curry sauce ($10.50). This dish, served on a bed of sauteed spinach, was one of my favorites. "It looks tastolicious," Savage observed. The macadamia was coarsely chopped, leaving some larger chunks and giving the mild fish a nutty flavor. The coconut curry sauce was reminiscent of a Thai dish, and the dish was sweet and crunchy. "It's got the texture of a macaroon, but it's a meal," Tom said.
Although I'd been happy to spot a typo on the menu, Molly assured me that the wording was correct, and Cafe Alex serves chipotle barbecue hog wings ($10 for three). The wings in question were actually hog legs. Never one to pass up an odd dish, we ordered a serving. The dish arrived with a side of bread and some sliced granny smith apple. Savage, who hails from Texas, took one bite and was in hog heaven (pun intended). "I'm kind of picky about my barbecue," he said, "but this is way better than Big Daddy's." The legs were dressed in a spicy tomato-based sauce, and had been slow cooked until the meat was at the perfect point of falling off the bone. We each ate a leg in silence, and I put mine down, satisfied, but Tom swooped in on it. "Oh man, you left meat on here," he said, taking the remains of the leg from my plate and cleaning it.
Our final order was pecan praline baked brie ($7.75). It's hard to knock this dish, as its size made it a great value. The brie was wrapped in a pastry shell with pecans and dried cranberries. "Mmm...I forgot about this dish," Tom said. "It's practically a dessert in and of itself." The pastry shell was light and crispy, and I thought the cranberries gave the cheese both sweetness and tartness. I gallantly offered to skip desserts, since Tom was so pleased with the brie, but then realized that I owe it to the readers to eat dessert.
Cafe Alex has a rotating selection of desserts for $6.50. We chose the tres leches temptation and Savage ordered the peanut butter smash. The tres leches temptation was a mound of ice cream with a cinnamon and crumb topping. The ice cream was sweet and milky, not the bland vanilla some restaurants might opt for. The peanut butter smash was a similar dessert that featured decadent chocolate and peanut butter toppings. "They're like the same thing but different colors," Tom noted. I continued with my comparative research, but ultimately stuck with the tres leches temptation.
Surprisingly, at the end of the meal we all felt stuffed. Normally, I consider Cafe Alex to be a treat, but not necessarily the place I'd choose for a full meal. The menu does also offer 3- and 4-course prix fixe menus, but I prefer to make my food selections as the meal progresses.
Cafe Alex is not for the timid of palate or empty of wallet, but it is not a place to be missed. If you plan on heading into town for a night at the theater (FDA, please, not Regal), stop by and see what Cafe Alex has in store for you. With innovative menu items, a great wine selection and an epicurean staff, you’re sure to have a culinary adventure.

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