Wait, what? Is that a jackalope?
Yeah, 128 Café has been around for a while, decked with rec-room paneling and tucked into the basement of that apartment building on Cleveland near St. Thomas, but it was sold to Max Thompson earlier this year ... and it's a whole new show.
Thompson is a young chef who helped open Butcher & The Boar, but before that had been cooking in New York and Boston at such renowned places as Cafe Boulud and Craigie on Main. So while his first step out on his own is one still anchored in someone else's pine wood paneling, it's a sure-footed step.
128 has been known for its quaint coziness and its ribs. Thompson is keeping both, but he's hoping people will come for the more creative plates that will continually rotate through the small menu. I tried some Guinness braised beef cheeks with pretzel-spätzle that had a tangy "brusselkraut" which was all comfort and warmth and zip. There was a beautifully balanced and refreshing shrimp and papaya salad with long beans, pickled tomatoes, grapefruit, and mint. And a simple beef barbacoa tamale came with a side of rich and dusky breakfast-thick drinking chocolate ... what a match-up, especially when you hit the tamale with something called Twang. Twang is their house-made hot sauce which is a bolstered version of Tobasco that the chefs were just playing around with and loved. Because who doesn't want to add a little Twang sometimes.
And that's kind of how this new kitchen vibe feels: playful and exciting. Though there are lots of interesting flavors happening, everything seems neighborhood-hang-accessible. Edgy might go as far as a dish with a tiny mound of house kimchi supporting a soft little raw Kumamoto oyster, both swimming in a rich broth swirled with squid ink, but it doesn't feel like pushy for pushy's sake. It feels like a real kitchen guy playing with his own stoves.
One to watch.