Phantom Diner

Café Fresco – Phantom Diner, Central PA Magazine, March 2009

Written by The Phantom Diner | Mar 11, 2009 9:21 PM

Now in its fourth year of operation, Café Fresco has earned its place as a marquee member of downtown Harrisburg’s “restaurant row” on Second Street.

This is an established, reliable eatery that consistently serves good food (for breakfast, lunch and dinner) in a relaxed and casual yet classy atmosphere.

Let’s talk dinner.

One feels at home in jeans or a work suit any night of the week.

Well, OK, not any night. They’re not open Sunday.

The restaurant has a sleek, urban style with ceiling-dropped pendant lighting, muted tones and candles on the tables.

There’s a nice bar (offering many specialty cocktails) in the center of things, and dining-room seating ranges from cozy booths to tables for large groups, to small tables for two, to elevated-chair tables — an interesting and eclectic mix spread throughout the place.

The dinner crowd tends to be young and large (even on downtown’s off nights), reflecting the fact that Fresco knows what’s hot in the culinary department and presents it in ways patrons like.

Service is friendly and informed but sometimes lax, a common flaw in popular eateries. The good news is, I’ve never had a server at Fresco who wasn’t completely accommodating to special requests.

Prices are essentially the same you’d pay at any upscalish eatery (appetizers, entrees, salads and drinks for two can run you $90 without a tip), but options and flexibility in offerings allow for eating well at a much lower cost.

There are salads, sandwiches and pizzas for those opting for less.

The main menu is a mixture of Asian and American flavors. Chopsticks are offered with many dishes. Choices are numerous without being over the (one from Column A, one from Column B) top. This is not Chop Suey Palace.

Appetizers, or “starters,” run from $7 to $13 and, for my money, can start and end the meal.

Any two of these dishes make for excellent and economical dining out.

Chicken dumplings ($8) with sesame soy dipping sauce, for example, are wonderful — and filling. They are good to share or can serve as half your “starters” meal.

Same for the Thai lettuce wraps — sesame chicken in Bibb lettuce with bean sprouts, scallions and a peanut and sweet chili sauce ($9).

Not that other appetizers should be bypassed. Far from it. The more your table can order, the happier and more sated you’ll be.

Try Kobe beef sliders with caramelized onion mayo ($13), or edamame ravioli with toasted sesame ginger sauce ($9), or a bento box with homemade flatbread, hummus, olives, soppressata and imported cheeses ($12). This latter, literally, could be a meal by itself.

Salads include an Asian Caesar with spicy cashews or a Boston Bibb with honey-roasted walnuts, egg and crumbled Gorgonzola (each for $9), or an Oriental salad of grilled chicken with crispy wonton and mandarin oranges ($10).

Entrees run from the high teens to the high $30s, but most are in the mid-$20s.

Two exceptional dishes are Fresco’s pad thai (Asian rice noodles with stir-fried vegetables, scallions and egg) served with tofu or chicken for $15 or with shrimp for $17; and sesame-seared ahi tuna served rare with grilled pineapple chutney and ginger-wasabi mashed potatoes for $23.

A jumbo lump crab cake Florentine is served with sautéed spinach, lime avocado salsa and pesto focaccia for $24; or there’s teriyaki grilled salmon with Asian black rice risotto for $20.

Into meat? Try Fresco’s braised three-hour-cooked short ribs for $25 or the wasabi filet mignon with caramelized onion Yukon mashed potatoes for $32.

Sea scallops and red snapper, Mandarin duck, pork or cashew chicken and broccoli all carry some Fresco preparation twist to make each dish just a little different from similar dishes you’ve had before.

And if you want to go all out, the “land and sea” entree, which combines the filet and the crab cake and adds white truffle herb oil, comes in at $39 per order.

But, again, a great thing about Fresco is that you can enjoy the atmosphere and the food without going all out.

There’s a half-pound Angus burger for $9 and some very good wraps, including an Old Bay seafood salad wrap with lettuce and tomato for $10 and a grilled Caesar wrap for $8.

Pizza is wonderful and under $10. Café Fresco’s nearly dozen varieties include seafood, spinach, basil, chicken pesto, Mediterranean, margarita and four-cheese.

There are dinner specials and fun desserts (if ever offered the warm jasmine rice pudding with vanilla ice cream, get it), and good coffee and espresso.

Fresco is directly across from the Second Street Garage, just two and a-half blocks from Market Square, and it offers valet parking on certain days — though it costs only $5 to park for the evening in the garage, and valet parking is $10.

Hey, I guess not everybody wants to walk the whole way across the street.

But, however you get there, get there. If you haven’t been, you need to go. And if you haven’t been in a while, you’ll be happy to know it’s retained its quality and earned its place as one of the better places to dine in Harrisburg.

CAFÉ FRESCO

215 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg; open Mon, Tue & Wed 7am–11pm & Thu, Fri & Sat 7am–1am; reservations suggested; 717-236-2599; cafefresco.com

Published in Phantom Diner

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