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CAFÉ ZINHO

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Just as the eastern corner of Shadyside seems to harbor both immaculately restored townhouses with orderly front gardens and less-structured abodes marked by their cast-off couches beckoning invitations to lounge-awhile porches, so too does Café Zinho easily incorporate relaxed funkiness with an upscale cuisine.

Entering the café, one hardly notices that the odd-shaped room used to be a garage. Instead, the eyes are drawn here and there -- to the mismatched furniture, to the swags of floral-patterned fabric and Indian cotton bedspreads draped around the windows, to the hanging lights with paper shades or to the gigantic kitschy '50s lamp that appears to erupt into blue fiberglass balls. The concrete walls are painted moss-green, the floor is cement and a new ceiling has been constructed of interior doors painted white. We were seated at an old enameled kitchen table; the one wooden chair and the one cushioned chair sparked a bit of discussion about who deserved the comfier seat.

Since Café Zinho's menu changes with the seasons, I knew the dead of summer would be an excellent time to order the tomato bisque. By mid-summer, tomatoes have grown warm and sweet on the vine, and should be taken full advantage of. This was the smoothest and creamiest bisque, the flavor made robust by roasted garlic and accented with fresh dill -- a bowl of pale orangey-pink that looked so deceptively simple, yet held such complex tastes in perfect suspension.

My companion began with a salad plate of oven-roasted tomatoes; soft, sweet roasted yellow peppers; spicy green olives (under which hid one stray black olive as a inadvertent bonus); fresh greens dressed in raspberry vinaigrette; and a serving of manouri cheese (a smooth, mild goat cheese). The plate was topped with toasted slices of baguette, and my companion quickly amused himself by building toast-based appetizers.

Café Zinho has a small menu, but among the nine entrees offered that night was a vegetarian penne Provencal dish, as well as five seafood selections. (One salad I saw pass by would certainly be enough for a meal.) I was tempted by the salmon, which was pan-roasted with tomato and basil (the soup had put me in a tomato mood), but ultimately went for the chicken Caprese. Here were two pounded, lightly breaded and sautéed pieces of chicken breast topped with tomatoes, fennel, buffalo mozzarella and a balsamic vinegar reduction. The strong flavor of the licorice-y fennel and the sharpness of the vinegar were an excellent combination to accentuate the almost otherworldly sweetness of the fresh tomatoes and the creamy softness of the fresh mozzarella. I cut small pieces of the chicken -- moist with a slightly crispy exterior -- then with my fork carefully speared a bit of tomato, fennel and cheese so I could enjoy all the sensations at once. Besides the dressed-up chicken, there was an unusual side dish -- a cool bulgur wheat compress mixed with vegetables.

My companion had ordered the dish with a more regional than Continental influence: pork medallions in a Jack Daniels mustard cream sauce. For a gentler touch, an edible daisy sat atop the meal. Of his half-dozen medallions, two had been slightly overcooked and weren't quite as tender. The sauce was a nice complement to the pork --an adventurous meat that goes so well with many strong flavors. A large portion of julienned vegetables -- carrots, red peppers, zucchini -- and whole peas rounded out the meal.

A selection of homemade desserts tempted -- a standard such as crème brulee, or a more unusual fig pie? -- but still feeling seasonal, I chose the strawberry shortcake. Berries love the summer. The dessert was a good old-fashioned shortcake in three layers: a dense cake base; large, virtually whole strawberries; and sweetened cream that had been whipped until firm. (Or perhaps I detected a touch of a creamy, cheese-like marscapone?) It was a dish designed to highlight its simplicity with no gimmicky additions like sauces or presweetened fruit.

We lingered over dessert. The café was nice and cool, though flooded with early evening light through its many windows. (There is outdoor seating available.) The room felt very comfortable and I remarked to my companion that it wasn't often I ate out for a nice meal in a place that has as many random pieces of old furniture and mismatched plates as I do. While other diners -- who perhaps lead more color-coordinated lives than I -- were appreciatively clucking over the "funky charm" and mix-and-match plates, I felt right at home.
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