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CAFE ALLEGRO

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Sitting in the front window of Café Allegro, I am amused by the view. From the art deco-tiled front of Club Café, past the cigar store and the old market house, and around a just-so corner of well-preserved 19th-century buildings, on this warm evening 12th Street looks like one of those carefully detailed movie sets where all the action takes place on one lively representative block. No doubt, such locations would harbor a bistro such as Café Allegro.

Inside, I study the spring menu as the warm smells from the kitchen mingle with the sweet scent of oh-so seasonal peonies that fill tabletop glass vases. Spring chicken with apricots, asparagus and goat cheese, spring vegetable savory tart: This time of year does yield many fine treats. As we peruse the menu, the waiter brings a basket of crusty breads -- some dotted with olives, others with sun-dried tomatoes -- and a small pot of butter whipped with lemon and poppy seeds. This trend toward flavored butters is one I enjoy -- combinations can be surprising, and with butter as a base, it's hard to go wrong. Without restraint, one could simply polish off this lemon-poppy seed butter with a spoon, like eating frosting.

I began with the spring-inspired salad -- field greens with a herb vinaigrette, goat cheese and fresh berries. The ripe strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are so sweet that this is a very mild salad with just a hint of tartness from the dressing. My companion chose the ravioli for a starter. The four big soft ravioli, surrounded by roasted red peppers, held spinach and morel mushrooms, a wonderful savory, dusky combination of flavors, especially when topped with a brown butter sage sauce. Not a bit of that sauce was left on the plate -- we had, fortunately, a large basket of bread.

The ravioli is one of several pasta entrees that can be ordered in a lesser quantity as a side dish. Or, a diner could mix and match small pasta plates with soups, salads and appetizers to create a full-sized meal.

My companion ordered another spring special -- loin of lamb. The lamb had been grilled, sliced and was presented in a lemon and thyme sauce. The meat was pink and soft, with not a hint of chewiness. There's nothing like a bite of perfectly cooked good lamb to make one bemoan ever eating all those cheap stringy cuts. Beside the lamb was a wee gratin, a little tower of leeks and artichokes delicately held together with cheese.

The entrees here are pretty much just the meat. Two suggested supplementary dishes were a plate of vegetables (grilled beets, red potatoes and broccoli) or risotto. We chose the risotto; it had been prepared in a saffron broth and was filled with julienned snow peas, green beans, celery, asparagus, carrots and red peppers. This was the one dish neither of us cared for. The rice seemed inordinately glumpy and the flavor so mild it was practically indistinct.

Not so my entree -- the pork tenderloin was zinging with flavor. First it had been peppered, then grilled and finally placed atop sun-dried tomato butter and surrounded by a lot of reduced balsamic vinegar. Like the lamb, the meat was succulent and tender. The balsamic reduction was quite heady, but I discovered just a little of the dark vinegar mixed with the tomato paste made a grand seasoning for the pork -- lively but not overwhelming. I halved the grape tomatoes that came with this dish and let them soak up the vinegar.

That evening we sat in the smaller bar area and despite the jovial atmosphere and the coming and going of patrons, this spot proved quite romantic: We were the only couple not holding hands across the table. Romance is eternal perhaps, but the dessert menu never is.

My companion chose the farina sweet. This was a ball of marscapone with strata of roasted farina and walnuts topped with sweetened cream and garnished with a few seasonal berries. It was pleasantly light, and tasted somewhat like an inside-out cheesecake. I considered one of the granities (not quite warm enough for icy treats) or a crème caramel with orange Tuaca liqueur, but when fresh berries are so bountiful, one simply must have them. The "Berry White" was a variation of the classic fruit tart: a crunchy shortbread dish filled with strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and crème Anglaise, topped by a hard shell of white chocolate and a dollop of whipped cream. Fresh berries and cream -- can there be any greater love?

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