My friend had a puzzled look on his face. "This place is called 'Erte,' right?" he asked. "So what's with all the Toulouse-Lautrec posters?"
At first I reminded him that his therapist suggested he not be so literal. But then I thought about it. He had a point. Not that I'm a fan of Erte, the art-deco artist, but where are the Erte designs?
Erte the restaurant has no Erte salt-and-pepper dishes, servers wearing Erte T-shirts or really any potentially cloying and obvious decorative elements that owner Ellie Meenan could have installed in her restaurant. Instead, she's wisely kept things pretty simple, hanging a single print in the lobby, discreetly -- and some might say thoughtfully -- out of diners' sightlines. It turns out the name comes from members of Meenan's family who were avid Erte collectors.
The menu isn't so simple. At least to read. Chatty? It's the menu equivalent of an episode of "The West Wing." Some items are saddled with names that no grown-up should ever have to say out loud. Try this: "I'll have the Don't Be a Krab Cake," or "How are the Yamarama Dingdongs?" or "We'd like the Hmmmus." You can't say them without involuntarily grimacing. And silly names often translate into forgettable food.
That's not always the case at Erte. Chef Lissa Michalsky turns out food that keeps an eye on value without sacrificing quality or originality. Rather than same-old same-old French fries, Michalsky does sweet-potato fries (the dread Yamaramas), and they're can't-eat-just-one treats, hand-cut, pan-fried and served with a kicking dipping sauce.
The crab cakes are a little mushy but a bit of chipotle gives them a fiery touch. Michalsky's found a wonderful smoked red salmon and serves it with sweet onions and capers. The shrimp cocktail, a quartet of snappy tiger shrimp, is paired with an excellent Cajun remoulade. Even the cheese plate (a relative bargain at $7.50) is a pleasant surprise, with four off-the-beaten path selections.
The menu's cornerstone is beef, and while the quality isn't on par with what you'd find at Manny's or Morton's, Erte's prices are also about half of what you'd pay at those yupscale steakhouses. The New York strip was cooked precisely to order, and its slightly charred crust gave way to a juicy and flavorful center. The house steak, an 18-ounce rib eye, didn't have the bite of the strip, but it was fine. What the kitchen really excels at is brisket, wonderfully seasoned and fall-apart tender. It's served as an entree, in a sandwich or with hash and it's easily the best item on Michalsky's menu.
For fish, there's a reasonably priced fresh ocean fish of the day. There's trout, too, although it tasted past its prime and was paired with a wimpy beurre blanc. You're better off with roasted chicken rubbed with herbs and flavored with citrus juices. For vegetarians there's a standard penne tossed with Parmesan and fresh vegetables and a vegan cassoulet, which manages to pack quite a bit of flavor for being meatless.
Side dishes -- pan-fried hash browns, creamed spinach and potatoes smashed with green onions, bacon and tons of butter -- are all nice supper-clubby touches. The uneven desserts are a so-so selection of layer cakes, cheesecakes and tortes.
Lunch, priced to move in the $5 to $7 range, is also a decent bet. The bulk of the menu is a series of giant sandwiches -- including smoked turkey and brie, broiled beef on a wild-rice bun, mixed greens with avocado and a ham with cheese and caramelized onions -- served with salad and a hearty house-made soup. They're all fine, but they're nothing that can't be found at Chili's. Instead, go for one of the enormous salads. The best is a blend of mixed greens, Granny Smith apples, raisins, pecans and smoked ham, tossed with a creamy buttermilk dressing.
Weekend brunch is a choice time to drop by Erte, and not just because there are no tables available at the Modern, its busy neighbor down the street. The dining room is soothingly quiet and dim and the affordable menu is full of stuff guaranteed to jump-start a sleepy Saturday or Sunday. The eggs Benedict comes four ways, all with a delicate and delicious hollandaise sauce. There are also two kinds of hash (vegetarian, or one with that tasty brisket), pancakes, omelets and that perfect brunch staple, bagels with smoked lox, cream cheese, onions and capers.
The room is a little odd. All traces of the previous occupant, the Mighty Fine Cafe, have been swept away, but the renovation must have been done on a tight budget because the large two-story room is pretty spartan. There are a few interesting touches, including chair backs covered in black button-down shirts and enough leopard print to reupholster all of Miss Richfield's double-wide. There's a small wine bar just inside the front door, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to sit in it.
Instead, ask for the table near the window, set aside about 20 minutes to read through that wordy menu, order the brisket and ponder the origin of the peculiar figurines on the wall. Ertes? I'm guessing they're not.