Make a B Line

Fourth Avenue's new café serves up good bistro food retro style.

There was a flurry of anticipation, a build-up, a buzz before The B Line opened this fall on Fourth Avenue. A general street-wide hubbub created hope among the hungry: those of us longing for good bistro. One of the owners of this new café was an owner of Time Market--a very good sign for those who like stylish yet basic foods.

When I had my hair cut across the street from The B Line, a waiter whisked in with a huge covered tray that trailed maddingly tantalizing aromas. Revealed, it was an order of steamy tortilla soup, a bowl of green-flecked pasta and perky muffins. The staff storming the tray obviously had become good customers of the café.

I ate a crumb-topped, sour cream mini-muffin, which I ravaged. The B Line bakes on premises, from scratch. Tender, warm and seemingly right out of my long-lost mother's oven, it whetted my appetite for more.

The next morning I tried out their pancakes. Not into a breakfast bigger than café au lait, I was hesitant to toss down a stack of what might later feel like heavy metal in my breadbasket.

These cloud-fluffy pancakes ($3.25-$4.75) barely require a brisk walk. Delicate, slightly eggy as Swedish pancakes can be with crispy edges, these sweetcakes were accompanied with a generous ramekin of whipped honey butter, pecans and real from-the-tree maple syrup. A short stack of two large cakes was quite enough but truth be known, I could have eaten a couple of tall four-stacks.To paraphrase Woody Allen: the mouth wants what it wants.

Next my mouth wanted to try take-out from The B Line. Their menu focuses on breakfast and lunch burritos, salads, pastas, soups and baked desserts and breakfast pastries. With a family near starving at home, I ordered the big bowl of farfalle pasta with bow ties tossed with house-made basil pesto and pine nuts ($6.65), a big bowl of penne pasta in red sauce (also house-made) with Italian sausage ($6.85) and a B Line Big Bowl salad of greens, vegetables and garlic horseradish ranch dressing ($6.75). All came with either slabs of toasted or fresh sourdough baguette. While I cooled my heels, I drank European designer fuzzy water that came cool out of the revolving pie display case. Another good bet is a tall glass of homemade horchata ($2.25). Their version is liquid rice pudding.

I ordered two pieces of pie (coconut cream, nectarine custard tart) and one slice of dense cake (amaretto chocolate). Pie ranges from $2.95-$3.50. They were, after all, homemade by their own pastry chef on premises. It seemed only fair to try the larger size of the zaftig crumbcake sour cream muffin as well--perhaps for next day's breakfast.

The decor is well suited for waiting or chowing down. The B Line has a neo-industrial, Bauhaus feel with long expanses of wood counter and high round tables with stools (they twirl) on the lower level and intimate tables on the slightly higher balcony space. Several dining moods (private, boulevard cafe, and bistro) are accommodated with thoughtful placement. The tables are also far enough apart to allow for private conversation, rather remarkable in this seemingly small space.

The B Line is basically a family affair with siblings David, Peter of Time Market (both owners) and Catherine (Baker) Wilke, Josh Gibson (owner) and Bob Neylan (chef) on board. The cuisine is based on what they like to eat, with some family recipes and others brainstormed in the kitchen. They have applied for a liquor license that is hoped to be in place by late January. Domestic micro-brews, imported beers and a selection of California and imported wines are slated for the menu.

Waiting was also enhanced by an eclectic selection of art with jazz playing in the background. There was a copy of The New York Times at hand. Small bud vases sporting fresh flowers added a further touch of civility.

My huge bundle of take-out food came fairly quickly--with two glitches. The cold salad was packed on top of the hot pasta and the wee bit of very tasty dressing was barely evident on the salad. The pasta was still hot and al dente after 15 minutes travel time. My favorite was the pesto farfalle, a major basil fest with fantastic toast. (Bread is from the excellent Village Bakery). The house-made marinara sauce was more pedestrian, but the abundant sausage was gently spicy. But at this point, take-out doesn't seem to reflect experience in packaging or the extra treatment the dishes seem to get when served at The B Line.

But lest you think otherwise, this is a rave review. The B Line's pies alone nearly reduced me to greedy tears. Such flaky crust, with a taste like lightly sweetened sugar cookies, should be celebrated. Catherine Wilke has quite a hand with her pastry and her home-style fillings both delight and excite with variations on old family favorites. What ever happened to pie anyway? Where is the good pie that makes you want a good cup of Joe or an icy glass of milk? At The B Line, that's where.

Also fabulous are both the lunch and dinner entrees. You order at the counter and service is quick with orders brought to your table. A trough of tortilla soup, spiked generously with cilantro, redolent with fresh ripe avocado and not overwhelmed by jack cheese ($6.25) is a deservedly popular dish. All soups are vegetarian and the brainchildren of chef Bob Neylan (formerly chef at nearby Delectables for eight years) and are made with house-made vegetable stock. Despite an overabundance of large chunks of canned tomatoes, this is an excellent broth.

Another favorite, the humongous blackened catfish burro ($6.95), served with peppery achiote rice and a fun twist on coleslaw with jicama and tortilla chips tossed in with red, green and yellow peppers, cilantro, salsa and a healthy squeeze of lemon. The flaky catfish had its distinctive sweetness and tasted as if fresh caught. The accompanying salsas on all the burritos are fresh, fresh, fresh.

The very affordable menu (you can easily dine for under $10, even if a gourmand) has few flaws. It is limited and perhaps that is, for a devotee of the cafe, a minus. You can easily eat your way through The B Line fare but luckily they've started featuring a weekly special--currently a spinach salad with crumbles of blue cheese, toasted spicy pecans, sliced pear and Roma tomatoes with a raspberry vinaigrette.

Their salad in general is very good, with the now standard selection of greens you can get at places like Costco, but with the creative additions of seasonal vegetables such as purple potatoes, beets and carrots. The house-made dressings are lightly adventurous, such as the zippy horseradish. The pastas and the sausage sandwich are a clever mix of the hip and the homespun.

The burritos are far from mundane, yet their essence is simplicity: tender carne asada, grilled chicken or black beans and rice dressed with sauces that understand the tastes and textures they accompany.

This is a first restaurant for the Wilke brothers and Gibson. But they, and their menu, come across as well-seasoned professionals with a happy touch of the ingénue. Their retro approach to urban food demands the obvious be said: Make a beeline to The B Line.

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