Culinary Roller Coaster
Marshall Street Café held back by inconsistency in the kitchen

Historic Jackson Ward is making some seriously positive waves with its recent flurry of activity. Structural renovations abound, art galleries are popping up like mad, and all-the-rage events such as the annual Second Street Festival and the monthly Curated Culture’s First Fridays art openings are drawing giddy crowds and signaling an exciting new era for this venerable, once-bustling downtown neighborhood. Restaurants are popping up too; places like the 9-month-old Marshall Street Café.
Located on the corner of Marshall and Adams streets and owned by local caterers Gary Boss and Chima Ugworji of Boss-Chi catering, this diminutive spot is simple, comfortable and cute. Bright, natural-light-caressed environs — accented with colorful floral touches and a small stained-glass window — invite bar-stool seekers and diners alike to sit for a spell and soak in its laid-back, neighborhood feel.

The menu is brief and familiar, and portions are generous. Nightly specials abound, and the one I tried — Burger and Beer Wednesdays — certainly deserves consideration. While the gargantuan, mealy potato wedges I opted for over potato salad didn’t exactly hit the spot, the juicy, hand-pattied burger’s gooey cheddar, shredded lettuce, ripe tomato, toasted bun and accompanying ice-cold Stella Artois draft beer surely did. At only $5.95, it was a heck of a deal — lackluster fries or not.

Sampled appetizers tried to impress but fell a little short. Crispy egg rolls — packed with pork, carrot, mushroom and cabbage morsels and paired with a tangy, smoky barbecue-style dip — were heading toward being a hit until taking nearly 30 minutes to arrive (we were the only table in the house) and then not offering even a hint of the promised cilantro flavor. Similarly, the crab-cake appetizer sported successful elements, with sweet crab aplenty and a caper-spiked rémoulade, but it ultimately stumbled due to heavy-handed application of both salt and Old Bay-esque seasonings.

Two of three sampled entrées also failed to impress. A nearly brick-sized slab of meatloaf was too dense for easy cutting, and the accompanying brown mushroom gravy was way too salty. Its plate companions — a baked potato and a veggie medley of squash, carrot and broccoli — went one-for-two, with the latter providing fresh garden flavor that well outpaced the burned skin, less-than-fresh taste and ruddy-brown appearance of the former. Somewhat more successful were the chicken Bienville’s moist chicken-breast strips and its chunks of bell pepper, celery and onion, but more tomato sauce was needed to rescue the mess of penne from disappointing dryness. Some of the advertised-yet-undetectable cream might have helped.

Much better was the salmon filet. Seared au poivre and paired with crispy asparagus spears and creamy garlic-and-onion-studded mashers, it had lots of appealing pepper bite that made this special just that.

The bread pudding was a letdown, especially after hearing multiple staff members sing its praises. The hunk of pudding itself — moist, sweet and cinnamony — was enjoyable. However, its super-buttery sauce — loaded with grainy, undissolved sugar — was anything but. A better finale is the layered disk of triple-chocolate cheesecake drizzled with even more chocolatey goodness and served with whipped cream and a fresh strawberry.

Marshall Street Café needs to step things up to become a big player in Jackson Ward’s renaissance. Two ingredients for success — nice folks and an inviting atmosphere — are in place. Now, they just need that all-important third piece — consistently good food.

23 W. Marshall St., 497-8386

Appetizers, soups and salads $3.95 to $12.90. Sandwiches and burgers $4.95 to $9.95. Entrées $10.95 to $21.95. Desserts $4.95 to $5.95.

Dinner is served Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., and Friday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

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