Diner: Colorful Whimsy

A'meretta Caf

I'm not overly familiar with light industrial locales. So as we traversed Eastern Avenue, approaching the Beechmont Levee, I had my doubts about the directions I'd received over the phone. But you really can't miss the renovated building with flashing lights circling the red and white sign amid the vacant lots and squat dark buildings protected by chain-link fences. Even if A'meretta Café was not your destination, you'd notice the building, the lights and the traffic turning in on a summer night.

The storefront glass window beckons, but the entrance is around the side, adjacent to the parking lot. Hip, fun, colorful whimsy greets you immediately. The ochre bar boasts Magritte clouds floating on a sky blue baby grand, grounded on a black-and-white tile floor. The two dining rooms are every bit as colorful: The leopard-spotted rug draws one through the purple doorway into paled red walls topped with orange, positioned against a lavender ceiling and punctuated by avocado ceiling ducts. Faceless pseudo-Matisse women float over the booths with black-and-white striped cushions. One might think we're not in Cincinnati anymore, but it's certainly not Kansas.

If this kitschy, eclectic mix seems vaguely familiar, think of the late DiJohn's in Covington. Lee Bledsoe was half of the DiJohn team, and he's co-owner here with Mike Meretta, the obvious connection to the name A'meretta. This bustling, urban bistro opened in March and has been drawing a diverse, casual-chic crowd. The bar opens at 5 p.m. and dinner seating begins at 6 p.m.

The menu offers some tempting combinations as starters, which we contemplate over slices of a fresh olive focaccia and a red pepper btarde. The Grilled Portabello ($7) was a spectacular presentation, but failed to meet the menu description. The Marsala-marinated mushroom was soggy outside and crisp inside with a smoky-flavored tomato coulis over field greens with red onion slices and a balsamic reduction that was far too thick, dark-flavored and gummy. However, the Shrimp A'meretta ($8) was an excellent choice. The succulent shrimp were sautéed in tequila and orange juice and pinwheeled over toasted coconut with red onion and cucumber, then drizzled with a jalapeno mayonnaise. The subtle tangy sauce contrasted nicely with the crisp bite of fresh onion and the sweet toasted coconut, all wrapped around the firm seafood.

Salad A'meretta ($8) is reason enough to come for a meal. Starting with mixed field greens, this salad is layered with matchsticks of Granny Smith apples over toasted slivered almonds, gorgonzola crumbles, golden raisins, sun-dried tomatoes and grated orange rind, tumbled with orange Dijon dressing. It is subtle and sweet with great color and flavor contrast. I'd certainly recommend renaming it Terrific Salad. One order is plenty for two.

The Coq Au Vin ($14) was served piping hot. Two boneless chicken thighs with attached legs were nestled over tiny pearl onions and large button mushrooms. The rich, burgundy/rosemary sauce was a wonderful accompaniment to the chicken and helped the potatoes, which had an interesting texture but were fairly bland. Very tender salted pork slices were pleasingly offered in a rich mustard sauce in Rosemary's Piglet ($13), an old favorite from DiJohn's menu. Rounding out the plate were carrots and red pepper slices in a brown sugar glaze and the mysterious potatoes. Both entrées were hearty, satisfying choices.

The wine and beer choices are limited, but certainly adequate for a pleasant casual meal.

Service is somewhat spotty in this new bistro, with no end of people asking if things were OK. The tables turn over quickly, with many patrons greeting others coming and going. In this funky atmosphere, I was surprised that there was no music until after 8 p.m., but then delighted with the distant rumblings of old Ricki Lee Jones tunes. One of the most difficult challenges for A'meretta is the annoyingly loud air conditioning blasts that literally cause one to shout across the table to be heard.

Like DiJohn, there are a few choice options for dessert. We chose a Grand Marnier Tort ($4.25), which was dense pound cake with poppy seed buttercream frosting and petit four ribbons of white and dark chocolate. Tasty, but very little orange flavor. The Bête Noir ($4.95), a flourless chocolate tort, was more comparable to a rich chocolate pudding placed over a spider web of dark chocolate sauce.

With a few rough edges that can be polished with maturity, A'meretta Café gives every indication of becoming a bright spot in the East End. ©

A'meretta Café

Go: 4632 Eastern Avenue, Linwood

Call: 871-7177

Hours: 6-10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday- Saturday. Bar opens at 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Prices: Reasonable to moderate.

Payment: All major credit cards and cash.

Vegetarian Friendliness: Options available in all categories.

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