Do you want to be good or do you want to be bad?
That's the question folks dining at Bearcat Cafe should be ready to ask themselves.
For the good and bad, news of the new cafe tucked off the Freret corridor on Jena Street sure traveled fast. The dining room, with its long counter bar overlooking an open kitchen, is bright and spacious, outfitted with modern accents and potted plants. Tables are adorned with mason jars of sprouting grass — which would come off as precious if they weren't so damn cute.
In some ways, the choice to be good has already been made. Gluten-free, paleo and vegan options abound. For drinks, there's house-bottled chai and kombucha. There's brew from Equator Coffees & Teas, the San Francisco-based third-wave coffee company which supports sustainable farming practices and provides microloans to farming communities. And a few of the "Bad Cat" items have a healthy-ish ring to them: chicken with farro, oyster mushrooms, carrots and pan sauce, for example.
Beyond that, there's a striking dichotomy between the dishes that fall into the menu's "Good Cat" and "Bad Cat" zones.
A towering vegan breakfast sandwich (Good), though difficult to eat, felt downright wholesome slathered with garlicky pesto and stuffed with roasted oyster mushrooms, tomatoes and smoky Vidalia onions. The vegan quesadilla (Good) made me reconsider tofu as acceptable breakfast fare for the first time since the late '90s. Still traumatized by the dry and flavorless tofu scrambles of my college years, I was apprehensive at first, but the crispy herb-flecked tortilla filled with creamy tofu "eggs," caramelized onions, avo- cado and a cashew queso fresco is a delight.
For the Bad breakfast options, a bowl filled with creamy stone-ground grits and juicy Gulf shrimp arrived swimming in a buttery, New Orleans-style barbecue sauce. Not that it needed more carbohydrates, but the dish was topped with two giant slices of grilled bread.
The best thing I ate here fell, not surprisingly, into the Bad zone. A spicy fried chicken thigh featured a crunchy crust that gave way to delicious dark meat. The chicken is topped with bread and butter pickles and pimiento cheese on a seeded bun.
There are dishes that seem to fall somewhere between good and evil, and are listed as "smalls." A plate of golden-fried crab and eggplant croquettas is served with a tangy piri piri pepper sauce, and a refreshing dish of fresh ricotta includes nutty arugula and a medley of cherry tomatoes, almonds and cherries.
Neither good nor quite bad, service still appears to be a work in progress. On weekends, there is often a line out the door and getting seated — and served — can take longer than it should. It's a small ding for an otherwise welcome addition to the Freret dining scene.
As for the food, I always want to be good when heading to Bearcat Cafe, but being bad is much more fun.