In plain sight

Manager Bryce Allen shows off some oven-fresh pizzas at Microsoft Cafe.

Manager Bryce Allen shows off some oven-fresh pizzas at Microsoft Cafe.

Photo/Allison Young

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Finding a new place for a tasty and affordable lunch is always fun, though there are two kinds of “new.” There’s the paint-is-still-drying new with lots of buzz, and then there’s the new-to-you, unknown until you happen past it or catch a word-of-mouth tip. I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy and write about both sorts, but the Microsoft Cafe takes the cake for hiding in plain sight.

Located within the Microsoft Licensing office building, the cafe is open to the public and worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood. There’s a full-service coffee bar provided by a well-known Seattle company, a Slushee machine, fountain and bottled drinks, as well as free water infused with fruits and vegetables. My wife and I usually stick to water with meals, but combinations including mango-pineapple, cucumber-peach, apple-celery and orange-papaya really dressed up the ol’ H2O.

The “health bar” sports a variety of natural and organic proteins, vegetables, fruits and whole grains at 50 cents an ounce. Though the usual salad suspects are present under the sneeze guard, other items such as Brussels sprouts, quinoa, squash and ceviche join a wide variety of dressing and garnish options to keep things interesting. I lost track of the tasty combination my wife selected for her plate, but the price was certainly attractive ($2).

We split a small serving of the day’s soup (gumbo, $2.90) and a slice of fresh-baked cornbread ($1.55). For all I know, the gumbo was out of a bag, but it did have plenty of Andouille sausage and that particular flavor and consistency. It went well with the cornbread, though the latter could have done without the thin slice of cheddar on top. After baking and cooling, it was more like a piece of plastic than cheese. It peeled off easy enough.

The flip-side of the salad bar is a selection of deli ingredients—a decent array of meats, veggies, cheeses, breads and condiments for building your own sandwich. My wife skipped the assembly line when she saw a beef and cheddar wrap just waiting to be placed on a self-service panini press ($6.95). Good call on her part, as that tortilla was stuffed full of smoked roast beef, cheese, fresh greens and onion. Although a really large array of sauces and other enhancements were available, the wrap didn’t need any help in the flavor department.

There are separate stations where food is cooked to order, including stir-fry, burgers, hot sandwiches and daily specials. The day’s chef’s special was a plate of Mediterranean greatest hits, including chicken shish-kebabs, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, cucumber yogurt, hummus, and soft flatbread ($6.95). The special surprised me, being we were dining in a corporate lunchroom with low expectations. The seasonings were pretty solid, the chicken wasn’t dried out, and the tabbouleh had fresh mint. The bread, hummus, and yogurt were average but played their part.

The ghanoush, though, lacked the tahini and creamier consistency of the popular Lebanese dip. It was more of a mushy vegetable stew with a lot of black olives. I’ve experienced something similar to this once before—prepared from an Iranian recipe—but without the abundance of olives. Still, the flavors and seasoning were good enough that I ignored the mushiness and ate most of it.

Hot and cold breakfast items round out the menu, and all the weekly specials are listed online. I’ll admit it was a little weird walking into an office building and asking an employee, “Which way to the Microsoft food thing,” but the result was a decent meal at a really decent price. Plus, there’s a free video game station where you can let off some steam before continuing your day.