The cat’s meow

One of my favorite things about traveling to Europe (of course, it involves food) is the quality and availability of quick snacks. Last time I went, I got great panini in a gas station off the autostrada in Italy; compare that with a Taco Bell counter at the local Chevron, and that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you get microwaveable burritos in the cold case. And then there’s the Moroccan crepe makers outside the jazz clubs of Paris, who whip together Nutella-stuffed delicacies into the wee hours of the morning. Sure, you can get stuff like that in this town, but that usually involves a sit-down meal and inflated prices.

But at the Black Cat Cafe in East Sacramento, you can get European-quality panini and crepes at more than fair prices, and in a jiffy. Even better, you can top off your meal with some of the best desserts in Sacramento. The cafe, on the corner of 52nd Street and Folsom Boulevard across from Socal’s Tavern, has been open only since last October, but it was jammed on a recent visit. The room itself is fairly small, with about a dozen small tables and a thin wedge of counter under the front window. A couple of tables outside might be more inviting once the weather warms up. As is befitting the name, the restaurant definitely has a cat theme going, but it’s quirky rather than cutesy, with a manic Felix-like logo tying it all together.

The Black Cat Cafe has a wide range of crepes, which some might argue are the ultimate snack food. You order and pay at the counter, pick up your silverware and drink, and grab a table—if you can find one. If you order crepes or panini before 11 a.m., your entree comes accompanied by breakfast potatoes. After 11, you get a salad. The selection of savory crepes ($5-$6.50) includes chicken, smoked salmon, ham and tofu. Unlike other creperies, which might offer just a few sweet selections, the Black Cat boasts a staggering 10 dessert options ($3.50-$5.50), including Nutella, apples in caramel sauce, cherries and ricotta, or chocolate and amaretto cookie.

I tried the Palagi crepe, which was stuffed to bursting with chicken, pesto, roasted red and yellow peppers, goat cheese and Marsala mushrooms. It arrived in an attractive matte-black ceramic dish that might have been a flat bowl or a curved plate. The accompanying salad was very good: a mixture of field greens dressed in balsamic vinaigrette and topped with crumbled bleu cheese and kalamata olives. The olives were even pitted, a nice touch and one rarely seen, even in higher-end restaurants.

The crepe itself was quite good, with the ingredients providing a nice mixture of textures and flavors. It was barely more than lukewarm, however, which detracted from its overall appeal. It also could have used a little more pesto, a few more mushrooms and a little less of the abundant roasted peppers, but perhaps that’s a matter of personal preference.

We also tried the Dickinson Dakota panini, with Black Forest ham, Gruyere cheese and more of those roasted peppers. The panini was nice and hot, arriving fresh off the grill; it made me wish I was on my way to Rome. There’s really no substitute for a cheese like Gruyere on a panini; it just harmonized so perfectly with the toasted bread and the richness of the ham.

Not saving room for dessert here would be criminal. The back half of the building is where Casey Hayden whips up his fabulous creations. Hayden spent several years working for the likes of Spago in Los Angeles and Randy Paragary locally before striking out on his own. Now, you can only get his goodies here at the Black Cat Cafe, and they’re well worth the detour. On a recent visit, the dessert case featured crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, carrot cake and adorable little banana-coconut tarts. I ordered the lemon-meringue tart, with admirable intentions of taking half of it home to my husband. Once I took that first bite, though, it was all over. Later that night, I told him how good it was and then laughed like a loon while he pouted. Think browned-just-right meringue in a swirl of airbrushed perfection, topping a layer of very tart and very sweet lemon curd filling—not a classic lemon meringue, but one of the best versions I’ve ever tasted.

Good food, good prices and good atmosphere. If only the Black Cat Cafe was open for dinner, too. I’d have to become a regular, the kind who gets cranky when she gets there and someone is sitting at her table. Kind of like Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, but less abusive.