By Jennifer Meier
Special to the Daily Press
Always mellow, rarely crowded, the Bergamot Café is a hidden lunch destination in a peaceful outdoor setting surrounded by art galleries at the Bergamot Station Arts Center. The café is not fancy — orders are taken at a counter and served on paper plates — and neither is the seating, which almost feels like sitting in someone’s backyard. If you like this sort of casual atmosphere, or are willing to overlook it, you’ll be rewarded with fast service, fresh ingredients and a simple but usually well-prepared lunch.
A dozen sandwiches and six salads make up the bulk of the menu, with daily soups and specials providing additional options. The specials are always worth considering and on a recent day the choices were as diverse as a spinach salad with roasted red pepper, goat cheese and pine nuts or a 1970s taco bar quesadilla ($7.99) filled with seasoned ground beef and a light sprinkling of cheddar and jack cheese, scallions and tomato. The guacamole served on the side of the quesadilla had the perfect amount of salt and was doused heavily in lime, giving it a bright, fresh kick. The quesadilla completely lived up to its name and immediately transported me back to taco night when I was a kid. More often than not it is this type of food, the type that makes you swear your mom snuck into the kitchen to make your lunch, that the Bergamot Café succeeds most at.
Off the regular menu, the buena forTUNA sandwich ($7.79) is a perfect example. The Bergamot Café’s tuna sandwich is one of my favorites, not because it’s anything out of the ordinary but because it is ordinary: albacore tuna with nothing more exotic than a touch of mayonnaise, mustard, celery, onion and dill served on whole grain bread. In my mind, it’s the perfect tuna sandwich.
A straightforward chopped Greek salad ($7.49) is equally good. Crisp romaine is tossed with creamy feta cheese, cucumber, tomato, Kalamata olives, red onion and a lemon herb dressing. The salty feta and olives are balanced perfectly by the crisp, cool tomato and cucumber. The salad portions are generous and are great for sharing or ordering in half-portions with a sandwich.
The café’s emphasis on simple food is one of its strengths but on occasion can also be a weakness. Manny’s turkey meatloaf sandwich is so simple that it borders on bland and uninspiring. The meatloaf lacks character and is sliced too thin, throwing off the bread-to-meat ratio. The roasted red pepper aioli lacks any real flavor and a simple garnish of tomato and lettuce isn’t quite enough. The sandwich could easily be improved; maybe some grilled onions, bread that is toasted instead of plain and a little more seasoning.
Lack of interesting flavor led to similar disappointment with a cup of chilled minted pea soup with crème fraiche ($2.99). The flavor of a summer pea should be sweet and earthy but this soup was dull, as if it had been made from bland winter peas. The addition of fresh herbs, a dusting of spice or even more salt might have added more flavor. The best chilled soups are light and velvety; this one was thick and heavy, leaning dangerously into baby food territory.
On the other hand, you won’t want to miss the Bergamot Café’s tomato soup when it’s offered, as it’s perfect in its simplicity. Ditto for the roast beef and avocado sandwich and the sassy garden avocado, a filling vegetarian sandwich packed with avocado, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, carrot and red onion.
The Bergamot Café also offers a breakfast menu, mostly made up of egg inspired wraps, until 11 a.m. Smoothies and shakes are offered all day long as are a wide assortment of espresso drinks.
Although the food at the Bergamot Café can sometimes be un-even, each time I go I wonder why I don’t come back more often. Every item on the menu genuinely tastes homemade and the ingredients are never over-processed or greasy. The quiet setting and complete lack of pretension are also a huge draw. No one is waiting impatiently for your table, parking is easy and free and a stroll through the surrounding art galleries is the perfect way to digest your meal. The café is also ideal for those who don’t have time to linger; service is fast and efficient even during weekday lunch hours.
Jennifer Meier is culinary school graduate who has worked for restaurants and wine and cheese shops throughout Los Angeles. You can visit her Web site at busygirlscookbook.wordpress.com.
If You Go
2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404
Monday 9 a.m. — 4 p.m.
Tuesday — Friday 9 a.m. — 5 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. — 5 p.m.
Sandwiches: $4.99 (half) – $7.99 (full)
Salads: $4.49 (half) – $8.79 (full)