Simpler times

With a name like Picnikins it’s got to be good. Wooden benches and tables draped with kitschy gingham cloths came to mind. An excuse to use Styrofoam and plastic wear, I cynically suspected. Visions of deviled eggs danced in my head. But, no. Picnikins is actually a smartly designed café with lots of glass, some fashionable color, and seating that doesn’t suggest splinters. The only hard-boiled egg on the menu appears to be in a chef salad which also contains smoked turkey breast and ham.

There are some knee-jerk items on the menu I’d like to not see again for awhile, calamari and spinach and artichoke dip among them. But it was refreshing to find one appetizer that a) didn’t break the bank and b) didn’t fill you up. I’m talking about the $5 zucchini crisps. True, I kept thinking that a little aioli or roasted red pepper mayo wouldn’t have hurt — but no, forget that I said that. There’s very little redeeming about the caramelized onion and parmigiano dip; it’s oily, not oniony enough and, to use a technical term, gloppy.

Tomato basil is another soup that sees a lot of menus these days and for that reason alone we tried the roasted poblano pepper. Nothing politely picknikish about this baby; it’s creamy-hot with no holds barred. We would order it again. And we wish that every salad jockey in town would come here to see how a simple, mixed-greens model with walnuts and some crumbled goat cheese (sherry vinaigrette on the side, please) should be done.

The evening menu includes some entrées that don’t appear at lunch, a beef curry straight from the Sixties among them. It’s served in a classy bowl and comes with some of the condiments (or “boys”, from an era when each condiment might have been brought by a separate server) that were then thought to be de riguer: sliced banana; flaked coconut; chutney (more sweet than complex); wilted, chopped cilantro. If this reminds you of haute-hostess days gone by, or if you simply like this kind of curry, then there is no better place in town to have it; it does not shrink from curry powder. I liked it, for all the above reasons. My companions didn’t.

Nobody much liked the braised lamb shank. Yes, it was fall-from-the-bone tender, but it lacked distinctive flavor. The accompanying chive mashed potatoes were bland, and the veg-o’-the-day asparagus was overcooked — unless we’re going back to the ’60s again. Other big-plate items include a pepper-crusted tenderloin and salmon two ways.

“Classic” and “gourmet” sandwiches fill out the lunch menu, and here hard-cooked egg does appear in salad form. Most of the others sound good, if not overly inventive, but if they’re as fresh and honest as the salad they should be worth ordering at $6.50 and $8. The zinger came with the decision to call the kitchen on a Picnikins cheese steak.

Fortunately, this is not the classic Philly sammy recipe with Cheez Whiz, but instead uses the optional provolone. We all found the burger-type bun inappropriate, but were astonished at how the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. This was another keeper — as were the sweet potato fries with chipotle mayo well worth their $1.50 supplement.

The dessert selection showcases the owners’ South African heritage, as do a couple of wines on the list — try the Excelsior Cabernet for a different take on the popular grape, though ask them to chill it slightly; all red wines were served too warm. Unlike the historic Elizabethan formula, Picnikins’ posset recipe seems to contain little more than cream, lemon juice and sugar; it reminded one taster of key lime pie — pleasant but not worth repeating often.

Said to be of Dutch provenance, the malva pudding is apparently hard not to repeat in Capetown, where it’s on every other menu. It’s basically a cakey pud soaked in a sugary syrup and served with crème anglaise, and it’s perfectly fine. Chocolate lava cake with ice cream, to the ’90s as the curry is to the ’60s, is the menu’s most dear dessert at $6 — definitely not something you’d take on a picnic, so enjoy it here. No ants, no sunburn … and air conditioning. •

Picnikins Patio Café
6901 Blanco Rd.

The Skinny
Former caterers infuse a modest menu with South African flair

Best Bets
Picnickins cheese steak, rostated poblano pepper soup, chocolate lava cake

11am-9pm Mon-Thurs
11am-10pm Fri-Sat

Dinner prices: $8.5-$25

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