The Cavalier Daily
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In blue house, Martha's Cafe charms customers

Part of Charlottesville's small-town charm can be attributed to the intimate cafes in the city. But it takes a little blue house tucked back on Elliewood Avenue to accompany a quaint atmosphere with culinary quality.

Martha's Cafe occupies the first floor of the old-fashioned, rustic, blue house. The funky exterior colors a patron's experience from the get-go, making it a unique visit. At Martha's Cafe, the eyes are treated to a diverse palette as eclectic, cheery paintings decorate a vibrant orange interior and welcome diners into the world that is uniquely Martha's.

Once inside, the whole atmosphere of the restaurant exudes comfort and warmth, not just because of the colors chosen, but also because of the intimate nature of the room set up and the friendly, laid-back help.

The food selection follows no concise theme, except for the country-styled atmosphere. Choices, for the most part, are light, healthy and fairly priced. One of the most appealing appetizers is the "Let Them Eat Cake" combo. At $4.95, this starter is comprised of a trio of grilled cakes that consist of crab, black bean and potato which come with a fresh salsa full of hearty chunks of tomatoes. The potato cake is exceptionally tender and mashed-potato-like, while the crab cake exudes a rare hint of sweetness.

Also worth noting are the micro pizzas that can be ordered as appetizers or main dishes. For $5 to $7, these pizzas boast thin crusts and healthy heaps of fresh ingredients. Some of the more interesting combinations include the artichoke and sundried tomato pizza, which unites vegetables with a white sauce and melted mozzarella, and the grilled shrimp and andouille pizza, which is baked with caramelized red onion, feta cheese and pesto sauce.

Such pizzas are not for traditional pizza lovers who crave loads of cheese, tomato sauce and thick, doughy crusts. Instead, these pizzas reflect nouveau American cuisine and are healthy and innovative to the point that there is little similarity between them and, for example, Gumby's pizza.

The pizzas, though, are not always a success. The shitake and spinach pizza, which is baked with a more traditional red sauce and mozzarella, is somewhat greasy and is an example of the possibility of failure that comes with any food experiment. This dish boasts too much cooked spinach and feta influence, obstructing all other flavors.

The main course listing at Martha's Cafe offers a wide variety of delicious sandwiches and salads, but it is its pastas that are a draw. Two particularly strong entrees are the fungus patch pasta ($8.50) and the grilled shrimp pasta ($9.50). The fungus patch pasta is a warm and mild dish that delightfully blends slippery textures with comforting tastes. The linguini is tossed with shitake and button mushrooms, fresh spinach and tomatoes simmered in broth.

The grilled shrimp pasta also is a warm and filling choice. While less adventurous, it presents well-prepared shrimp with a delicate pile of swirling noodles and a flavorful broth. An increased number of shrimp, however, would enhance the dish's strengths.

Slightly heartier is the mixed grill entree. For $9.95, this entree fuses the flavors of either andouille sausage or chicken with those of both crab cake and shrimp. This combination is then served over creamy mashed potatoes and a spunky roasted pepper coulis. Artful in taste, it also is artful in appearance from the whimsical white mountain of potatoes to the wild orange hue of the sausage. Prepared excellently, this meal unites contrasting flavors of sweet and spicy and is a filling selection.

With any pasta or entree also comes a garden salad generously portioned with tasty greens and topped with a variety of zesty dressings. The chunky mango mustard dressing excels as their list ranges from a rich peanut-based dressing, to a more conventional garlic ranch.

Martha's Cafe also features Southwestern options for those who crave food from south of the border. Such dishes include the spinach and potato quesadilla ($7.50) and the chicken tostada ($6.25). Sauteed and served with mozzarella over refried beans, a vegetarian salsa and a house salad accompany the spinach and potato quesadilla. The chicken tostada is a piedmont version of a Mexican pizza and melds chicken with mozzarella, black beans, shredded lettuce and fresh salsa.

Dessert options vary daily at Martha's Cafe, but always are a great bargain at only $2-$3 per selection. Some desserts to look for are Martha's moist and gooey chocolate cake, its warm and cinnamon-laden apple-cranberry bake, and its rich and indulgent white chocolate cheesecake. All of these satisfy the sweet-tooth while satisfying any tight budget.

Open for lunch and dinner daily and sporting a well-reputed brunch, Martha's is easy to get to, and as a member of the Corner Meal Plan, also is easy to pay for. Still, as the weather turns warmer, seating availability will be harder to come by. Martha's features lovely outdoors seating that is very popular.

So, if the February weather gets you feeling blue, head to the only true blue restaurant in town to raise your spirits. It will be sure to add color to your day.


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