Tough act to follow, big shoes to fill — these phrases come to mind when discussing a successor to the Small World Café. Cultural Center workers relied for years on Small World’s curries, quesadillas and pizzas for low-cost lunchtime sustenance. Some fans are still mourning the café’s July 30 closing and are boycotting the new restaurant that opened a week later in the same space. The local discontent is evident in the smaller numbers now lunching at the International Mini-Café.
It may not be possible for old regulars to set aside their loyalty to Small World, but the blackballers are missing out on fresh, inexpensive food that’s as good as before. The new owners have retained nearly the whole staff, as well as an all-but-identical menu — portions of it are reproduced word for word. It may be tacky to copy Small World so blatantly, but as far as this non-regular can tell, the food quality and the prices haven’t suffered in the transition.
New owner Prempal Singh (you’ll see him manning the cash register) is a veteran of Indian restaurants in Windsor and Troy. He wants to expand the café’s hours to include nights and weekends, if the institute will agree.
In the meantime, each day he offers a different soup; three Indian dishes, two of them vegetarian; a “Mideast feast” of hummus, tabbouleh and falafel; a veggie quesadilla; a pasta dish, such as spaghetti with chicken meatballs; nachos; three pizzas; Greek salad; and three American-style sandwiches. Desserts are Middle Eastern pastries, and you will often find crisp, fresh samosas waiting on the entrance table.
Curries are Singh’s biggest sellers, and no wonder. I sampled a spicy, deep-red lamb curry ($6.50) that was tender, multifaceted and studded with super-fresh bits of tomato and cucumber. Going for the combination option ($6.50 for any two Indian choices), my friend paired an eggplant dish with chana masala (chickpeas and a few potato chunks). The eggplant was super-soft but still rich and spicy, and the chickpeas were firm and savory.
A crisp side salad of cukes, tomatoes and red onions was refreshing. With the entrée, it was too much lunch food for a conscientious worker who expects to remain alert for the rest of the afternoon. Share or take home.
Mango and plain lassis (yogurt drinks), salty or sweet, are available. All are flavored with rosewater, which is cool and refreshing in the plain lassi but adds an unneeded aftertaste in the mango version. You could ask the kitchen to omit it, if you like.
The Indian dishes change daily; you might find black-eyed peas or green beans paired with potatoes or a chicken curry. This is the cuisine the staff does best. Presumably they learned how from former owner Rita Ahluwahlia herself.
I found Singh’s veggie quesadilla, pizzas and Middle Eastern dishes good but not dazzling. Pesto pizza is garlicky and includes fresh tomatoes and red onions. The crisp quesadilla is studded with black olives, scallions and more fresh tomatoes. It’s a bit under-cheesed but still good.
When I arrived late for lunch one day, I found my falafel a bit dry, though the crisp crust was, interestingly, very slightly sweet. A Mexican soup turned out like a pleasant mild chili with plenty of corn and a few beans.
Returnees will find that Singh has painted the café’s walls a much-needed white, brightening the space considerably — you forget that you’re in a basement. Artwork from College for Creatie Studies students lines the walls and is for sale. New beaded curtains separate diners from people waiting in line to give their order — if such lines ever come about.
Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.