If you are in the catbird seat, you're sittin' pretty.
Humorist James Thurber popularized the phrase, attributing it to baseball commentator Red Barber, who said he picked it up in Cincinnati around a poker table. Regardless of where CatBird Seat owner Linda Hohlen heard it, she has made the most of it, first giving the name to her gift shop in Monument, which closed after six years, and now to her downtown Colorado Springs tearoom and restaurant.
Hohlen has decorated the former British Home Shoppe on North Tejon Street with an eclectic mix of chintz, gingham and linen, stuffed wing chairs, a loveseat and antique table sets, all comfortably accented by soothing mint-green walls. On each table, a china teapot or teacup holds a potted vine or cut flowers. The dcor is so charming -- with many of the items decorating the walls on sale -- that some patrons might judge the place by its looks alone.
That would be a mistake. Pretty as the CatBird Seat is, the real attraction here is the food -- colorful, hearty and 100 percent homemade.
For lunch, any item with wild rice in it is a safe bet. The signature House Luncheon ($9.99) is a Wild Rice Chicken Salad accompanied by a cup of Cream of Pimiento Soup. The soup -- orange sherbet-colored with flecks of red -- is smooth and warm, resembling nothing more than a creamy melted pimiento cheese sandwich. The chilled salad, accompanied by a miniature scone peppered with herbs and seasonings, is a hefty mix of marinated artichokes, red bell peppers, black olives, celery and cubed chicken breasts, pulled together with real long-grain wild rice and a creamy curry dressing -- slightly crunchy, fragrant and filling.
Another regular dish, though it's not listed on the menu, is the Wild Rice, Chicken and Mushroom Soup, actually a thick stew that makes a complete meal if you go for the bowl. A carrot, celery and onion base freshens the flavor of this creamy concoction, rich with a variety of wild mushrooms and good rice, seasoned with lots of black pepper and a hint of sherry. It's a superb midwinter dish.
The lunch menu offers several sandwiches, including a Veggie Sandwich ($7.99) on thick-sliced multigrain bread and Roast Beef and Brie ($9.99) with horseradish mustard and caramelized red onion on a French roll. Salads include a Chicken Fruit Platter ($9.99), chicken breast over greens with strawberries, pineapple, avocado and sprouts, dressed with honey-japaleno dressing, and a Mandarin Orange Salad ($6.99).
A couple dishes on the lunch menu honor the traditional British tearoom, like Bangers, Mash and Peas ($8.99). The Cottage Pie ($8.99) is a savory wet filling of roast beef, peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes with a tangy Worcestershire sauce gravy, topped with airy mashed potatoes. The attractive side salad is composed of fresh baby greens, marinated cherry tomatoes, feta cheese sprinkles and an artful drizzle of buttermilk dressing.
Afternoon tea, served from 3 to 5, can be extra hearty as well, depending on the occasion and your pleasure. A recent tea, specially planned for February, featured a menu of Baby Blue Salad, greens with strawberries, oranges, spicy toasted pecans, blue cheese and balsamic vinegar dressing; Spinach Feta Tart, a quiche with pine nuts; scones with clotted cream and jam, the clotted cream specially made in a two-day process on the premises; assorted tea sandwiches; and a dessert of heart-shaped petit fours and chocolate ganache-glazed brownies.
A simple tea of scones with clotted cream or lemon curd is offered every afternoon, as well as a variety of specialty teas, including a Chocolate Lover's Tea ($19.99 per person) that includes scones, chocolate dipped fruit, tea sandwiches, a variety of chocolate desserts and, yes, chocolate tea.
From the vantage point of the CatBird Seat, everything looks pretty good, but be sure to save room for dessert. On any given day, you can indulge in Hohlen's excellent Dutch apple pie with abundant buttery crushed walnut crumb topping, or Hummingbird Cake, the CatBird Seat's version of carrot cake made with bananas and pineapple, a traditional Southern recipe. Daily special desserts run the gamut from Toasted Coconut Cake, light yellow cake layers with rich white icing and plenty of lightly browned coconut, to Key Lime Cheesecake with Strawberry Sauce. One day last week the dessert special was buttery Bundt cake drizzled with lemon curd, the cake dark and crunchy on the outside, moist and soft on the inside. Hohlen modestly admits that she's the brains behind the kitchen, her main talent "finding good recipes." That may be, but she has also mastered adjusting recipes for baked goods to high altitude, the proof on proud display in her light scones and fluffy cakes.
The dcor, including the elegant table settings, give this place a special feeling for a weekday lunch or afternoon tea. But Hohlen sees it as a place to sit and relax, something she encourages her guests to do. If you're gonna sit, you might as well sit pretty, and that's what the CatBird Seat is all about.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The CatBird Seat Caf and Tearoom
323 N. Tejon St.
Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Tea: 3-5 p.m., reservations required for full tea
For reservations and information about the February Valentine's "Pink" Tea, call 630-1745.