Felice Urban Cafe; House Party

Eating at Felice Urban Café is like going to a friend’s house for dinner — only much, much better. Because here, that friend is the talented chef Ricardo Sandoval, who heads up the kitchen at this appealing little urban eatery.

You enter the restaurant, opened last spring in a renovated 1922 Arts and Crafts-style home on Larchmere Boulevard, through an enclosed front porch where owner Margaret Mueller, the 79-year-old entrepreneur behind this venture, is usually playing hostess.

Turn left and you’re bellying up to the four-stool bar. Turn right and you’re headed for the dining room. Both retain a vintage ambience, as if the family that once lived here only recently vacated.

But there’s nothing old-fashioned about herb-crusted local goat cheese with tomato jam ($6), mini lamb burgers ($4) or grilled baby octopus ($7). A quick scan of the short menu and list of daily features reveals that Sandoval, of Fat Cats and Lava Lounge fame, is cooking up contemporary food that draws inspiration from his Filipino and Spanish heritage — something he never tried at his other restaurants.

His personal favorite (and mine too) are the sardines. Three diminutive fish are lightly breaded, pan-roasted and plated with an assertive almond and green olive relish that gets its kick from chile-infused oil and preserved lemons ($8).

Fans of plate-sharing are in luck at Felice, as appetizers designed to double as small plates dominate the rest of the lineup. Why? Because that’s how the chef likes to eat. “I seldom order entrées in a restaurant,” Sandoval says. “It’s more fun to try lots of different things than commit to one large portion.” And I agree. Why be monogamous when you can play the culinary field? Here you can mess around with sautéed mussels in white wine ($9.50), garlic shrimp with mango ($8) and artisanal cheese plates ($12).

On my dinner dance card for the evening was a big bowl of hearty, herby white bean soup finished with cubes of grilled zucchini ($5); the house’s dense and flavorful tapenade ($3) — a spreadable combination of preserved oranges, olives, olive oil and garlic confit; a splendid and slightly sweet blending of sautéed spinach, raisins, pine nuts, Ohio apples and preserved lemon ($6); and a fine Caesar salad that rose above the ordinary thanks to a liberal sprinkling of smoked paprika ($7).

Only two things failed to please: fried calamari with aioli that arrived tepid, salty and limp ($9.50) and sherry-spiked, sautéed mushrooms topped with a poached egg ($5) that were visually unappetizing and surprisingly bland. I drowned my disappointment in a palate-pleasing bottle of L’Ecole No. 41 Cabernet Sauvignon, a medium-bodied, handcrafted wine from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley ($36). While not long, the wine list offers many drinkable options priced between $25 and $40.

The menu’s ethnic bent carries through to the entrées. Grilled chicken thighs in a garlic parsley sauce and potatoes done with tomatoes, paprika and the house mayo are the Spanish answer to comfort food ($15). Skirt steak, a chewy cut of beef, had me after the first bite ($17). It goes gaucho with chimichurri — a seasoning paste with Argentine roots that Sandoval has made his own with red wine and chopped onions. He puts a lick of Latin into specials by adding chorizo and manchego, a tangy sheep’s milk cheese.

The world tour ends back on U.S. soil with a few approachable American options thrown in the mix. St. Louis-style barbecue ribs ($19) are a menu fixture, and the daily offerings usually include items such as oven-roasted monkfish ($17) — mine was dressed up with a pale green tangle of leek threads and a side of multicolored vegetable hash — or a grilled pork chop with seasonal veggies ($16).

Dessert is not to be skipped at Felice, where a buttermilk pumpkin pudding ($6.50) with a dense, cakelike texture proves the old saying, “the proof is in the pudding.” The whipped cream-topped confection leaves no doubt that the back of the house has a handle on sweet endings. I found further confirmation in an inspired sage and lemon crème brulee ($6.50) and a wedge of fallen chocolate cake ($6.50) with Chambord syrup and vanilla bean ice cream.

Local architect Joe Hanna is responsible for restoring the old house to its former loveliness. Mueller’s original plan was to fix it up and rent it out, but she changed her mind when Hanna introduced her to Sandoval. Mueller says it was instant synergy between the two ardent urbanists who wanted to create a welcoming and affordable gathering place that would be part of the neighborhood’s renewal. They’ve succeeded admirably.

Felice — a name shared by Mueller’s mother, daughter and granddaughter —has charm to spare and a casual, cordial ambience. Woodwork gleams and candles twinkle throughout the 45-seat dining area.

The space is cozy and intimate, but offers enough room between tables that it doesn’t feel crowded. A tree-shaded patio in the backyard will surely prove popular as the nights get warmer. Plans for this year are to add an herb and vegetable garden as well as a lounge in what was once the garage.

Taking a seat at Felice, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that you’ve come to Ricardo and Margaret’s house for a leisurely, informal supper. And the best thing about their dinner parties is that you never have to wait for an invitation.

Felice Urban Café, 12502 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, (216) 791-0918, Mon-Thu 4 - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 4 p.m. - midnight,
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